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December 25, 2013

Host: Ted Simons

Composer Eric Whitacre

  |   Video
  • Grammy Award winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre, who has produced number-one classic music albums, talked with Arizona Horizon host Ted Simons about his work.
  • Eric Whitacre - Composer and Conductor
Category: The Arts   |   Keywords: composer, conductor, musician,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Grammy award-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre is best known for his Chorale work and for incorporating contemporary sounds into his compositions. He's topped the classical music charts and written film scores, musicals, and conduct said a choir project where he became an internet sensation. I recently spoke with Eric Whitacre about his music and inspiration. That is absolutely gorgeous. When you listen to that, what do you think about?

Eric Whitacre: I'm flooded with emotion. First I wrote the piece. And I wrote it 12 years ago, so, it's a bit like looking at a picture of myself from 12 years ago, and it's that personal. And because it's the virtual harp performing, I remember seeing every one of the faces, as their videos were being uploaded, so I feel this very intimate connection with the people in the choir, although most of them I have never actually met in person.

Ted Simons: Isn't that something? And I want to get to all of your background here but I want to continue on this virtual choir project because 4, 5 million some odd people have looked at this thing on YouTube, and it's outstanding, it has gotten great response, and how did it come about?

Eric Whitacre: So, a friend of mine sent me an email, and he said, you have got to see this video. And this young girl, 17-year-old, Brittlyn Losey from long island, New York, had uploaded a fan video to me, and you could see her, it's still on YouTube, and she is saying, “Hi, Mr. Whitacre, I'm a fan”, and she sang the Soprano line to a Chorale piece, a different one than this one, and watching her video, I was moved to tears, really. I thought it was just so beautiful, and pure and innocent, and it occurred to me if I could get 50 people, to all do what she was doing, sing their parts, Soprano, alto, tenor and bass, and sing it in the same tempo and key, wherever they were, we could take all the videos and cut them together, and it would make a choir.

Ted Simons: It makes such perfect sense, and yet it really hadn't been done before. How long did it take you to do this, and did you recruit people? How did you find these folks?

Eric Whitacre: I have the idea that immediately, wrote on my blog, I wrote, omg, omg. And I said, I have got this idea, let's try this thing, and the first thing that we had to figure out, how were we going to coordinate it and get everything to sing at the same time. So, I had to make this conductor's video, in complete silence, just imagining the music in my head, and then, I posted it, and I didn't know what would happen. This first, this is just a virtual choir, we have done four now, and for the first one there were 12 countries represented, 185 singers, and for this first one there was this man named Scott Haines, 22, who cut it all together himself, and spent three months, working around the clock, and editing and, and making sure that everything was just perfect.

Ted Simons: Were you surprised when, when it was done? You worked with choirs and with the cream of the crop, as far as professional singing groups, and yet, when, when it was all put together, these voices from all over the world, were you surprised at what you heard?

Eric Whitacre: Astonished. What I couldn't -- what I still can't believe listening to it is how musical it is. And everyone is breathing together and moving, and all of that, attribute to two things, one, they were following my conductor track, so, every time I asked for a crescendo they would crescendo, that part is amazing, and the second is that there is just -- I feel you can sense the, the -- the spirit of the project in the people's videos, in their voices and how they bring this desire to be part of something larger than themselves, and the magic is infused in the videos.

Ted Simons: Compare that, and you worked with top choirs, what makes a good choir? Because we have all heard like the Hilliard ensemble and the scholars and all this kind of stuff. Some of it is technically perfect, and some of it seems a little cold because it is so technically perfect. What makes a good choir?

Eric Whitacre: For me, it's a combination of, of those. It's great to have, to have technically terrific groups, there is no question. Singing with, with purer, clean vowels, and a lot of breath and support, and an open sound, and singing together as an ensemble so that, that they are feeling what each other is doing. And then, on top of that, with the Chorale art form, there is text, we're singing words. And, and sometimes, English, sometimes in Latin, different languages but whatever it is, the best choirs to me are those that are telling a story with the words. That, that take it from this technical exercise, music-making, to poetry.

Ted Simons: It's fantastic. You were a child of the west, born in Nevada, went to UNLV when the basketball team was pretty good.

Eric Whitacre: Yes.

Ted Simons: And how did you get from, a kid born in the west, you were interested in pop music when younger?

Eric Whitacre: Only pop music.

Ted Simons: And what happened? What hit you?

Eric Whitacre: I got lucky. I didn't read music. I really knew nothing about classical music. And when I was 18, I played in pop bands, through high school, and I decided to, to, to -- I went to UNLV because it was the biggest state school and the farthest from my parents at the time. [Laughter]

Eric Whitacre: And a friend of mine said you have got to join the choir, so I joined, just because there were cute girls and we were taking this trip to Mexico at the end of the year. We started practicing on The Requiem by Mozart, and I was transformed.

Ted Simons: Was it one of those ceiling drops, and could you see changes? You could feel it happening?

Eric Whitacre: I felt like my entire life had been seen in black and white, and suddenly the world was in shocking color.

Ted Simons: And you went from that to concentrating not so much on the singing but to the composing. Why?

Eric Whitacre: At first I thought I wanted to be a conductor, I was watching this conductor at the University, and he was my hero, and one day he casually said, we were having a note question about a piece written by a composer who is alive now, Kirk Meacham, and he said I think call Kirk and ask him what meant, and somehow it struck me that there was someone higher in the food chain. And I thought wait, you can do this and you can make a living. It just seemed impossible to me. And so I wrote a little piece and gave it to him as a gift. To this conductor, and that piece was published, and that was published, and then I wrote another, and that was published, and then I did my masters at the Julliard school and that took me in a different direction.

Ted Simons: Isn't it interesting how certain things can Matthew you in certain ways, when you write, even now, when you write, do you hear it? Do you have to play it first? Do you hear a Melody first, and chase it or do you sit down and say, I'm waiting for you, come and get me.

Eric Whitacre: Yeah. Maurice, the great composer has this quote, and he says I will be at my writing desk from 8:00 to 4:00, if inspiration wants me, she knows where to find me, and that's how it feels. Is that I usually start at the piano, and I will improvise, just -- trying to find a, a, a pallet of colors. Maybe a chord or a language that I know is my way into this new world. And then eventually, I will stumble on either a chord or just a little fragment, sometimes that comes on while walking around the city or I'm singing to myself in the shower. And then it's this, this golden brick, I know I have got this brick that I can then construct a piece out of, and then as soon as I have got that I try to go away from, from the piano, and sit at the writing desk, and just to hear it in my mind. And I will check every now and then to see if it's sounding the way I am hoping but I try to do everything.

Ted Simons: Do you know it's going to be a Chorale piece or a wind piece? Do you know it will be part of a musical, maybe a film score? Does it announce what it's going to be or do you have to flush it out?

Eric Whitacre: It's a good question. No, I don't, I don't always know. And sometimes I can be surprised by the direction it goes.

Eric Whitacre: Talk about the difference between writing chorale, classical music, if you will, musicals, film scores. Is there a different angle, a different direction you go?

Eric Whitacre: It's interesting. Classical music, I don't subscribe to the theory that it is better or, or more sophisticated. I find that there is pop music or musical theater or opera or film scores that are just as artistically valuable as anything in the classical repertoire, but there is something in the classical world where, where things are just slightly formalized. And, so I find when I'm writing classical music as opposed to others, I'm, I'm just more -- more cognizant by the sense of reality, and I mean the inherent structure in the music itself, so that it can stand on its own without anything else. You know, all those other genres, really, they have a visual component to it, or a dance or, or, with classical music ideally the music is perfect, just notes on the page.

Ted Simons: Something as simple as a comic, a piece in a classical piece, would be far different than a comic stretch or a comic moment in a musical. Correct?

Eric Whitacre: Completely, absolutely. And it's all about context, and I have tried to write comic pieces, actually and, and the best way, is to sort of make fun of the, of the context of the formality of it.

Ted Simons: Sure.

Eric Whitacre: And you can get big laughs by just pushing that, that a little bit.

Ted Simons: Sure.

Eric Whitacre: It's an easier audience in some ways than a musical theater crowd.

Ted Simons: And with that in mind, talk about classical music, and you mentioned, it does not have to be difficult or formal, and yet, for most, it is, and for a long time, whether it's serialism or 12-toned this and that, that define modern music and classical music, for so long, did that help or hurt the art form, do you think?

Eric Whitacre: Unfortunately, I think that, that this is, this is a huge generalization. But, 12 tone and atonal music, especially the kind embraced from 1932 to 1975, or 1980, did massive damage on, on most general classical music audiences. I think it really scared people, and when people hear, contemporary music, it's going to be performed at a classical concert, I think rightly so there is a bit of fear there. This was some thorny music that they were making, and I am personally not really a fan of all of it, but it's a huge generalization because some of it is just beautiful and human and heart-breaking.

Ted Simons: So when you are composing, do you find it, this might be a little difficult? This might be a little cliche? How do you work that out and, and are you composing for anyone in particular?

Eric Whitacre: Such a good question. For me, I feel like, like every piece needs to have the primer, the set of rules, built into the piece. Itself. So that, that all the rules of this world, you don't have to know anything about classical music or the tonality, as long as I start by saying, this equals a, this equals b, and a, plus b, equals c, and come with me. So, as long as all of that is taken care of, I find you can really push audiences in terms of what they can handle with dissonance and rhythm as long as they are being invited and brought along in the piece.

Ted Simons: As long as you are not having more fun than they are, in other words.

Eric Whitacre: Yeah. That's a good way of putting it. And something happened where composers became introspective, and Milton Babbit wrote an essay called, who cares if anyone listens, but the idea is, you know is, who cares about the audience, we are doing it for ourselves, and that's what I believe, I'm writing for -- I want to communicate. I want to reach out and touch people who are listening.

Ted Simons: Are you ever surprised that something you wrote that you thought this is gold, doesn't necessarily hit the marks you thought, and something else that may have come quickly and you kind of discarded it, all of a sudden is a huge hit?

Eric Whitacre: Endlessly. It happens all the time. There is a piece I wrote fairly early on called Water Night, with a text by the Mexican poet Otavio Paz. And most of my pieces take weeks and months to write, I am a slow composer, and Water Night took me 45 minutes. I just wrote it, it just happened. And it's one of my, my most successful pieces, and I never -- I still don't know where it came from.

Ted Simons: Isn't that interesting? Some folks say, some artists say if it comes to easy they back off a bit, like it's got, something has to be wrong, it's too easy.

Eric Whitacre: Which is -- which is the wrong way to feel. And most artists say the same, and we all fight that thing. We fight it, we know that, that somehow when you can just find the, the, when you find a groove, everything is clicking, the effortlessness, you know then, oh, this is the path. And it feels effort it is, it feels sometimes like, like, I don't know with me, I feel like, like in order to do a day's work I have got to struggle. Or, you know, or be tired by the end of the day, so sometimes, I think, I work too hard. And, and when I don't need to.

Ted Simons: Interesting, we have 30 seconds, and you are going to be speaking to students later on this evening. What are you going to tell them?

Eric Whitacre: Oh, gosh, I am going to tell them to follow their dreams. Especially in the arts, their parents, everybody will tell them it's a bad idea to do what they are doing. These are music students, and my own personal experience, be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.

Ted Simons: You have done a remarkable amount of work, congratulations on your success, its beautiful music, and so good to have you here.

Eric Whitacre: It's my honor, thank you.

Ted Simons: Thank you.

Ted Simons: And that is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you very much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Pianist Lang Lang

  |   Video
  • World-renowned pianist Lang Lang has been called the “hottest artist on the classical music planet” by The New York Times. Meet Lang Lang on Arizona Horizon.
  • Lang Lang - World-Renowned Pianist
Category: The Arts   |   Keywords: music, musicians, pianist, classical,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Tonight, we talk to two major figures in the world of classical music. Concert pianist Lang Lang has been called the hottest artist on the classical music planet by the "New York Times." I recently talked to Lang Lang about his music.

Ted Simons: Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Lang Lang: Thank you.

Ted Simons: You are a big deal in the classical music -- before we get to all of that business, you've been to Arizona before?

Lang Lang: Yes, this is my sixth time here.

Ted Simons: Sixth time, what do you think?

Lang Lang: It's very nice and hot.

Ted Simons: Ok. And had a chance to see the scenery much? I wonder about concert artists, do you just go to a town and stay in a hotel and perform and go back to the hotel? How much do you get around?

Lang Lang: I remember my first time being here was 2001. And, and I still remember, I came with my father, we were, we were prepared, a Chinese box before the concert. And we would take out from, from the phrase, so, it's cold, so we put on the street, so five minutes later we had a nice dinner.

Ted Simons: There you go, boiling the egg on, frying the egg on the sidewalk here. I have got to ask you before we get to what you are doing now, I want to know, because you were a, you were a Prodigy. You started very young, but you started, you were inspired by a cartoon. A Tom and Jerry cartoon? Talk to us about that.

Lang Lang: I was 2 and a half years, and my parent bought me a piano, but that was when I was one-year-old. So, I was watching one of my favorite cartoons. Tom and Jerry. And as you know, there is an episode called the Cat's Concerto. So Tom, tuxedo, and nice tie and started playing the piano. And that was my first inspiration. I would look at their big concert grand piano, and I would look at my little opera piano, and I thought that's the father, and that's the son. I started playing. My first, my first tryout.

Ted Simons: Was it something -- how, how old were you when you felt, I mean, because a kid is a kid and an adult kind of feels the music differently, but when did you feel that music as part of you?

Lang Lang: I would say, when I performed first time, I was five years old.

Ted Simons: Five.

Lang Lang: And I played Chopin waltz, and the stage light, like now, very warm. And also, after playing, I got a flower from a little girl. I thought that was cool.

Ted Simons: Five years old already.

Lang Lang: And when you were, when you start so young, and you were good so young, and people are watching you, did you feel pressure at all?

Lang Lang: I mean. I must say, it was not always, you know, very lucky. When I was seven, I join the competition, and which I got lost, so I was like not, not even number 7. So, I got a consolation prize. A little toy, but I think that that was, actually, encouraged me the most from so many years. So, when we were not so good, it makes you try to work harder.

Ted Simons: And you did work harder, and you did, obviously, move up. It seems as though you connect with the audience in ways that might be a little different than other artists. Do you feel it? Do you feel when you are connecting with the audience?

Lang Lang: Well, I would say no matter whether you are a pop star, whether you are a jazz musician, or a classical musician, in the end, we need to be moved by the music, and we need to be totally connected with our heart, and our soul, to, to the composition that we are playing. And sometimes, I felt that, that you are going to a concert, and everything was very perfect. But, somehow, the soul, the heart is not there. And I think that, it's very important, when the audience, or the musicians listen to another performance. What they like to hear is, is your sincere, your sincerity. And that, you know, totally concentrated breach between your heart and the keyboard.

Ted Simons: When you have your heart and your keyboard bridged like that, how do you know that there is another bridge going out to that audience? How do you know that they are with you?

Lang Lang: Actually, you know, the things, when you start thinking about, about that, then, it becomes artificial. You feel like, look at me, look. Then, it's not good. I need to be totally sincere. So, the thing is when you, you are moved by the music, and yourself, then you have a chance to move to other people.

Ted Simons: It's interesting you mention that because some critics of your style say that you are too flamboyant. You are too showy. First of all, respond to that, and what is the difference between having a flair and having that connection and being too showy?

Lang Lang: There are a lot of different kind of repertoires. Tomorrow, we will play a piece, the Piano Hunter, and that is absolutely, you know, you need to be, you know, to not show off, but to give all your abilities, you know, to take it out but sometimes, when you play, really, incredible music, by Beethoven. Slow movement. Adagio. By Brahams, and that time everything has become the heart, and the intellectual power, rather than, you know, the technique part. So, it depends on the pieces. It's almost like a great actor. You need to be capable in playing different roles.

Ted Simons: Do you find yourself, as you age, handling that, that differently? Are you different now than you were ten years ago in terms of the persona onstage?

Lang Lang: It's a bit easier to come down a bit when you are getting certain, certain level of playing, and certain, certain maturity. But, I mean, the freshness of what you call it, the instincts, shouldn't change because if your instinct changes it's not good.

Ted Simons: Yeah. Do you find as you age, that, that certain pieces of music, when you were younger, affected you this way? Now they affect you that way?

Lang Lang: Yeah, for example, the piece, I played ten years ago, even the piece I play tomorrow, it's slightly different because after ten years, you learn a lot of new things, and those new ideas gave you another way, another alternative way to play the piece. So, it's, it's -- sometimes it's hard to know, which one is better, but certainly it's a different, a different input.

Ted Simons: And you don't really care about which one is better per se, you just care about what you are feeling in the moment, correct?

Lang Lang: There are certain, you know, frame of the work you need to follow, you know. The instruction of the scores, obviously. But, after that, you need to free yourself, you know, and to put some, you know, personal ideas on top of the original scores. And, and the interesting thing is that, when you hear the composers playing their piece, you see very kind of interesting input on top of the score. So, you will know that they gave you the room to do it.

Lang Lang: As far as getting young people involved, in this type of music, how do you keep their attention? How do you get that spark because there is, between computers and the TV, and the smart phones and the this and that, there is so much going on, so much of it is pop, quick, fast, how do you get them to figure out that adagio is really something special.

Lang Lang: Obviously, you don't start with that.

Ted Simons: Ok.

Lang Lang: That's a great suggestion because today our world becomes so fast and multiple, what do you call. But in music, you know, when you think about a good performance, it's like a multi-media platform. The only way to listen to music, is, is the year, right, but, then, you also, you know, when the music comes in, into your ear, comes into your brain, it needs to be vertical and it cannot just be flat. So, you need to see the characters. You need to see the messages. You need to see the colors. You need to see the structure, the beauty, and the dynamics. So, I think everything need to be multiples. So, in the way, that, that, you know, this time of the year, when I'm talking about, music, to kids, we have, you know, we use smart phones. We use whatever pad, and we start physically playing together, talking is good but it's more like a music class, but what we want is to, is to get people playing together.

Ted Simons: That's for kids, let's talk about older kids, about adults here who still find classical music intimidating and they don't know what they are missing. It sounds kind of nice, but there are people -- you are putting your heart and soul into that, and they are trying to figure out, what are they missing? How do you tell someone, this is what you need to do to appreciate classical music?

Lang Lang: I think they just need to go to more concerts. And maybe to see a good concert.

Ted Simons: That's a good idea. Maybe not try so hard?

Lang Lang: Not try too hard, but to, you know, to maybe go to YouTube, you know, just find some videos of, you know is, great musicians perform. People like Yo-Yo Ma, and like Leonard Bernstein, and get a shorter clip, and then I think it's very automatically, you know. They just feel it, and when you feel it, everything opens.

Ted Simons: Yes.

Lang Lang: And sometimes there is some kind of a, maybe paper in front of you, but if you kind of pass, you know, if it breaks through, then, everything kind of comes.

Ted Simons: And then you buy every Lang Lang c.d. and you can't stop playing them. You played for the opening ceremonies at the Olympics, the 2008 Olympics there in China. What was that like?

Lang Lang: It was a gigantic stage, and I was playing with this little girl, who is like five years old at the time. And I was like a baby-sitter. And you know, please, don't run, you know. There is a lot of people watching you now. Just let's play together, and having fun, and then after five minutes, I couldn't find her. I was so scared, you know.

Ted Simons: Where did she go?

Lang Lang: She ran.

Ted Simons: She ran somewhere. But, did you -- again, we talked about pressure when you were younger. On a situation like that, you are kind of -- you are representing China, and in many ways you represent China, in terms of the arts, in terms of the growth of the country. Where the country's future is headed. Do you feel pressure there?

Lang Lang: Not really. Just do my best to perform and be a cultural ambassador.

Ted Simons: So you don't feel like you are a symbol of China's growth and China's changing image on the stage?

Lang Lang: I am happy there. I am, I have become a, kind of a global citizen, and you know and, and to, to kind of, to share, you know, what our generation is thinking about, to the future. And I think it's, it's -- on this generation, you need to be a very open generation to where, to the global, as one image, and I think, you know, as a musician, that's probably one of the best things that, that we are communicators, and through a piece, you don't need to know the culture, but you understood what, what they were talking about.

Ted Simons: And what is your -- not necessarily to play, but when you just want to listen to the epitome of classical music, what do you listen to?

Lang Lang: I love to listen to modern symphonies, and I love to learn, you know, actually, I love jazz. And --

Ted Simons: Do you?

Lang Lang: My favorite artist is Kirby Hancock.

Ted Simons: You played with Kirby Hancock.

Lang Lang: He caught me a lot of great tricks.

Ted Simons: Isn't that something. Isn't that -- and hit hunters is one of those old albums. It was a pleasure having you here. Thank you very much for joining us. Good luck with the concert tomorrow, and good to have you back in Arizona.

Lang Lang: Thank you, Ted.

Ted Simons: Thank you.