Famed for his popular yet highly original works, ERIC WHITACRE is choral music’s new leading man. The composer talks to WARWICK THOMPSON about style and life-changing events.
‘Generally I’ve tried to create idyllic worlds, like little snow globes, in my compositions. I wanted them to be kind of perfect, with all the rules lined up, like nothing can touch them. And something devastating happens in my life, and it’s all seared open. This latest piece is raw and angry, and radically different from what people might expect from me. Afterwards, I wondered what my face must have looked like when I was conducting it.’
We’ll come to that life-changing event later. First, let me introduce you – if you’re not one of the huge number who have already bought his discs Light and Gold and Water Night, or performed his spectacularly popular choral scores – to the creator of those idyllic snow globes, the composer and conductor Eric Whitacre. His talent for building immense, rolling waves of ‘tonal-with-a-twist’ sound in his choral and orchestral works has won him legions of fans (imagine a sunnier Arvo Pärt, and you’ve got a clue to his style), as has his extraordinary Virtual Choir project on YouTube. Thousands of people have uploaded themselves singing individual parts of his scores, and then had their videos combined into single performances: the adjective ‘viral’ doesn’t even begin to do their hit-count justice. On top of all that, it does his PR presence no harm that he has the cheekbones of a model, lucky thing.
It turns out that the current golden boy of composition is disarmingly charming too. I meet up with him as he’s riding high both on the chart-topping success of Water Night and the announcement of his Proms debut this season (29 August).
There’s a haunting work on Water Night for cello and strings called The River Cam, written for Julian Lloyd Webber, which, to me, recalls the sound-world of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Other works have a distinctive ‘Oxbridge choral’ flavour about them. Where does this Anglo element come from, I wonder? Whitacre was born in Nevada in 1970 and went to high school and university there; after further education at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, he lived in California for 14 years. Is he a secret Brit? ‘I am a self-confessed Anglophile, it’s true,’ he says. ‘I’m now Composer in Residence at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and my wife and I have been based in London since August. But the truth of it is that were I living in India, my music would probably have a massive Indian flavour and influence. I just seem to absorb and devour the culture wherever I’m at. The few years when I was at Juilliard, for example, everything I wrote sounded like New York.’ Really? What does New York sound like? ‘It sounds like Bernstein,’ he says, deadpan.
That gives another helpful clue as to what makes Whitacre tick. Under the all-American affability, he’s sharp as a needle and bright as the proverbial button. When he started university aged 18 he couldn’t read music. ‘I knew Every Good Boy Does Fine [a mnemonic to recall the notes on the treble clef stave] and not much more.’ That’s pretty late for a composer, to put it mildly. Seven years later, he went to Juilliard. No slouch, that’s for sure.
As a teenager he taught himself to play by ear, and now credits the 8-track synthesizer boom as giving him basic lessons in harmony, counterpoint and structure. ‘I knew them; I just didn’t know they were called those things.’ The early synth sound also influenced his later music. ‘I wrote Water Night on a 16-track machine, and you can hear that in the way the note clusters build. I guess my early choral music is as much influenced by Angelo Badalamenti [composer of the score of Twin Peaks] as by Tallis or Byrd.’
University brought enlightenment about the nomenclature of music theory. It also introduced him to choral music, and choirs. Initially he hadn’t wanted to audition, but a friend told him that he would meet cute girls. ‘I wonder now what would have happened if I hadn’t listened to him,’ he says without a trace of levity. ‘It was so life-changing, and might have been missed.’ What did happen was that he heard the Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem, was profoundly moved, and a door opened in his mind.
He began composing for university music groups. ‘It was like my lab,’ he says. ‘What seems extraordinary is that my style is present in the first piece I wrote, Go, Lovely Rose. The way I build these clusters coming out from a single note. The way I’ll pause on a word like “beauty”. All my tics. I had no idea then that I wanted to be a composer, but this makes me think it really was a vocation. Thank God I stumbled into choral music.’
The rest, as they say, is history. Juilliard; increasing popularity; a huge online presence; a recording contract with Decca. But did he ever feel a danger of becoming a brand? Just being the guy who churns out slow waves of big clustery chords? ‘It’s timely you ask that. My father was diagnosed recently with a tumorous cyst on his spinal column. I was writing a commission at the time, but then threw it all out, and found that I needed to compose something much angrier, and more raw.’ (The piece is Songs of Immortality, referred to in the first paragraph.) ‘I was worried that it’s not what people were expecting from me, but I got a wonderful response at the premiere in Berlin. I think you have to go where you have to go.’
His music is tonal, and easily emotionally accessible to a wide audience. Is he worried at all about being labelled a sentimentalist? ‘This is where the Californian in me comes out,’ he exclaims. ‘I reject the school that says sentiment is a bad thing: the danger is cheapening it. What I try to avoid is cliché. But I am a sentimental person, it’s true.’ Does he cry a lot? ‘Just enough,’ he laughs.
On a professional level, it doesn’t look like he’ll need to shed many tears in the immediate future. He’s already begun planning his future recordings. ‘The next disc will have lots of quicker, chamber-like pieces on it.’ Virtual Choir 4.0 is in the pipeline. The BBC Prom is coming up. And his musical Paradise Lost is likely to open in the West End in the autumn of 2013. Popularity and critical acclaim: does it get any better? ‘It’s great having popularity, of course. But I believe you don’t have to compromise to make it happen. I just want to explore all elements of the human experience, honestly and truthfully.’
Eric Whitacre on Decca: