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Virtual and Reality: Q&A with Eric Whitacre

Barbara Schultz • April 2021FeaturesUpClose • April 7, 2021

Composer, conductor, and musician Eric Whitacre on the importance of musical connections

Composer and conductor Eric Whitacre’s music is performed by orchestras, ensembles, and choirs worldwide. His debut album as a conductor, Light and Gold (Universal) earned him a Grammy Award, and he collaborated with Hans Zimmer film music, including the score for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Whitacre is also considered the OG of Virtual Choir; his first piece came together in 2010, long before the pandemic forced a year of distance-teaching, -conducting, -playing, and -singing.

After creating a TED Talk on the lessons of his career, and of the Virtual Choir, Whitacre has also become an in-demand lecturer. In an announcement of his recent addition to the Yamaha’s artist roster, he said, “I’ve done over 250 master classes since the whole Covid crisis started…. I’m going to make a whole master class video series about the creative process. I’ll take 10 or 12 of my pieces; each one of them will get its own video, and I’ll break it down and talk about the construction and machinery that’s working within them and why I wrote them.”

Whitacre mainly composes in a room with just his Yamaha C3 grand—no electronics. He is enthusiastic about the connections musicians can make virtually, but he’s more than clear on the significance of real-life collaboration. Those who are finding it difficult to muster gratitude for Zoom at this point will discover needed inspiration from Whitacre’s stories as well as his music.

How did you start learning music, and when did it click for you that music would be important in your life?

I grew up in northern Nevada in tiny little towns. My dad worked for the state and every couple of years we traveled to a different small town. I don’t remember public school education as much as just having a piano that had been passed down from my grandmother. I would sit and pick out tunes. My parents tried to give me piano lessons but that never stuck.

When I was 12 or 13, in the early ‘80s, I became obsessed with computers. I also learned that there were bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream making music with computers, and I thought, this is the greatest thing I can imagine. By the time I was 14, I had one of the very first drumulators, an Ensoniq ESQ-1 with an 8-track sequencer, and a Juno 106.

I spent high school trying to play Depeche Mode or to write electronic soundtracks for films.

Eric Whitacre photo by Marc Royce

How did your interests begin to shift to classical music and choir?

When I was 18, I went to college at University of Nevada Las Vegas and I auditioned for a music scholarship. They said, “Would you play something from your repertoire?” I didn’t even know what the word repertoire meant. They asked, “What instruments do you play?” I said, “Keyboards.” They must have thought I meant piano and harpsichord. I sat at the piano and improvised something that probably sounded like late-’80s New Age. I didn’t get a scholarship.

But the choir director, David Weiller, heard me audition and had me sing for him, and he invited me to sing in the choir. At the very first choir rehearsal, we started singing the Requiem by Mozart. I’ve never been transformed the way I was in that rehearsal. I was standing in the middle of counterpoint and sophistication and elegance that I didn’t even know existed. From that day on, I was the world’s biggest choir geek.

Whitacre in rehearsal at Carnegie Hall with Distinguished Concerts International, New York

Who were the professors who helped you on your way in college?

The most important man in my life was David Weiller. He was beginning his second or third year there as choir director, and he’s still there thirty five years later. I wrote my first piece for him as a gift—a piece called “Go, Lovely Rose.” He not only got me composing, but also he suggested that I start conducting and even got me conducting summer stock theater in Cape Cod. I did that for seven summers.

I also wrote for the first time for concert band in Las Vegas, a piece called “Ghost Train.” I was 23, and the conductor there, Thomas Leslie, was also a massive influence. Looking back, I think I was lucky to go to a school where the music program wasn’t overly serious and stuffy. I did my master’s degree at Juilliard, and I often think, had I somehow gone to Juilliard when I was 18, I would have been destroyed.

If you were mentoring a student who aspired to attend a conservatory like Juilliard, what advice would you give?

I would say 99 percent of the time I would recommend younger students not going to a super-intense conservatory. That rare student who can do well in a place like Juilliard at a young age is that person where you’re guiding them, but you’re not what’s motivating them. Otherwise, I think it’s better to find a smaller school and a teacher whose music you love, whose methods you love, and go where you have room to grow.

Whitacre works with students at Georgia State University.

Were their particular teachers who were formative for you at Juilliard?

Two great teachers and one terrible teacher, who were an equally influential figure. My composition teacher, a man named John Corigliano, is the only composition teacher I ever had who wouldn’t tear apart my music. John taught me structure, and deep structure, which profoundly changed the way I compose and think about music.

Another great one was Mary Anthony Cox, who taught a class in ear training theory, but we called it “fear training.” She wasn’t mean, but you were going to do the work, period, and if you didn’t, you’d do it in front of class, even if it took half an hour to get through four bars. But like all great teachers, she was teaching way more than ear training theory. She was teaching performance and, frankly, life—how to make it through as a professional musician.

And then there was another teacher who was legendary for being cruel, and he essentially paralyzed me. He said some things that got into my head and effectively shut me down. I’m glad I experienced it, because eventually I steeled myself against that kind of thing. I now see that experience as a cautionary tale. The only compass you have is your own inner voice, especially when it comes to composition. That’s your North Star.

What were your plans, coming out of Juilliard with your master’s degree.

My plan was to move to Los Angeles and become a film composer, and for the first three years I was here, I tried to make that work. I tried to get an agent and meet directors. I went to parties and tried to make connections, but I couldn’t make anything happen. And meanwhile, I had to make a living, so I was taking every commission I could, and I was getting invited to conduct various places.

I wrote for mostly educational institutions: Brigham Young University, Northern Arizona University, University of Miami. I wrote a piece called “October” that has become a pretty popular band piece; it was commissioned by a consortium of 15 Nebraska high schools.

And I was conducting anywhere with anybody would have me. I’ve been to 48 of the 50 states now, and I did a few international dates, too. I had this idea that I was like an indie band, and I needed to collect a group of supporters, one person at a time.

Eventually you did get into film work. How did that come together?

I get asked all the time by composers, “How do you break into film music?” And my answer is, “You knock on doors for 10 years and nothing happens, and then you make a global Virtual Choir and Hans Zimmer calls you.” It sounds funny, but that’s what happened. He had seen the first Virtual Choir video, and he called me and said, “Do you want to come in and work on Pirates of the Caribbean 4?” It’s that phone call you wait for your whole life.

Hans is one of the most creative people I’ve ever been around. We sat with pianos facing each other, and within an hour or two we had our theme. Since then, he’s called me in for a couple of other projects. What’s funny is, film music is where I wanted to start, but now I’m grateful that it didn’t work out early on. The demands and the schedule are just brutal. It takes a specific kind of personality to write incredible music under impossible deadlines.

What was the genesis of the Virtual Choir?

Back in 2009, a friend sent me a YouTube video of a young woman named Britlin Losee. She was 17 and she was a fan. She was singing a piece of mine called “Sleep.” She played a CD and sang the soprano line over the top. She sent it out into the world, hoping it would find me. I was struck by the immediacy of her video, and the purity of her voice and her intention.

It gave me the idea that if I could get 25 people to do what Britlin was doing, as long as they sang in the same tempo and in the same key, it might work—we could create a virtual choir. It seemed like an interesting challenge—like building a little machine. It wasn’t until I saw the finished video of that first virtual choir and I saw the faces in their own little windows, all coming together to sing something beautiful that I was hit by the feeling I was part of something larger than myself. It was way bigger than I’d imagined. There was real poetry behind it.

How did the project grow?

I honestly didn’t assume anybody else would be interested. The only videos that would go viral back then were funny ones, like “Charlie bit my finger.” But it did go viral and it got picked up by international news organizations. Then because of the press, singers from around the world started writing to me, saying, “I have to be a part of this. What is the next one?”

Also around that time, I had taken on a new manager, Claire Long, and not only has she been a great manager, she has executive-produced every one of the Virtual Choir videos. She was able to put together resources to make it bigger. So, whereas the first one had 185 singers from 12 countries, the second one had 2,052 singers from 58 countries. Each time we pushed the limitations of the technology, not to make them bigger but to make them more accessible.

Over time, people started to join who normally couldn’t join in a choir: blind singers or deaf signers, or in this latest one, we had over two dozen singers with cystic fibrosis. Because of their disease, they can never be in the same room with other cystic fibrosis sufferers, but they can sing together virtually. Our thrust became inclusion, which I think is the glory of choirs in general.

What do you think now in terms of how prophetic it was to create this kind of collaboration?

I think it’s beautiful because it can connect and unite people and, ultimately, as I said before, give people that sense that they are part of something larger than themselves. However, I have to say, I have been contacted by many choir, band, and orchestra directors that have been working virtually, and now their institution’s administration is saying, “This is fantastic. Even when we’re through the pandemic, we won’t have to meet for choir anymore. We can do it all virtually.”

Virtual Choir has its virtues, but it will never replace an actual choir. I worry, because we were already in this place where districts have been cutting music from schools, and we’re seeing the first generation of politicians and administrators who never experienced making music together when they were young. They have no idea of the essential value of it.

On the flip side of “virtual,” your website says that you’re scheduled to conduct at Carnegie Hall this coming November. How will it feel for you to get out there again?

The epidemic has been profoundly isolating. I feel like we’ve each carried a piano around on our back that we haven’t even acknowledged. I’m quite certain that the moment I stand there safely and raise my arms for that first breath, I’m going to lose it. Till then I just imagine that first time when I can come back together with a group of people to make music, and I truly ache for it.

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