Paradise Lost: An Interview with Eric Whitacre

Grammy-winning composer Eric Whitacre has had number one albums in both the UK and US, and launched the ‘Virtual Choir’ project which has over 15 million views on YouTube. Following his appearance at the Oxford Union, I spoke to him about his work, genre boundaries between pop and classical music, and the relationship between technology and composition.

Your choral works are known for their chord clusters and expansive, transcendental soundworlds. How do you ensure that these sonic hallmarks do not lead to homogeneity?

That’s a good question. I’m not sure I am ensuring that. Ultimately, the clusters are not a musical construct for me; they’re not something that I’m intentionally doing. I’m certainly not trying to be the ‘cluster guy’. They’re reflections of who I am: my personality and my emotions. Lately what I’ve been trying to do is broaden myself instead of just broadening the music. The more I broaden, the scope of the chords changes.

How exactly are you broadening yourself?

I’m at this odd time in my life. I’m 45 years old and I have a boy who is 10. We’ve been living in England for five years and we’re about to move back to Los Angeles in a month, so it feels transitional. What I’m trying to do is find my roots again. The past ten years or so has been, professionally, a whirlwind, but within this whirlwind I feel that I’ve been scattered and flattened, and I’m just trying to find the core again. I’ve turned back to transcendental meditation, I’m trying to eat healthily, I’m reading a lot for the first time in a while, and I’m being fascinated again. For a long time I was just producing, and I feel that now I’m starting to refill my cup, so that I can find those new dimensions of my own personality.

You say you’re reading a lot more – what’s currently on the bookshelf?

When I was in high school I was obsessed with Physics, and lately I’ve been reading a lot of Richard Feynman, Brian Crane, and even the Kip Thorne book about the science of Interstellar. I find myself endlessly fascinated by Maths and Physics.

A lot of people say that there is a connection between mathematics and music. Would you agree?

Absolutely. There is this inherent, deep, beautiful structure in both music and mathematics that seems to me to reflect the general laws of our universe, so I feel that when the music is really, truly working, it is because it is somehow adhering to these basic laws that the universe is built on, in exactly the way that mathematics does.

Readers from the UK may be unaware, or at least less aware, of your more amusing works, which include Ghost Train Triptych, Animal Crackers, and Godzilla Eats Las Vegas. Do you feel that there is a tension between these and your more ‘spiritual’ pieces?

For me, they’re different parts of my personality. On social media I spend a lot of time being stupid – dumb memes, ridiculous jokes. When I’m comfortable with my friends I’m goofy, and I feel that those pieces really reflect that. The tension comes in the classical world itself. It’s a pretty stuffy lot, so anytime you do something outside of the box, nobody knows what to do with it: Is it pops? Is it supposed to be funny? Who are you writing this for? For me it’s natural; I’d like to write more funny music. It’s hard to write something serious and beautiful, but it’s even harder to write something funny. You’re either funny or you’re not, and the audience tells you everything.

You’re very active on social media, and your Virtual Choir project was inspired by a YouTube video. How do you think online music will continue to develop?

I think that the next great frontier – and I think we’re close to it – is the ability to connect with people in real time, when the bandwidth is fast enough that two or more musicians can interact without feeling that separation. Somebody somewhere is going to come up with an incredibly clever way of accounting for that, and once that happens I think that the world explodes musically; a string quartet will be able to get together across the world. Beyond that, it seems to me that every day I see some project that is more ambitious and spectacular than the last.

You’ve spoken in detail in Gramophone magazine about your enthusiasm for British choirs. How do you feel that they fundamentally differ from the choirs of other countries?

In my experience, the first thing is the sound production. There is a clear, straight tone that is a hallmark of British choirs, especially the women, that is paradise. When you create a cluster chord you can hear every note; it creates a true shimmer, you get a cloud of overtones. Second, professional British singers are, I think, the best sight-readers in the world. And third, there is this singing tradition that just seems to be in the DNA of the singers here.

The boundary between classical music and other genres is becoming increasingly fluid. Your musical theatre work Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings mixes operatic choral music with trance and techno, for example. Do you think it’s still useful to refer to such a piece as ‘classical’?

No. I’m not sure that classical music as a genre title is helpful at all. It turns off a lot of people, and it upsets a lot of people who are expecting Bach. For me, I’d be fine not giving titles to any of these things. I guess you could call it ‘concert music’. Paradise Lost is definitely a musical. Ideally, genres will continue to blur.

You’ve frequently stated that you wish to become the fifth member of Depeche Mode. Do you feel that there is an expectation for classical composers to speak more about other classical influences than influences taken from elsewhere?

Absolutely, and I really hope that dies away quickly. It’s holding a lot of people back. Now more than ever there are composers who, on their iPhones listen to a span of music, but they’re unable or afraid to say that they draw inspiration from, say, film music or pop music. I think that I came to classical music late enough that I don’t care.

Do you think that you have to grow up with classical music in order to be a successful classical composer?

For a performer, it certainly helps. I can’t imagine having picked up the ’cello at age eighteen and made a career about it. But for a composer, or even a conductor, I would argue that there can even be a strength in coming to classical music late. At least for me, because I was quite naïve in the ways that things were done and ought to be done, I ended up making some mistakes that became the hallmark of what I do, and maybe made for a slightly different sound from what was being made around me. As far as being a composer, I think you can start any time you like, knowing that you have to go into it headfirst, and that you’re going to have to take some punches.

What kind of mistakes do you have in mind?

Early on, most of the things that I wrote were not remotely contrapuntal, and I remember being criticised for this by other composers and teachers. It was almost as if counterpoint was a means to an end, and it didn’t make sense to me. Now that I’ve grown, I see counterpoint for what it is; when done right, it’s maybe the most exalted form of music-making there is. I look at Bach, maybe four- or five-part counterpoint, and I can’t believe the complexity and the level of genius to make that happen. Had I known, or even thought for a moment, ‘Oh God, I don’t know enough about this to make a coherent piece of music,’ I think I would have been in big trouble. Instead, I just wrote what I wanted to hear, and it seemed to work out okay!

John Wadsworth

For more information about Eric Whitacre, please visit his website. His full address at the Oxford Union can be viewed here.

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