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.