eric whitacre

I am Eric Whitacre, composer, conductor, 5th member of Depeche Mode (application pending). AMA!

Hey gang, taking a break from writing Deep Field, my new work for chorus, orchestra and electronics. Happy to have your company.

BTW, for those of you genuinely interested in how I style my hair, here’s the secret.

As a trombone professor, I think your music would work extremely well for brass instruments, especially one as vocal in nature as the trombone. Have you written anything for trombone choir, and if not, would you ever consider it?

I adore trombones – not just the instrument but the whole trombone lifestyle. Would love to write some things for trombone choir.

Are there any real plans yet for your rumored collaboration with Pentatonix?

We desperately want to do something together, it’s just finding time in the schedules.

I loved your work on the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie and your music feels cinematic already so I was wondering if you had any interest in scoring any movie on your own? If so what sort of film would it have to be?

I would love to do more film writing! Had a blast working on Pirates. Again, it’s a scheduling thing, but I hope something will come together soon.

I’m working on composing, and I was wondering: if you could tell the younger version of yourself anything about composing music, what would it be?

Use the smallest amount of musical material possible. I wish I could tell myself that now. Make every single note be a reflection of a few simple ideas and throw everything else away. And don’t overthink it – if the piece wants to be simple and elegant then let it be.

Have you considered a collaboration with Frank Ticheli?

He’s a very close friend. Would be fun to write something with him.

What’s your favorite super hero?

Deadpool is my current favorite. (I have a nine year-old son who is a Deadpool fanatic).

Why do people hate parallel fifths when they sound so cool?

Silly, isn’t it? I think it is because when they teach basic harmony they begin with Bach, who rarely used parallel 5ths. The problem is it becomes a ‘rule’ in the class, and I am always amazed how few theory teachers say, no parallel 5thsif you want to sound like you are writing in 1750.

What inspires you the most when writing music?

The deadline. Nothing inspires like a deadline.

You seem to be one of the only modern composers outside of film scoring that has achieved actual fame outside of the niche music community. Aside from writing powerful and expressive music, do you focus on PR or did it just happen?

It was less about a PR effort and more of a boots-on-the-ground effort. For years I thought of myself like an indie band, traveling to every little town in America, building a fan base one person at a time. I loved meeting all the people and I learned a lot about the business.

It was also great for me because I learned how to conduct every level of ensemble, and I learned to speak comfortably to any size crowd. Those were skills that really came in handy later on.

Are you a synesthete? If yes, do you call upon it when composing?

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to suspect I might be a synesthete, but mine has to do with taste and light. It’s hard to describe but when I eat spicy foods, or look at bright lights (especially, god knows why, stained glass windows) I can hear the shimmer of overtones. I can hear them very clearly and a lot of the time they match the shimmer in my own music. I think I’ve always done this but have only recently noticed how odd it is.

Has anyone ever told you that you are, by far, the most attractive composer of all time?

Ha! I have the distinct advantage of living in the era of photoshop.

Who are some of your favorite composers who are still working today?

Three of my friends from Juilliard: Jonathan Newman, Steven Bryant and John Mackey. All of them writing killer music.

Everything about your life/job seems absolutely perfect, so the question I have is what do you like LEAST about your job? Is there anything that doesn’t set your soul on fire?

That’s a great question.

I really struggle with how fragmented my life has become: composing, conducting, traveling, speaking, social media, being a father, being a husband… I love all of those things but I am finding it so hard to do all of them well at the same time.

Compared to other progressions, where do power chords progressions rank?

I-V-vi-IV is the sound of my soul.

Do you have a favourite song that touches you deeper than most and never seem to loose its potency?

There are so many songs that hit me like that, but the one that always make me reflective is this one. The lyrics, the way he sings it, the way he loathes and loves being an outsider – hits me in the heart every time.

Do you typically throw out and rewrite large sections of a piece before it’s complete? If so, how often? Do you ever regret doing so?

Yes, I endlessly throw out huge sections – just did it today. Sometimes it is really difficult to ‘kill your darlings’, but after a while you get a sense of what will work and what won’t, and the moment you realize you are building a path that won’t make it to the end you want to kill it quickly, and with fire.

How do you think choral music and orchestral music will evolve in the future? Do you think more and more new genres will combine with “classical” sounding music?

If I had to guess I would say we will continue to see a disintegration of ‘genre’ – classical music, film scores, electronica, rock/pop/hip hop, it will all keep blending together. Feels like a golden age of composition in many ways.

Have you ever accidentally dropped something on you key board and used the resulting chord in a song?

Chuckling intensifies.

I never dropped something, but several times I have played the wrong chord and had a EUREKA moment. (Happened with the first chord in Cloudburst and the last chord in i thank You God, for example.

How do you feel about the bassoon, and what role do you like to give it in your music?

I love bassoon… now. Ghost Train was my very first piece for instruments, so I had no idea what they could do. I took friends into a practice room and had them play their instruments just to get a sense of what was possible. The bassoon player in band at that time was awful, just terrible, so I just assumed that bassoons were terrible and should be avoided at all costs. Then later on I discovered Mozart’s love for bassoons, and that opened a new world for me.

What is your favorite place in the world for its choral culture? Who does it best?

That’s a tough question. For the thing that I do – precise, controlled, straight tone choral music – there is no where on earth like London. There is a pool of 80-100 singers here who are choral mutants, able to sing on a dime and sightread anything. But there are choral hot spots all over the world. One that I’ve always wanted to visit is South Korea (second-best Korea) – every choir I have heard from there is phenomenal.

I noticed that quite a few of your pieces are titled in Latin. Do you know Latin?

I know enough about Latin to be dangerous. Charles Anthony Silvestri, my friend and long time collaborator, is a Latin wizard, and we endlessly argue about what is correct (him) and what sounds best to sing (me). He usually wins.

Do you think you’ll ever compose any big works for solo piano? I get chills just thinking of a piano sonata by you.

I’ve got some sketches for a piano concerto – I want to write a companion piece to Mozart 23 using the exact same instrumentation.

How do you go about auditioning members for the Eric Whitacre singers? And when do you audition more, if you do?

So far I’ve never had open auditions. Each of the singers is handpicked from other London-based choirs I love (The Sixteen, Tenebrae, Tallis Scholars). I’m thinking of starting a US choir, though, and that would definitely be auditioned…

When’s the next virtual chorus coming out?

Not sure yet – exploring lots of ideas to make the next one special and different.

What’s your favorite place/setting to sit down and compose?

These days, anywhere that is quiet. I used to be so picky about my workspace, but then I had a kid…

You have a very distinctive tonal palate and harmonic vocabulary, which is, obviously, something a lot of young composers aspire to. How did it develop? Was it more of you experimenting with sounds, or the study of other composers with unique styles, or both, or something else altogether? Do you ever feel limited by your own tendencies?

Let me work backwards.

It’s not that I feel limited by my tendencies but I am always amazed at the gravity they have on me. I can try as hard as I can to write something ‘not me’ and little by little I am pulled back into the orbit of that palate. Ultimately, that sound palate is just a reflection of me, so perhaps I need to grow more as a person.

I am a student majoring in Vocal Performance and I also have a passion for conducting in a choral setting. What strategies would you recommend to a slightly newer conductor that would put them into a higher tier?

Hmm… I believe 95% of conducting is experience – you learn so much by simply standing in front of a group. Also, I often watch videos of other conductors and steal gestures I like…

What piece of music are you most proud of?

I am fond of all of them in a way, like children. That being said, every time I conduct Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine I feel a small sense of pride at the craftsmanship – I worked my butt off on that piece.

What is your favorite piece to conduct?

I LOVE to conduct A Boy and a Girl, all those delicate turns and twists, and especially the sweet, pregnant silences.

Who do you hope to collaborate with in the future?

The list is endless: Sarah Jarosz, Radiohead, Bjork, London Grammar, FKA twigs, Thomas Newman, Peter Gabriel, Die Antwoord… I could go on and on.

How did you come up with your harmonic language? Specifically use of clustered chords.

From my first moments singing in choirs (I began when I was 18) I was blown away by the sound of close harmonies. I couldn’t get enough of them. After a while I started to find my own clusters and realized that they seemed to carry within them a very specific emotional language – I could actually hear the emotion inside the shimmer of overtones they produced. So I just kept writing them, looking for emotionally true moments, and one day I woke up and discovered I had become ‘the cluster guy.’

What tips do you have for someone trying to write their own music? I’m thinking in terms of your techniques for ideation.

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I would advise you to stop thinking in terms of “techniques for ideation.” Try to write down the music that, if stranded on a desert island, you would listen to, music that you fall in love with. If you adore it it means it is coming from an authentic place in you, and that will in turn connect with your audience. My two pence…

If you couldn’t do what you do right now, what would be the thing you would do instead?

I would be a cosmologist, or a physicist, or a biologist, or an architect.

Is there a contemporary or classical composer that you look to for inspiration or ideas?

I can’t ever get enough of Thomas Newman and steal from him regularly.

What is your writing process like? Do you use software or are you still old fashioned with only pencil, paper and a piano?

I’m still an old fashioned pencil and paper guy. In Deep Field, the piece I’m writing now, I will sometimes turn on my sequencer and improvise for hours with slow, gooey ambient synth patches, looking for gold.

What are the smartest and dumbest things that have been said about your work?

That’s a great question. Both happened while I as at Juilliard: Smartest: Milton Babbit heard Water Night and said to me, “There’s more here than meets the ear.” Best compliment I’ve ever received. Dumbest: David Diamond heard the same piece and told me, “Well, it’s effective, but I certainly wouldn’t call it music.”

What is your favorite type of group to write for, and what is your dream group to write for?

These days I LOVE writing for strings. They can do anything. I would one day love to write a proper string quartet…

What was one of the most unusual influences you had that inspired one of your pieces?

The three main themes from When David Heard were inspired by 1) The soundtrack to Out of Sight; 2) Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915; and 3) Madonna’s Little Star.

When you started many were resistant to your liberal use of dissonances. What advice do you have for the avant-garde choral composer experimenting with new techniques and forms in vocal SATB music, who’s trying to get performances and start their career?

Hmm… there are two parts to this:

First, you have to be endlessly tenacious. Call every conductor you can think of. Send them emails, scores, recordings. Meet them in person. Work on your social media. Enter contests. Above all, improvise promotion of your works until you figure out what is working.

Secondly, try to put the marketing in the music itself. i don’t mean that in a crass or cynical way, I mean that the great music is popular because people share it with each other. And it doesn’t have to be ‘easy’ music or even tonal music, but it must communicate an idea. It can’t just be a cool collection of choral effects, it must take the listener on a journey. Once you write music like that, regardless of the kind of music it is, people will do the ‘marketing’ work for you.

Who would you say was the most important composer in musical history?

That’s a tough question, but I would probably say Beethoven. He changed the entire game in so many ways, and he did much of it while he was stone deaf. Unparalleled.

Which artists do you usually listen to, or seek inspiration from?

I listen to all kinds of music, rarely classical music. This week, for instance, I’ve listened to: the soundtrack to Wall-E; NIN ghosts I-IV; Beck, Sea Change; the soundtrack to Noah; and Neutral Milk Hotel In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.

I’m not some music prodigy- I haven’t been singing since I was two or any of that. But since I’ve been involved in music, I’ve decided that this is what I want to do with my life (as far as my high school brain tells me so far.) My question is, how do you stay motivated in an environment where it seems like everyone is at some advantage? Do you ever get discouraged and how do you work past it? Maybe you can’t relate considering, you know, attractive genius and all.

I hear you. I’m not a prodigy either. I played by ear until I was 18, and couldn’t really read music until I was 20-21. I truly believe that my lack of training was a big advantage because I made choices in my early compositions that I never would have made had I ‘known what I was doing.’ Embrace your ignorance and write from your gut – soon enough you’ll be a polished composer and will long for the day when you weren’t educated.

You do a lot of work for vocal ensembles, but you have written some wonderful and unique pieces for winds as well. What are the challenges of writing for each? How do they compare in your mind?

I prefer writing for voices. The text has its own architecture, its own roadmap, and often times the best choral pieces are just getting out of the way of the poem and letting the words do all the heavy lifting. I also adore the sound of the human voice.

Band is fun to write for but HARD. Every time I write a band piece (and it has been a while) I feel like I am starting all over, like I know absolutely nothing about how to make that machine sing.

Who’s a film director you’d love to score for?

Paul Thomas Anderson. I would drop anything and everything if he ever contacted me.

What’s your dream creative project after you finish Deep Field?

I really want to write a book.

Why do you write music? How do people benefit from your music?

I write music because I have to. I would even if I didn’t make my living doing it, or even if no one but me was listening. I feel compelled to write music.

My unsolicited advice is to ignore those people who see it as a useless pursuit. They won’t understand until you are making a life out of it, and by then they will have become your biggest fans.

What instrument(s) do you play? Or if you you had an unbelievable amount of skill at any instrument, what would it be ?

I play piano, somewhat. I wish I could sing. I once heard Ned Rorem say that ‘the reason composers compose is because they can’t sing.’ I like that.

Does your son compose and sing?

My son has got the music gene, no question, but if I had to guess I would say he is going to go into stand-up comedy.

What got you into music?

I joined choir to meet girls (I was 18) and it changed my life forever. thank god for girls.

What’s it like living with a World Famous Soprano?

Hila (my wife) is the best musician I know – a total freak of nature with a photographic memory. (Really. She sings everything, no matter how difficult, from memory). It’s inspiring and intimidating, but she’s also my best critic.

In earlier versions of Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings, Exstasis and Logos were sister and brother. It was later changed to them being lovers. What was the thinking and reasoning behind that change? Was that option ever considered in earlier versions, and if so, why didn’t it start out that way?

When we first started writing Paradise Lost it was much closer to the source material, so the idea was that the angels were all brothers and sisters and “One” was their father. As we started rewriting we wanted to make the characters richer, and that is really tough to do if there is no romantic interest, especially in a musical. So we made the shift and never looked back.

What do you find to be the limiting factors in composing for band/orchestra and choir?

For me, there is nothing more challenging than writing for band. It is so hard to write soft, delicate music, and there is no set of instruments (well, maybe clarinets) that are all in the same family and make a homogenous sound from top to bottom (like voices or strings).

The virtual choirs are an amazing way to get people from all over the world singing together — seamlessly. Have you had any “wow” moments in putting those together, where the reality of what you were able to build exceeded your expectations?

Endless wow moments. So many beautiful faces, their eyes, their vulnerabilities, their honesty. One of my favorite things to do is to spend hours watching the individual submissions as they come in.

What are your thoughts on the future of music education in public schools?

I think we are about to see a massive sea-change and policy shift. The hard science showing the myriad benefits of music (including on academic performance) is just too strong to ignore.

What is your favourite piece of advice?

Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.

If you could spend a day doing whatever you wanted, what would you do?

That’s a good one. I would wake up (very late) somewhere beachy with my wife and son, then we would meet all our friends for breakfast. (Breakfast would be chilaquiles and cappuccinos). Then we would go down to the beach and throw a baseball around, laugh a lot. Long nap in the afternoon, big, fun dinner and then take my wife out dancing. Sigh…

What is the weirdest experience you’ve ever had with anything music-related?

Has to be this..

I was conducting a concert in Montreal and there was an EPIC rainstorm outside (we did Cloudburst later in the concert). Right as I give the final downbeat the lights went out. Hard to describe how magical the moment was.

Eric, are you aware how fabulous you are?