5 Takeaways from an Evening with Eric Whitacre

Eric Whitacre 3a high res Credit - Marc Royce

5. Dinkelspiel Basement is a terrible event venue.

Last Tuesday, I walked into Dink’s basement at exactly 7:00 PM. The talk by Eric Whitacre hadn’t been well-publicized; in fact, it hadn’t been publicized to the student body at all, and I only heard about it through word-of-mouth the day before.

Still, the room was almost full, and considering what we were all waiting for—one of the greatest contemporary composers of choral music, Grammy-award winner, organizer of the Virtual Choir—this wasn’t surprising. Whitacre is a well-known figure in the classical music world. He’s famous for his haunting, unusual harmonies in choral arrangements such as “Sleep” and “Cloudburst,” as well as symphony and band pieces such as “Equus.” (If you’re interested in music and haven’t heard these pieces, I highly recommend them—one of the other great things about Whitacre is that he’s Internet-savvy, and most of his works are available on Spotify.) He’s an inspiration to the many participants of his Virtual Choirs, several of whom were in the audience with me. He’s practically a demigod to choral singers across the country, and many out of the country.  In other words, he’s absolutely brilliant.

He was also not there. After ten minutes, one of the event organizers walked to the middle of the room and apologized, saying that our guest was lost, but on his way. Unfortunately for Whitacre, brilliant musical talent hadn’t prepared him for the sprawling maze that is Stanford’s campus.

Fortunately for us, he walked in through a side door at fifteen minutes past seven, looking sheepish. “Sorry, guys,” he said. “It took me forever to find this place.” Collective laughter, and then applause.

4. If you can’t do math, do music.

As it turns out, Eric Whitacre also has a sense of humor. The session opened as a free-for-all Q&A, where he invited anyone to ask him anything. After a bit of nervous silence, a student launched straight into the heart of the discussion: “Why music?”

“Well,” Whitacre said after a pause, “I don’t think I could do anything else.” He said this earnestly, fully believing it. After college, he tried numerous professions before realizing that he wanted to pursue music professionally. In fact, he didn’t learn to read music until he was 20, after he’d gone to his very first choral rehearsal at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and fallen in love with classical music.

“I tried other jobs that weren’t music, and failed at all of them. That’s when I realized–I better figure out how to use this to make a living, or I’m screwed.”

3. There’s beauty in everything.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a composer as innovative as Whitacre listens to video game soundtracks and FKA Twigs, but somehow, it is. For someone who’s often lauded as the savior of classical music, which some fear is undergoing a decline in popularity in the modern age, Whitacre is rather blasé about genre. When he first started doing music, he thought he was going to be “an ‘80s punk rocker.” (If you’ve seen pictures of him, it shows.)

eric whitacre

“Genres gone,” he said. “There’s just good music and not good music.”

He also draws his inspiration, he said, from everything around him, everything that interests him. In fact, he’s currently working on a piece for the Minnesota orchestra that combines smartphone app technology with galaxy images from the Hubble Telescope.

The top spot on his playlist, however, is still occupied by classical music. “If you’ve ever listened to ‘Passio,’ arranged by Arvo Pärt—raise your hand if you’ve heard of it?”

I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t raise my hand.

“Well, you should. It’s a beautiful piece, just gorgeous. Actually, you should listen to it, and let me know what you think—post it on Facebook.”

(To my disappointment, this was directed not at me, but at the lucky student who’d asked for his musical recommendations.)

As for his responsibility to revitalizing classical music as a genre: it’s a burden that he’s very aware of. The answer, he says, may lay in technology. Whitacre is well-known for incorporating technological innovations in projects such as the aforementioned Virtual Choirs, where hundreds of people submit recordings of themselves singing his music and he edits them together to form a harmonious performance.

On the other hand, he firmly believes all we need to do to garner more interest is put people in a room and force them to listen to a piece from beginning to end. Perhaps that’s a bit of an optimistic view, but what else can you expect from a man who thinks in music?

2. Composition is communication.

“I really want to communicate with my audience,” Whitacre said, when asked about his creative process. “It’s not a monologue where I rhapsodize and everyone basks in the glory of my opinion–” [audience laughter here] “–it’s a dialogue–and even more than that, it’s a communion. We’re all in this together.”

Whitacre’s entire composition style is based on this idea. “I try to think of what journey I want the audience to go on,” he said. “I follow the emotional architecture of the piece.” And then, he said, he simplifies. “I always try to do fancy stuff,” he said. “But the simplest solution always wins. I think, ‘what is the fewest number of notes that it takes to convey this idea or this emotion?’”

Another takeaway: everyone procrastinates, even award-winning composers. Use that excuse the next time you put off studying for that Math 51 midterm.

“Everything I write later is going to be better than what I write now,” Whitacre said with a laugh. “If I didn’t set myself a deadline, force myself to turn something in on time, I’d never get anything done.”

But unlike some Math 51 students, Whitacre checks the urge to procrastinate with his sense of responsibility to his audience. For “Deep Field,” he called up the performance orchestra and told them he’d send them the finished piece in the spring. “I’m sabotaging myself,” he admitted. “I don’t know exactly what it is yet, but they’re going to have to play something.” He said this a bit wistfully, almost as if his mind was already in Minnesota composing a piece for an audience who was thousands of miles away.

1. Persistence Pays.

Whitacre is no stranger to failure. Although he’d found what so many of us seek–that “eureka!” moment, that moment when things fall in place and your passion becomes as necessary as oxygen—and ultimately followed it through, his journey to success was rocky. “I’ve entered over 100 composition competitions and never won any of them,” he said. “I do this thing I call ‘fishing’—you throw things out here and there and hope something bites.”

Jokingly, he added, “And if you don’t get anything, well, that’s not your fault. It’s just that the fish aren’t biting.”

He then told a story from his music student days, about trying to get his work performed by the famous Gregg Smith Singers of New York. “The first time I called, his wife answered the phone and said, ‘oh, he only takes calls on Mondays,’” Whitacre said. “So I called back the next Monday.” Smith wasn’t there. “So I called again, and again, and again–I had this calendar and I marked down every Monday when I would call. I called for fifteen Mondays in a row! Finally they did perform one of my pieces–I think they were just tired of me calling every week.”

This tenacity underlies Whitacre’s musical career–a career that spans over 50 compositions, 24 years, 4 Virtual Choirs, and (most importantly) 17,071 Spotify followers–and it’s clear that it’s paid off, but he refuses to get complacent. “I just keep banging my head against the wall,” he said with a laugh. “In the end, either your head’s gonna break, or the wall’s gonna open.”


Photo credit: Marc Royce


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