HomeInterviewsComposersExclusive Interview With Grammy Award Winning Composer Eric Whitacre - Part 1

Exclusive Interview With Grammy Award Winning Composer Eric Whitacre – Part 1

Musicroom: Firstly, congratulations on your latest virtual choir project – tell us a bit about that!

Eric: When we had finished Virtual Choir 5: Deep Field, which was all about the Hubble Telescope, I honestly thought that was the last Virtual Choir project we would ever do. In the video we go to the farthest reaches of the known universe, so I thought that’s hard to top! Then of course the pandemic hit and I thought if there was ever a time for one of these Virtual Choirs, it’s now. Every other Virtual Choir I’d done, I used a piece of music that I’d already written, something from my catalog. This one is so specific and it really needed something ‘of the moment’, and so very quickly I wrote this little piece called ‘Sing Gently’. I wrote the text, which is something I don’t normally do. What I was trying to do is capture ‘that’ moment, there was real tension in the air and the fabric of society had the potential to really pull apart. So I was writing about a path through with compassion and empathy. We ended up with 17,572 singers from 129 countries, which is surreal to say out loud. More than the project itself, the events leading up to it and afterwards truly gave me a sense of community, family and purpose. I’m not sure I would have stayed sane had we not all been working on it together.

I listened to it around the time Musicroom released the sheet music and it’s so beautiful. It’s a masterpiece, and it all came together so perfectly in the recording.

The editors, led by Mike Hatch, are just brilliant at what they do. People keep asking how we got it to sound so good, and I keep telling them that one of the advantages you have with 17,000 singers is that the rough edges get smoothed out on their own. It’s like being in a football stadium and hearing a bunch of people sing, not everybody is singing the right notes and not everyone is even sober! It’s a mass of voices, it’s forgiving. These days people are making their own virtual choirs with 30, 40 or 50 people and that is much more difficult to blend and to align. So strangely, the volume of singers helped us!

Is there anything you’d do differently next time and what are the challenges you faced putting together a virtual choir project of that magnitude?

I think since number 3 we’ve said that’s it, that’s the last one. I think what we’ve learnt over the past several Virtual Choirs, and something that we really doubled down on this time, was building community. We had some guest interviews, as well as people giving masterclasses in singing and interpretation, and there was an active Facebook group that had around 23,000 people in it at one point. The community is as important, if not more important, than the actual virtual choir itself. So I think we would take everything we’ve learnt there and then triple down on it and really make it into a community experience so that people had lots of things to do. All of them pointing towards the goal of the Virtual Choir, which is to be a part of something larger than oneself. On a technical level, when I write myself, I always write the lyrics first. I wrote the poem, knowing exactly what I wanted to say, and I can remember writing the words ‘sing gently’. I’m laughing because I know from experience that it’s the sibilance and it’s the consonants that are the hardest part to edit together, and writing down ‘sing gently’ just thinking, oh God! So if we were to do another one, the text would probably be something like ‘ooo ahh’!

The timing was, in some ways, perfect to do another virtual choir?

That’s the oddest thing, right? It’s the best time to do a virtual choir. This time around we leaned into the goal of accessibility, to make it as accessible as possible. We had 12 deaf signers and two dozen blind singers. One of the blind singers made braille sheet music and we made it available to download, so they could print it out. There was this robust community of cystic fibrosis sufferers, and because of the strange nature of their disease, even in non-pandemic times they can never be in the same room together, if they share this certain bacteria with each other, it can be fatal. So the only way they can sing together is to be in a virtual choir, so not only was there a huge community in ours, but then they made several of their own virtual choirs. The cystic fibrosis community, and what it highlighted for us, was that in some ways the pandemic was perfect timing. At the same time, there’s just no question that the future is going to include this kind of music making. I think within the next four or five years we’ll be singing latency free with each other, and it’ll be a little bit like the work model where some days you go into work and some days you stay at home; it’ll be the same thing with making music. It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time.

How have you found writing in lockdown?

Other than ‘Sing Gently’, which I wrote at the beginning of lockdown, you’d think that I had all this free time at home, and that I’d be writing like I’ve never written before, but I realised something about myself, I don’t write in the abstract. What I mean by that is if I’m writing an alto line or a French horn line, I can actually see my favourite altos in my mind and I can imagine them standing on the stage whilst I conduct them. It’s the same thing with instrumental pieces and knowing that no one was performing, knowing it was going to be a while before anybody performed, it was like all the oxygen went out of the room, it was worse than not having inspiration. It was almost like why would you write this? It’s the oddest thing and I just didn’t have any blood flowing to the muscle. Then recently, as things started to look promising as more and more people started getting vaccinated, I suddenly got that urge again. I felt ideas starting to come to me, and now very recently it’s started to go downhill again, I thought, ‘no…’ and could feel it going away from me. It’s been fascinating for me as a composer to realise that I’m writing for actual people if you know what I mean? To know that people are out there singing or playing, is THE inspiration for me.

Do you have a specific process for writing and where do you get your inspiration from?

It’s a great question. The first part of the process – pure inspiration – can come from anywhere and come at any time. I wish I knew how to how to activate it on command. I can go several weeks, I’ve always got ideas running and usually they are not remotely related to music. I’ll read something about medicine or astronomy, or I’ll have a conversation with somebody and we’ll be talking about sociology or something. Those could apply to musical ideas, whatever that is. Or I hear my little son laugh or giggle, just taking inspiration from wherever. But there’s that first part of the inspiration where it’s like, ‘that’s an interesting idea, that could be a thing’. The process of making something I’ve kind of codified over the years, and I’ve got this thing that I do where I make drawings – I call them emotional architecture. I paint and build the emotional journey of the piece that I want the performers and the listeners to go on, usually before I’ve written a note of music. There’s a lot of what looks like preplanning or blueprint drawing of a piece before I get into it, so that by the time I start writing notes, I’ve got a really clear idea of what it is I’m about to make. I’ve made this big video masterclass called The Beautiful Mess that we’re about to release and I talk through all the parts of my process, and when I watched the videos back I thought, ‘yeah this all looks like I’ve got it figured out’, like I’ve got a plan, but the truth is, every piece is just crazy, it’s just a mess. I’m sitting here thinking ‘what am I doing?!’, I’m just lost in the woods and somehow music comes out of it.

Eric’s ‘Blueprints’ for composing

Can you tell us a bit more about your recently released compositions, for example, The Sacred Veil?

It’s easily my most personal piece and it was written with Charles Anthony Silvestri, who is my best friend, and a poet. Together, we’ve written Sleep, Lux Aurumque, Saint Chapelle. We made all these pieces together over the years. Tony lost his wife Julie to ovarian cancer 14 years ago, you can imagine, it was just devastating to him and the family. She left behind a 3 year old and a 7 year old. Amazingly, the 7 year old just graduated with his MBA; he’s a working accountant. The younger one, the 3 year old, is now studying to be choir director. They’re both beautiful children, Tony did such an extraordinary job raising them. Five years ago, Tony left this single little poem called The Sacred Veil sitting on my piano. In it he described the veil as this ribbon of energy between the world of the living and the world of those who have passed. In moments of birth or death that ribbon of energy gets very thin, so thin that those worlds almost touch. Usually I write very slowly, I was saying I make these paintings, that it’s very deliberate and composed, but by the time he came over in the afternoon, I had written about half the piece already. I had a very clear idea of what it could be. I told Tony, I think there’s a bigger piece here. We ended up making a 12 movement piece that is about the very moment they met, to falling in love, to having children, to the diagnosis, to her being very sick, to her struggle right towards the end, her death. There’s a kind of benediction at the end. Tony and I’s goal, when we were making it was to be as honest as possible, to never ornament any of it, to look directly at the thing that happened and just say it. Because of that I think it’s kind of a singular work, at least in my catalog for sure, and I think Tony’s. It’s just unflinchingly honest, which I think is incredibly beautiful. We also use some of Julie’s poetry, three of the movements have her own writing in them, and it’s not that the entire piece is a single emotional color, actually it’s quite dynamic. You really see the highs and the lows of the human experience. I’m very proud of it. I’ll be curious to see how it’s received now that we’re out of lockdown. We prepared the sheet music, I did some performances of it and then we released the sheet music and the recording, and then 3 weeks later we went into lockdown. So, typically the way one of these would work is that people would start to adopt it and do performances of it. But almost immediately it went very quiet.

That must be a difficult topic to talk about it, so I appreciate you telling me a bit about how it all came about, and I’m sorry for your friend Tony’s loss, that must have been tough.

Thank you, I still don’t know how Tony did it. He’s genuinely a hero of mine for the way that he stood back up after that atom bomb and continued to live his life. One thing that’s been fascinating with a few performances that we did, and the recording that we released, is how many people’s lives have very specifically been touched by cancer and one of the movements of the piece is when Julie received her diagnosis. Tony wrote the poetry, ‘I’m afraid we found something’, which is the words that the Doctor said, the words that you never want to hear a Doctor say to you. The rest of the text in that movement is the actual diagnosis, which because it’s medical, is mostly in Greek and Latin. It almost sounds like a sacred text and it’s this litany of all of these different terms and her specific diagnosis. Then for treatment, you hear the names of different chemotherapies and every time we performed it so far, people come up to us afterwards and say ‘I saw my own diagnosis’ – they actually saw the names of their own diagnosis or chemotherapy. What’s been fascinating to me is how many people have had a direct experience with battling this terrible disease.

It’s a moving piece, Eric, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it is received, and we’ll do our best to get it out there to people!


That’s all for today, but be sure to come back next week to read about Eric’s thoughts on his most popular works, as well as his dream collaborations and plans for the future!
Click here to learn about Eric Whitacre’s Virtual School launching November 1st.
Click here to view Bestselling Eric Whitacre Sheet Music.

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