HomeInterviewsComposersExclusive Interview With Grammy Award Winning Composer Eric Whitacre – Part 2

Exclusive Interview With Grammy Award Winning Composer Eric Whitacre – Part 2

What is it about Lux Aurumque, Sleep and The Seal Lullaby that make them so popular, not just in Europe, but globally?

I ask myself that all the time. Not that I’m trying to recreate it, but especially with ‘The Seal Lullaby’ where it was written for such a different purpose. I took a meeting with Dreamworks Animation about writing music for a musical that they never ended up making. They ended up making Kung Fu Panda instead of The White Seal. It was just a little musical theatre song, but then I turned it into a choral piece and I couldn’t have imagined that this would be one of my more popular pieces. I would like to think with ‘Sleep’, ‘Lux’ and ‘ The Seal Lullaby’, there’s two reasons for their popularity. The first is I think that they’re very honest, they’re very authentic, they don’t try to dazzle. They just are what they are and I think there’s something, these days especially, where there is so much sound and light in media and off screens, that they just cut directly to the heart of the thing. I don’t know if that’s true, but the artist in me would like to think that’s what people are responding to. The other thing about it is that on a pragmatic level, the way they’re crafted makes them relatively easy and satisfying to sing. I’d say half of my writing process is endlessly massaging every line to make sure that everybody thinks they’ve got the best line in the piece. For me, the dream is for the altos to come up to me after a rehearsal and say that’s a great alto line, and so I try to craft this beautiful experience for everybody, and especially in all three of those pieces there’s some form of a climax, and in that climax and catharsis, each part has their own part to play. That feels as if it’s the most important part, like the whole structure would fall if it weren’t for them. The performers work hard during rehearsals to make it happen, so the experience they have when they perform it, you can feel all of that work means something, it adds up. In a very small way you can feel a transformation in the audience, there’s that little magical thing that happens in music where you can transform your listener. I’d like to think that’s what it is I. I don’t know if any of that’s true, but that’s what I’d like to think it is.

What does it mean to you that group singing is finally back, and what do you think it means to choral enthusiasts generally?

Well, first I hope you’re right. I think we’re having a different experience here in the States. Unfortunately, I think we’re probably in for another rocky season. Even the choirs I know that are getting back together all have to be vaccinated, which is good, but they also all still have to wear masks indoors, so we’re kind of singing together. I have a feeling that they’ll have to stop doing that. What I’m hoping it means is that I think we’re about to enter a golden age of singing. I really believe that, I think people all over the world feel like I do, which is that they will never ever take this for granted again. Of course people love it, it was always so enjoyable to get together and sing and to make music. But I think people realised how much they actually needed it. I heard this over and over again during the virtual choir experience, that its oxygen for the soul, it’s not a hobby, it’s a necessity. So I think that the moment we can all sing together, not only will many people join, but I think that there will be a sense of – I don’t even know the right words, I was going to say a sort of a rejoicing, but I actually think it will come with a few tears, so it’s not really. The easiest way to describe what it means to me is I’m certain that the moment I get to stand in front of a group of people and we can safely sing together and really make music, I just know that I’m going to weep openly, I’ll just breakdown, I miss it so much, I ache for it. I really can’t think of anything that I long for more than that.

If you could pick 3 other artists to work with who would it be and why?

The first person on my list I would love to work with is Jacob Collier. There are no superlatives that I can use that describe Jacob. We never really made music together, we’re friends and we’ve talked about it. He made this beautiful arrangement of ‘Moon River’ and wrote to me and said, I need you to send me a low F. So I just sang a low F, I’m that little constellation at the beginning, that’s the only music we’ve made together. Jacob is not only a once in a generation mind and talent but he’s also the future, the way he thinks about music and the way he interacts with audiences, he’s completely unique. There are two other people that instantly come to mind. During COVID I’ve been listening to a lot of singer/songwriters. Can I name three more? So they’re all from the same era and all of them, I think are unparalleled geniuses – Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder. I have the exact same feeling listening to what they’ve made that I get when I listen to Bach, where it seems superhuman. I just can’t understand how they are able to take so few musical elements or poetry elements, and then illuminate the deepest human truths. I’m amazed by it. Any of those three, while we still have them, I would jump on any plane right now to go meet with them.

I saw Jacob collaborated with Charlie Puth during lockdown, who is also a musical genius, they were doing this incredible kind of ‘muso off’…

(Eric laughs)

…everyone was amazed by the sheer talent. In terms of artist collaboration, Charlie Puth would be up there for me.

Those two especially, they think about music in a way that I never will be able to. They have inherent gifts that are jaw dropping. You can’t believe what you’re watching. My 15-year-old son, he’s a jazz bass player and he’s really inspired by Jacob and by Charlie. He’s also got some of those gifts, he’s got the ‘muso’ brain and I just watch them in wonder. I just can’t believe that he’s able to see music in such a complex and intricate way, and seems to have such a personal relationship with every note. There’s no separation between the music and the artist and I love that. I did my masters degree at the Juilliard School 25 years ago, and that was the first time that I met people that were, what I would always call ‘touched by the hand of God’, that had these musical talents. I remember this one kid, Alex, this kind of sweet little German pianist and he had memorised everything Take 6 had recorded up to that point and then could play it and break it down on the piano. Never saw a note of the sheet music, but just knew all of it, just internalised it. What Jacob and Charlie both have is they also have this ability to translate it to people who know nothing about music. They’ve got this mountain top level understanding of music, but then they can easily communicate it to people at any level, and that’s just mind blowing to me. That’s like Leonard Bernstein. I often think with Jacob, besides being easily one of the world’s great jazz pianists and arguably one of the world’s great jazz bassists, let’s not even talk about his songwriting – I think he’s probably one of the world’s great producers now. The way you see him use Logic, I think he’s trying to break Logic! It’s next level on everything he touches!

We’ve put together an area on Musicroom for choral directors and singers to find the newest and bestselling choral works, what are your favourite choral compositions currently in circulation – new or classic?

So there’s a set of 5 pieces that I wrote called ‘The City and the Sea’, for piano and choir, and they’re all poems by the American poet EE. Cummings. They don’t get performed often, but I love these pieces on a personal level, I have a very personal connection to them. I think the poetry is some of the most beautiful poetry I know. The third in the set is a minute and a half long, it’s called ‘Maggie and Milly and Molly and May’. I find it heartbreakingly sweet. The poem is one of those perfect poems, the kind of poem that just rings truth the moment you read it. The way that it’s set to music, I just I love it. I always hope that’s the one that gets performed at my funeral, not Sleep! This piece is the way that I would like the world to be, it’s delicate. So if you’re asking for my own music, that’s one that I love. If I’m thinking of a piece that people should revisit, or should think about new or classic, there’s this Christmas piece by Philip Stopford. The Lullay Lullay…

Yeah, there’s three different types of ‘Lull’s’…

That’s right, yeah. I think the one challenge with that piece is the title! It’s a Christmas work and I’ve performed it several times with all kinds of different choirs and it’s perfect. It’s one of those pieces where you just add water and the reason it works is because it’s so perfectly crafted for the singers. It just unfolds the way it’s supposed to, I’m getting chills talking about it, it’s got my favourite thing in music, which is heartbreakingly beautiful melodies that get under your skin and it’s so achingly beautiful.

I think it’s one of the most popular pieces on Musicroom actually!

Is it really? As it should be. I’ve been doing a lot of work with this company called JackTrip. If you’re within a 300 or 400 mile radius of the other singers, you can perform latency free music together. I did an arrangement of ‘Sing Gently’ for SSA choir and then had children’s choruses in San Francisco and Los Angeles all perform it in real time. It’s pretty astonishing. As we spoke about moving forward in this hybrid way, I think some version of that is probably going to be part of the answer.

Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll be sure to check that out. The Single Gently SSA arrangement is the latest arrangement that you released, right?

Yeah, that’s right.

The positive connection between mental health and group singing is a fascinating one. How much do you feel the increasing number of people getting involved in group singing is directly related to this?

No question, so there’s a woman in the UK called Dr. Daisy Fancourt and she’s been conducting studies about the physiological benefits of group singing and making music together. Everything she discovers tells us what we would already imagine, which is that it’s really good for you, but it’s good for you in profound medical ways and so I think some of the studies that she’s done and some of the media around it has encouraged people to try it. What I always say about the art form of choral singing is that you don’t need a sales pitch with it once you’ve shown up – all you’ve got to do is make it to that first rehearsal. The moment you’ve experienced singing with a group of people, it doesn’t matter how good a singer you are, you’re hooked, and part of the reason is that your body is rejoicing on a physiological level. It provides a kind of spiritual uplift and a connection to other people that I find unmatched. I haven’t found that in any other human experience. I could go on and on about it. What’s beautiful is it’s not just endorphins, it’s also oxytocin, the bonding hormone. It’s the same hormone that is released between mothers and children, or when you fall in love with somebody, and so it gets released while you’re singing and you feel yourself connected in this profound way to the other people in the room. That feeling is so lacking in modern society, it’s so easy to become very isolated.

Finally, are you able to give away any secret plans for the near future? A Musicroom exclusive!

I’m about to release this crazy masterclass that I’ve been making – The Beautiful Mess. I think it’s now well over 4 hours of video, of me breaking down my process, going through my catalog and talking about how I do what I do, and I’m just very excited about it because it’s been my lockdown project. I’m very excited about it. I’ve also got a piece for orchestra that I’m writing, I’m reticent to share a title yet, although I think I’ve got a title, it’s going to be a piece for orchestra, and then I’ll also make it for concert band.

Can you give us one word from the title?

Yeah, Bounce – that’s it! And it comes from just a simple idea I had about the idea of a bouncing ball being used as an idea from counterpoint, remember we were talking about where these weird inspirations come from and that I was very much watching, I was watching a bouncing ball and thinking, I’ve never heard a piece that uses that kind of approach as a contrapuntal line. Could you write a prelude and a fugue for orchestra using a bouncing ball motif? So I’ve been working on that, and it’s…different, I think, than what I might normally write, and that’s really exciting. Yes, I’m doing that, and then I’m writing a setting of a Walt Whitman poem for the United States Air Force Singing Sergeants, and they wanted me to write about community so I found this gorgeous Walt Whitman poem and I’ll set that.

Awesome, I really appreciate you spilling the beans on that a little bit!

Well, a year from now we’ll be looking at it saying ‘oo shouldn’t have talked about that one, that turned out to be a disaster!’ (Eric laughs).

No, I’m sure it’s all going to be a great success. Eric, I really appreciate your time today it’s being great speaking, thank you for joining us on the Musicroom blog!

It’s my pleasure, thank you.

Thanks for reading all!
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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