ERIC WHITACRE: LORD OF THE VOICES
With Light & Gold, Eric Whitacre has released his first album for Universal. The inventor of YouTube’s Virtual Choir allows audiophil interesting insight into his life.
Ann Kathrin Bronner: Eric, what is your first memory with music? Or with singing?
Eric Whitacre: My first memory with music? I remember being three or four years old. And I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know classical music until I was eighteen. But my grandmother was playing on a record player – I realise now what it was: It was the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody – and I remember of running around her house just screaming. I was so excited, this was the greatest thing ever. So, I have this very, very strong memory of her, of the way the house smelt, and of the sound of the music. My first experience singing really was when I was 18 and I joined the choir for the first time in university.
AKB: You did not sing before, at school, or with your mom, the evening?!?
EW: Well, certainly not with my mom. Nobody in my family was musical at all. But I was in a pop band in high school. It was the Eighties, so it was whatever eighties pop music was. And I always wanted to sing, but the others in my band wouldn’t let me. They said that I kind of sounded like Kermit the frog.
AKB: So you had to play the drums instead, or what have you been doing?
EW: I played synthesizers.
AKB: But don’t you remember the lullabies your mom sang?
EW: Nothing. I should ask her, but I don’t think my mother ever sang to me as a child.
AKB: No, that’s impossible! Every mother sings for her child!
EW: I mean I love my parents, so I’m not saying this in a bad way. But they can’t really carry a tune. So maybe I have bad memories of a lullaby (laughs).
AKB: This means you are NOT convinced that everybody can sing?
EW: I AM convinced that everybody can sing. I think my parents could have used someone to help them. Yes, absolutely everybody can sing, with just a little bit of training.
AKB: But it needs some training?
EW: It doesn’t necessarily need formal training. Even if there is just someone around you also singing, especially when you are young. I think all children can sing, and they do it effortlessly. They just need other people around them telling that it is okay.
AKB: Do they have a better ear than adults?
EW: I think so! My son is five years old, and he is just like a parrot! He can sort of reproduce any sound, and he is not embarrassed about it. In fact, this morning we were going down these stairs, and it was a nice acoustic for singing, kind of like being in a shower. And he was singing as loud as he possibly could. You know, he didn’t care who was listening. He just liked the way that it sounded in the stairs!
AKB: But it is a normal thing for him, I guess, because he raises up in this atmosphere fulfilled with music – your wife is also a singer. So, for him it is a normal thing to use his voice. Right?
EW: Maybe. It is such a part of our life that we don’t really notice that we are doing. Sometimes – we don’t call him this – but sometimes we do little operas at the breakfast table. My wife, my son, and I, no matter what we are talking about, we have to sing it to each other. And he likes to play the drums, too. So sometimes, he’ll play drums on the table. And we all play drums. But, like I said, it doesn’t seem special to me, it’s just what we do. So maybe he’s getting training.
AKB: Interesting way of conversation! So, maybe if we all would sing every day instead of talking, it would not be so easy being angry with somebody.
EW: Yeah, actually. I think that’s a beautiful thing to say.
AKB: And when you sing, your reward centre in the brain is stimulated. So, one could say singing is even better than eating chocolate!
EW: (laughs) Chocolate’s pretty good. But I know what you are saying. That’s one of the things I love about singing with a choir: Just everyone in the room is breathing together at the same time. And I feel that it makes people more compassionate. It can only be good for people and for a society when everyone is singing!
AKB: You have been singing in the college choir. Are you still singing?
EW: Yes. I was just in Cambridge for three months, in England. I was a Visiting fellow at Sidney Sussex College. And while I was there, I was working with a lot of choirs. But the director of the Sidney Sussex Choir let me sing bass in the choir. It’s the first time I’ve performed in a choir a long time not being the conductor, and it was so great. I had such a good time!
AKB: What makes for you the fascination exuding from singing in a choir?
EW: First there’s something about all of you standing together, especially in a-cappella-music, where there’s no instruments, and you’re only using your breathe, and your body, and your voice to make music with a group of people. Then it’s still so human. I feel so alive when that’s happening. And there are certain chords, especially close harmony chords, where I just get tingles all over my body. And sometimes I get tears in my eyes, or sometimes I start giggling. I really feel it very physically. Sometimes I get gooseflesh. And then, also, all of these beautiful poems that have been set to music. So, sometimes it’s like meditating on a poem in a way that you never ever would in your real life. We sit down and spend five or ten minutes with this text. So, I kind of love it. And then afterwards, you know singers love to hang out, so we all go for a beer. You know, this is the best part really.
AKB: Not really!
EW: Well, one of the best parts (laughs).
AKB: But isn’t this experience a little bit contrary to your Virtual Choir on the internet? For me, it is the experience of making music together, in a group, which is the reason to make music. And singing at home, in front of my computer, on my own, sounds a little bit strange to me.
EW: Yes, it is not at all like singing together with a group of people. That’s for sure. It’s in a way much more difficult. And it requires quite a bit of faith that six months – or a year – after you sing your part to the video, it will actually sound okay with other people’s singing. So, the Virtual Choir isn’t meant at all to replace regular singing. But I think it does the same thing that singing together in a room does, which is: You connect with people. Even if it is just a different and exotic technology.
AKB: So you really connect with other people?
EW: I think you do. It is like a conversation on the phone. You and I know, we don’t think anything different about speaking on the phone with each other. In fact, we would probably end this conversation think: Oh, so nice to meet this person. But the truth is, it is a very artificial kind of connection. And so, for me, the Virtual Choir is the same thing. It’s just another strange technology. But maybe it feels more strange because we haven’t been doing it that much.
AKB: But if I make music, I need the response from the others. And in this Virtual Choir, I do not get a direct response. Right?
EW: Well, not immediately. But you get it after six months (laughs). I know that it sounds strange, but it is a usual aspect of the experiment. In a way, we are doing just what you would in a real choir, because they are certainly connecting with me. They are watching my video conducting track. They try to sing exactly like I would. I know most of the singers go and watch other singers’ videos to see what they are doing. And in the real world, afterwards, lots and lots of the singers email each other, sometimes even become friends and get together in reality. So, if this is happening, people ARE having feedback and connecting with people.
AKB: I admit it is an interesting idea, but it also makes me a little bit sad, you know? If somebody is not singing in a choir, but in front of his computer, and has no other singers around him.
EW: But it is not meant at all to replace regular choirs, you know. It is just something… I would say almost everybody sitting in front of the computer also sings in a choir somewhere. I think there’s only a few people that I know of who are doing because they live somewhere that’s so remote that they don’t have a choir near them. So, I think they get both experiences!
AKB: Your musical career started rather late. Isn’t it exceptional that until age 18 you haven’t been singing, and then you started composing, singing, conducting – being so successful?
EW: Well, I guess so. You know, it doesn’t feel strange to me because it happened.
AKB: But did you know before about your talent?
EW: Well, it is funny, but when I was in high school, I just always thought that I would be a pop star. I just knew it. When I discovered classical music, it definitely took me a different direction in terms of the music, but it feels like what I imagined in a strange way. I don’t know how it all works. I feel grateful, that’s for sure.
AKB: And when you played in this pop group: Did you already compose?
EW: When I played in the pop group, I wrote a lot of songs, but only by ear. I never composed anything. I started singing in the choir when I was 18, but even when I wrote my first piece when I was 21, my first concert piece for chorus, I really didn’t know how to harmonically spell the notes. So I wrote down as best I could what I thought it was supposed to be. And then I had my friend’s help to correct the spellings. It took me several years before I felt really comfortable with it.
AKB: But the sense for harmony, melodies, phrasing is talent? Or did you get more into this when studying at Juillard?
EW: I guess it was talent at first. And then, yes, some training at Juillard, and then also through experience, you know. Each new piece I write I try to push myself a little bit further. But I still feel I have a long, long way to go. I’m still learning how to compose, every piece.
AKB: So, it is also craftsmanship, not only talent?
EW: Yes, very much. And I think I have a long way to go as a craftsman.
AKB: You’re mixing different genres one with each other, and switching between classical, musical and pop music. Wouldn’t it be easier to focus on one genre?
EW: Maybe, but it would be kind of boring for me, I think. If my iPod starts to play, it might start with Debussy, and then it goes to Björk, and then it goes to the Beatles, and then it switches over to Bach. You know, it’s all over the place. So, for me the genres don’t feel really different, they just feel: It’s music I like.
AKB: Which evokes emotions?
EW: For me, yes. And if it’s good! I feel like good music can really be in any genre.
AKB: Very often, choir music is synonymous with sacral music. Is this also a matter for you? Do you believe in God or do you have a strong faith?
EW: Well, I’m not a religious person. I don’t subscribe any faith. But at the same time, I’m filled with wonder and with harm at the world around me and the people. And I don’t understand any of it. So, maybe that’s a religious feeling. I know that often times, when I hear people speaking about religious experiences, it sounds very much like what I experience with music. So maybe it’s the same thing. I don’t know. But I certainly have to believe in the thing that I’m saying, that I’m communicating. I couldn’t just set to music any text. I couldn’t set a liturgical text for the Christian church for instance, because I don’t believe it. And so the music just wouldn’t come out. The things that I tend to write are about the human experience: Love and lost and death and weddings and children. Or about the natural world. And these are things that I very much believe in, and so the music seems to come out.
AKB: It is also a question of authenticity?
EW: Yes, this certainly. And honesty.
AKB: Are the lyrics as important as the music – and vice versa?
EW: For me, they are, especially when I’m composing. The lyrics are essential. And when I’m composing, my job – what I try to do – is just hear the music that is already trapped inside the poem. The poetry hid the music and I just have to uncover it in a way.
AKB: Do you need the poems first to compose, or do you have a certain melody in your head and then searching for the poem fitting into it?
EW: Well, I usually start with the poem first. But then, when I do it the other way around, I work with living poets. And so it is not a melody, but I say: Here is kind of a concept I have for a piece. And Charles Anthony Silvestri, whom I work with quite often, will start writing some poems. And then I’ll write a little bit of music to that, and then it becomes a little working thing. But, really, I keep trying to guide him with his poem until it gets to a place where there’s music bubbling out of it.
AKB: So, you have a formal concept in your mind before?
EW: No, it’s not a formal concept. It’s really just an abstract, an emotional thing. I have a sense of a feeling that I want the music to make, and then that’s what we try to bring to life.
AKB: On your new album, Light & Gold, you are conducting your works yourself. Does it make any difference if you conduct your work, or if you conduct a work of Bach or other composers?
EW: I love conducting other composer’s works, and it is very educational for me to learn about their music by being a conductor. But there’s nothing for me like conducting my own music. It is hard to describe. I feel present. I feel like the music is just an extension of me. And so I know exactly how it’s supposed to go, because it is me. It is even more than the music. And so, it’s a really joyful experience any time I get to conduct my own music.
AKB: And are you more critical with the singers when you are conducting your works?
EW: (laughs) Probably. I know I am more critical with myself. You know, because if I write something and we are rehearsing and it is not working perfectly, I never think it is the singer’s fault. I always think it is the composer’s fault. I think it’s me. Like I think: Oh my god, you must have badly written! You know, if I’m conducting Bach, never ever would I think: That’s Bach’s fault. (laughter)
AKB: But maybe it is the conductor’s fault, and not the composer’s.
EW: That’s right: There is two out of three possibilities that it’s completely my fault.