Musical Gesture and Musical Sound: An Interview with Eric Whitacre



Composer and conductor Eric Whitacre (b. 1970) has an international following and makes appearances around the world (and on the internet) conducting choirs and bringing the modern choral sound to people who didn’t know they liked choral music.

We’re looking forward to his upcoming late summer concerts in Hong Kong in August, Jacksonville, Florida, in September, and Los Angeles in December before his 2017 visits to Belgium, The Netherlands, Wales, and England.

It’s wonderful to see a contemporary composer with such a following. It’s also great to hear a composer who has managed to incorporate advanced harmonies and dissonance as part of his compositional toolkit. What could you tell us about how you hear and how you compose?

I spend a lot of time with a piece before I ever commit it to paper but once I start, it’s always with a pencil and manuscript paper. The best way to describe the process is that I try to find sounds that exactly match the emotional journey that I want to take the listener on through the music.

Your choral compositions seem to go much further into experiment than is the norm. In a work such as Cloudburst, where the choir seems to hang on those first chords and then the finger snapping at the end to make the sound of the rain on the ground, you seem to have changed the whole sonic work in which singers could work. How did you discover those sounds and are there sounds you’re still developing?

Every one of the extra-musical sounds in pieces such as Cloudburst or Deep Field is rooted in the piece itself. The sounds are not present for the sake of adding a sound – they are an organic extension of the creative idea behind the piece.


How do you discover the poetry that you set to music? It runs over a tremendous time span from 13th century writers such as Rumi to the 19th century Emily Dickinson through e.e. cummings and internationally to Lorca and Paz. Is there something you find in this variety of poets and time periods that is ‘chorally’ perfect?

The text is the core of the music. For me, everything flows from the poetry or text and then I create music that embodies the spirit of the words.

How did you begin working with Charles Anthony Silvestri?

Tony has been a close friend for years – both personally and musically. He’s put up with the most sublime of requests from me and always does so with a good heart. The tables have turned with our most recent project for which I’m writing the text and he’s writing the music.

To turn towards your instrumental music – do you work differently on or think differently about your instrumental pieces than your choral pieces?

Absolutely. A choral piece always starts with the text. I take a poem and try to find the music that is hidden within it. The music illuminates the text and the poetry is the architecture of the piece. With an orchestral or instrumental piece, I generally turn to the natural world for structure – the Fibonacci sequence or perfect structures, such as the wings of insects or vertebrae, and paint these with musical gestures.

The River Cam
Your Virtual Choir was a groundbreaking use of technology – what can you tell us about this?

The process of creating a Virtual Choir is never quick but always SO worth it. The most recent incarnation, Virtual Choir 4, featured 8,505 singers from 101 countries and each of these videos that were submitted was included in the film creative & film. The ethos of the Virtual Choir is that singers of any ability or experience can join and that every video is used. The only exception is those that don’t meet the technical standards.

Virtual Choir 4: Fly to Paradise

How do you prepare for a concert?

Well, I can tell you that my wife (Hila Plitmann, soprano soloist and undoubtedly the greater musicologist of the two of us) has a completely rigid routine. She needs to be quiet for 4 hours before a concert begins. Two hours before she will eat two bananas, then she starts her stretches .. there’s no talking – total focus. I am the absolute opposite. I’ll arrive as late as possible and be chatting with other artists, venue staff and passers-by until someone directs me to the concert platform.

Do you find any audible differences among the choirs you conduct in different countries? Does the Flemish Radio Choir have a different sound than the BBC Singers?

The key thing is vowel colour. You can tell, instantly, where a choir is from just by listening to their vowels.

When you’re not composing, conducting, or on a speaking engagement, what do you do with your free time?

I love spending time with my family whether it’s at a ball game or down at the beach. Family time is THE most important time.

Official Website

Eric Whitacre will be performing in Hong Kong on August 19th and 20th 2016.

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