Spotlight on Eric Whitacre

We take a look at the man behind the cluster chords: how Eric Whitacre arrived at a life in music, and the ups and downs he's encountered along the way.

Not all composers are keen on pulling back the curtain on their lives. Luckily, Eric Whitacre is as open and approachable a guy as you're likely to encounter.

That Whitacre is a choral composer at all is something of a fluke. "I got tricked into being in the choir when I was 18," said Whitacre. "My friend told me it was a great place to meet girls, which it was. But I certainly wasn't expecting my life to get turned so much. I have to say it was turned in an hour. That first rehearsal changed everything for me."

"I was in the bass section and they said, 'Okay, let's open to the Kyrie.' It was Mozart's  Requiem. We began the fugue. I had never heard a fugue, never heard counterpoint. I certainly had never heard music like that. That was it. It changed my life."

The Making of a Composer

At first Whitacre wanted to be a choral conductor, following in the footsteps of David Weiller, his choral director at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Then one day, Weiller was puzzling over a section in a piece that the chorus was going to perform.

"He said, 'I wonder what the composer intended here,'" Whitacre recalled. "Then he paused and said, 'I'll call him this afternoon and ask him.'"

"That was an epiphany," Whitacre said. "I saw this food chain in my mind, and wow!—the conductor is not at the top of the food chain! He is actually calling the composer."

It was not so much that Whitacre wanted to be top dog in some kind of authoritative way. "I think what I wanted was to be at the heart, the DNA, of singing and choral music," he said. "And maybe for the first time it opened my eyes. If I wrote something, all these people would sing what I wrote, and why not?"

Shortly thereafter, Whitacre wrote a setting of the text, "Go Lovely Rose," for his college chamber choir. "It's this sweet little 17th century English idyll," Eric said, "and it was David's tradition to do a different setting of it every year. So I decided to give it to him as a gift for what he had given to me."

The group performed the piece at a regional convention in Hawaii. A publisher was in the audience, who immediately snatched it up for publication.

The pieces began flowing after that—sometimes to set an inspiring poem (including that of Octavio Paz and E. E. Cummings), but often to give as a gift for someone important in Whitacre's life.

He wrote "Water Night" as a gift to Bruce Mehall, who had talked him into staying in college, when he desperately wanted to drop out. He wrote the mournful "When David Heard" for Ron Staley, a professor at Brigham Young University, who had lost his 19-year-old son.

"It's the greatest and most humble gift I know how to give," Whitacre said.

Along the way, Whitacre went to The Julliard School, earning his Master of Music degree and studying with Pulitzer-Prize- and Oscar-winning composer John Corigliano. Being surrounded by "ridiculously talented musicians" was mind-boggling, Whitacre recalls, but overall, formal music training was not an entirely wonderful experience.

"I was constantly being told that my music was not complicated enough, not sophisticated enough," he said. "But then the more I went out and heard my choral music performed by choruses, the more I realized that, for me, I prefer a more direct approach. What Julliard did for me, in the best sense, was steel me against academia."

A Matter of Poetry and Copyright

Whitacre brought this simple, direct approach to a commission in 1999—with no idea what complications lay ahead. Julia Armstrong, a lawyer and professional mezzo-soprano living in Austin, Texas asked Whitacre to set her favorite poem, Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," to honor the memory of her parents, who had died within weeks of each other after 50-plus years of marriage.

"The poem is perfect," Whitacre wrote about the creative process, "and my approach was to try to get out of the way of the words and let them work their magic." The piece premiered in October 2000 in Austin and then in 2001 composer Rene Clausen conducted another stirring performance at the American Choral Directors Association National Convention. Soon the letters and emails were pouring in from singers and conductors trying to get ahold of the music.

And that's when the story takes an unfortunate—but ultimately fortuitous turn. It seems that the Robert Frost Estate had, just months before, revoked all permission to set the poem. Only Randall Thompson's version in "Frostiana" had been sanctioned, even though there were at least 20 other versions for chorus floating around. "When I looked online and saw all these new and different settings," Whitacre recalled, "I naturally and naively assumed that it was open to anyone."

Wrong. Months of legal wrangling later, Whitacre got the final stern letter from the estate forbidding the use of the poem until it became public domain in 2038.

The piece was dead—or so it seemed. At the urging of his wife, Whitacre called up his frequent collaborator, poet Charles Anthony Silverstri.

"Here's the deal," he told him. "You can't change a note of the music and I want you to wipe the old words clean but still use some of the key words from the poem, like 'sleep.'"

Within 48 hours, Silvestri came back with a poem about that ethereal dream-like state right before falling into slumber, an equally beautiful message. "Sleep" since went on to be performed by Whitacre's second Virtual Choir, amassing hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.

Foray into Hollywood

Whitacre had barely recovered from this creative trauma when he again encountered the vagaries of the composition business. In 2004, at the behest of composer Steven Schwartz (of Wicked and Godspell fame), a major film studio called: "Would you be interested in writing music for an animated feature?" they asked Whitacre.

"Duh, I said, 'Yes, of course,'" Whitacre recalled. "I had always loved animation. Looney Tunes, Disney, Pixar—all of it. I couldn't believe that I might get a chance to work in that grand tradition on such great material."

The studio executives were interested in making an epic adventure out of "The White Seal," the seventh story in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. The story starts off with a mother seal singing softly to her young pup:

Oh! hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o'er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow,
Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas!

"When I read the words, I could literally hear the song," Whitacre said. "I had to race to write it down." He had his wife, soprano Hila Plitmann, record it and then he dropped it off at the film studio.

Then he waited. Weeks went by. Nothing. Did it not arrive? Did they hate it? Too complex? Finally he got one of the execs on the phone. "Please tell me. Why did you reject my lullaby?"

"Oh," said the exec, "we decided to make Kung Fu Panda instead."

Hollywood isn't done with Whitacre, however. He recently co-composed music with Hans Zimmer for the film, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), and we suspect there will be much more to come. 

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