Eric Whitacre is a Grammy-winning American composer and conductor, known for his choral, orchestral and wind ensemble music. He is also known for his "Virtual Choir" projects, bringing individual voices from around the globe together into an online choir.
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Hey gang, taking a break from writing Deep Field, my new work for chorus, orchestra and electronics. Happy to have your company.
EDIT: OK gang, been going for three and a half hours. Going to take a break and go back to composing for a bit. I'll answer more questions tonight and tomorrow. Man I love Reddit. THANK YOU.
EDIT 2: All right, answered another 100 questions. I'll keep going tomorrow. I'm humbled by your questions, even the ones about my hair.
BTW, for those of you genuinely interested in how I style my hair, [here's the secret.] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FnAV1XbfKE)
Is Lux Aurumque about your hair?
a) That made me laugh, and b) love that username.
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.
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 know a whole lot of trombone players that would be very interested in this possibility.
P.S. I've loved your music since playing October in High School band :)
I adore trombones - not just the instrument but the whole trombone lifestyle. Would love to write some things for trombone choir.
Have you considered a collaboration with Frank Ticheli?
He's a very close friend. Would be fun to write something with him.
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.
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 5ths if you want to sound like you are writing in 1750.
Eric. I grew up in the city. I was lucky enough to live close to a grass area which offered a dark patch at winter evenings. Here I wrapped myself in the winter darkness and looked up on the stars. The dreams and possibilities they offered were magnificent and never failed to lift me from the machinery of the everyday life in the city. Nothing was impossible out there. For instance; one evening when I was gazing up to the stars after a day of silent snowfall it hit me. The crystal cold snowflakes that glittered around me, they were stars fallen from the frozen black skies above. How wonderful to be surrounded by stars and planets; every snowflake a world of unexplored dreams and possibilities. As I grew up the stargazing went into slumber, as did the magical feeling.
Our daughter is three months old and The Seal Lullaby is the soundtrack of her life. I wanted to choose one song that I play for her through her lifes amazing moments; from the womb 'til the first snow or first shooting star.
As I look into my childs eyes of wonder, with The Seal Lullaby in the background, I get that feeling from my childhood in my heart again. It reaches deep down and massages parts of my heart that needed resuscitation.
My question is: do you have a favourite song that touches you deeper than most and never seem to loose its potency?
Thank you for everything.
My god you write beautifully.
There are so many songs that hit me like that, but the one that always make me reflective is [this one.] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ducG55pfCMQ) The lyrics, the way he sings it, the way he loathes and loves being an outsider - hits me in the heart every time.
Hello! I just had a couple of pretty random questions
1) Are there any real plans yet for your rumored collaboration with Pentatonix?
2) 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?
Thank you and I can't wait to listen what you release next.
1) We desperately want to do something together, it's just finding time in the schedules.
2) 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.
First, I must thank you for some of your second alto parts. It's pretty rare that we get to use our actual range, but your music lets us altos create some actual music beyond the same note over and over again.
Since you are one of my favorite composers, I have to know: who are your favorite composers?
Good day, Mr Whitacre!
Huge fan of you and your music, especially "Ghost Train" and "Alleluia." :)
Two quick things if you don't mind. XD
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?
How likely is it that you could come and do something in the Atlanta area?
1) 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.
2) We are working on an Atlanta thing for October. Woo hoo!
I teach middle school choir in Texas, so I spend a lot of time with 6th grade boys. We spend a portion of every Friday rehearsal watching a video of something choral-music-related, and they're big fans of your virtual choirs ("Can we watch the guy floating around and conducting the videos again?!?!!")
Anyway, I would be remiss if I didn't ask these questions: What's your favorite super hero, and can we challenge you to a game of lines-and-spaces trashketball the next time you're in Dallas?
Deadpool is my current favorite. (I have a nine year-old son who is a Deadpool fanatic). Will absolutely play trashketball with y'all if I come to Dallas.
Hi, huge fan of your work. I remember first being introduced to your work by working "Sleep" sophomore year of high school for TMEA All-State auditions. In two weeks I have my university audition for Stephen F Austin as a transfer student. Any Advice?
Just be yourself. Don't worry about impressing them - just be authentic. THAT is what shines through. Good luck!
Eric, you are the man. If I start a techno-pop band will you play the synth and wear funky glasses?
I've got a case of Aqua-net waiting in the wings.
Not sure if you've answered this elsewhere: are you a synesthete? If yes, do you call upon it when composing?
(My synesthesia associates music with texture, and your pieces are BEAUTIFUL to listen to/visualise. Not that they wouldn't be without it, but it gives it another dimension.)
Texture would be cool.
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.
Would you rather have fingers as long as your legs, or legs as long as your fingers?
Oh man, can you imagine what you could do with leg-long fingers? (Sounds like an e.e. cummings poem, actually).
Mr Whitacre! Huge fan!
My question is, in your opinion, 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? or what new genres do you think will exist?
Also, how do you keep your hair looking so awesome?
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.
Compared to other progressions, where do power chords progressions rank?
I-V-vi-IV is the sound of my soul.
Hello! I am currently part of a senior wind ensemble near Toronto, and last year we played October. We completely BUTCHERED it. So this year we're playing Lux. Any tips to you know... Not butcher this one?
LOL! In a lot of ways Lux is more difficult than October so if I were you I would just stand up in the middle of it and start screaming and throwing shoes. If you are going down you might as well go down IN FLAMES.
To tag along on this question, maybe something for brass quintet or brass choir as well? :)
Do you remember conducting your three biggest fans? I'm the gal. Was after the amazing show with Laura Mvula. I'm such a huge fan of both you & Laura.
And a question - what inspires you the most when writing music?
The deadline. Nothing inspires like a deadline.
And yes, of course I remember you three!
What are your thoughts on how people reacted to your obviously facetious tweet regarding Paul McCartney in that Kanye song? The media latched onto it and all of the retweets as a bunch of ignorant nonsense when in reality they were the ones not getting the joke!
One of the best laughs I've had in a long time.
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.
When's the next virtual chorus coming out?
Not sure yet - exploring lots of ideas to make the next one special and different.
What tips do you have for someone trying to write their own music? I'm thinking in terms of your techniques for ideation. How do you keep your music consistent in its outlook- that's my real problem...!
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...
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...
Have you ever accidentally dropped something on you key board and used the resulting chord in a song?
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.
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.
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.
Hiya! Caitlin here. From FB. Cause that totally matters.
BUT! How do you go about auditioning members for the Eric Whitacre singers? And when do you audition more, if you do? :)
Hey Caitlin. 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...
Hi Mr. Whitacre!
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? Thanks for this awesome opportunity by the way, you really are one of a kind in your fan interaction :D
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.
Die Antwoord? Really? I just somehow don't see your styles meshing very well.
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...
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?
While you're here, I just wanted to tell you that “When David Heard” is the most moving and powerful thing I’ve ever heard. Thank you for writing it.
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.
Eric, just want to say that you are my favorite composer! What is your favorite piece to conduct?
Thank you. 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.
Perhaps you need to grow more as a person, or perhaps you're perfect just as you are.
I think my wife might have a few words about that...
How would you feel about writing more pieces for Wind Ensemble? I am a euphonium player so it's my only option in terms of playing opportunities in large ensembles and I have been looking forward to more works since I have played October and Ghost Train.
Thank you for the AMA!
I just need an idea for a piece. As soon as one hits me I'm all over a new band work.
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.
Hey Mr. Whitacre! I have a question about an instrument- how do you feel about the bassoon, and what role do you like to give it in your music? I'm having a lot of fun playing October on bassoon, but I've read the scores for Ghost Train and Equus- both fantastic pieces, but let's just say I'm glad that it's October that we're playing and not one of those two. ;)
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 writing process like? Do you use software or are you still old fashioned with only pencil, paper and a piano? I know you're pretty techy so I'm curious as to how technology plays into the life of a professional composer.
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.
Hey Eric! Can you help me convince my symphonic band director to let us play Godzilla Eats Las Vegas for my final concert next year?
Absolutely. Tell him that if he agrees to do it I'll Skype with your band.
Hello Mr. Whitacre.
1.) How do you think the process of composing has changed over years both in the notation and scoring and the sound of the finished piece?
2.) Do you like Sriracha?
1) Not sure if you mean in general or for my own music. For my own music, it's weird how very little has changed. I still use pencil and paper, still use the same analogue synth sounds or piano to write. I think my technique is a little more polished than when I first began, but only a little.
2) I think you know how I feel about Sriracha.
Hey Eric, big choir geek here! I've posted on your FB page a few times and been to one of your concerts, and must say it was even more amazing than when I met the Dalai Lama! :P
I must ask, 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.
Without giving out too much personal information, my choral director is Bob from the US Midwest (I can PM you his last name if this doesn't ring any bells). Being the fun-loving, sarcastic guy he is, he loves to rub in the faces of all his students the fact that he knows you well. When you want to take a break from answering legitimate questions about all your great music, would you mind making some sort of funny statement about Bob, such as, "Bob is a big goober."? I'd very much appreciate it, and thanks for doing this AMA!
Ha! I know exactly who you are talking about. Tell Bob I'm still trying to recover from the Butter Burger I had last time I visited...
What is your favorite guilty pleasure music?
Eric - 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 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.
When I was in band in High School, we played Lux Aurumque. Absolute favorite song we ever got to play. Just wanted to say you're an awesome composer and I love seeing you Facebook posts!
My question is one horse sized duck or one hundred duck sized horses?
I have this argument all the time with my son, who insists on one horse sized duck. But my thing is: that horse sized duck is goin' to chomp your frickin' head off with his huge, grotesque beak. But a bunch of little horses running around? It'll be like penalty kick practice.
Hello Mr. Whitacre I'm a music education student and in my music theory classes we are always learning the rules of music theory and music composition. Our instructor always says "this is the one rule that (insert composer here) would never break"
Are there any "rules" taught in a classroom that you just refuse to break?
No, I would eagerly break them all. That being said, I'm a big fan of good voice-leading...
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.'
And follow up question, if you see this: will we be seeing you at the ACDA convention in SLC this year?
Sadly I won't be at ACDA. I've really got to finish this piece I'm working on...
Thank you so much for acknowledging the accessible nature of the music. I work very hard to make sure the music is performable. I do get some pushback from academic institutions but what are you gonna do, you know? Haters gonna hate.
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 were your first words when you found out that The Seal Lullaby was rejected to make Kung Fu Panda?
I was kind of relieved because I wasn't sure I had written The Seal Lullaby very well. It was only after singing it to my infant son for a year that I started to think, "you know, this might make a nice choral piece."
Mr. Whitacre, thank you for all you have done for the choral and instrumental world!
Which piece of instrumental music, written by another composer, is your favorite?
Oh god that's hard. The Ravel string quartet. Prokofiev 5. Britten Four Sea Interludes. Soooooo many.
Any updates on Paradise Lost? I've been dying without your demos on SoundCloud. Would love to be a part of seeing a US production.
Ahhh... it's taken a few twists and turns. We are currently trying to lock down a full production, but we might go ahead and make the album first. Music theatre is insane...
I meant what I said a while back about that coffee-table book of your photos. There is such clear connectedness between your music and your photo eye. It's like gifting your audience a glimpse of your obvious 'musico-natura-architect' synesthesia.
What would it take to get a book started?
How do I get on board? 😊
That means the world to me, Sarah. Let's look into that...
Hi Eric, I love your work. October is my absolute favorite piece of music for concert band. Do you have any favorite composers? Also, if Beethoven were alive today, what kind of music would he be composing?
So many favorite composers - I listed some in another response, but lately I've been listening to a lot of Ligeti.
Fortunately, [we already know what Beethoven would be writing today.] (http://youtu.be/N2a3nbTrO_c?t=2m22s)
Hi from VC Friends! My question is what's going on with Paradise Lost? Is there an opening date yet? Any plans to bring it to the US?
We are working on it. Big meeting tomorrow. I swear on my right hand that this show is going to one day come to life!
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.
Great to see you on here! Do any of your pieces come in 3 part? Have you considered writing for SAB more? I am in a small church choir, but would love to do some of your music!
Thank you. I would really like to write something for SAB, just haven't figured out how to make it work yet. Promise I will one day.
What is your favorite type of group to write for, and what is your dream group to write for?
Also, your music is amazing!
These days I LOVE writing for strings. They can do anything. I would one day love to write a proper string quartet...
Hello! 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.
Hi Eric, how's it going?
So, two questions, one short and one not so short.
What's your biggest professional worry these days?
And my real question that I've asked Hans Zimmer and Ramin Djawadi on their AMAs, but to no avail (don't fail me now, internet!) - when you worked on the Pirates film score with Zimmer, did you work with whatever singers you were alloted by the powers that be, or did you have some latitude in selecting the musicians you wanted?
The reason I ask, is that I'm aspiring to be a professional choral musician, with the likes of The Sixteen, Chanticleer, etc, and I also have an enormous love for movies and movie scores; one of the notches on my professional bedpost is to sing on a movie score like yours, or a suitably grand and epic Star Wars score or the like. I've taken part in a live orchestral performance of Lord of The Rings, but to get in on the ground floor, and be a part of the real recording is a dream I'd love to fulfill. With that in mind, I'd love to know if there are go-to session musician ensembles used in the industry, or if ye contact a choir that you've always liked the sound of, or what's the story? I need to know what ensembles I need to join, and what strings I have to pull and composers to shamelessly flatter/bribe/blackmail.
Oh, and also a note - When we used sing When David Heard back in college, we used suffer an unusual problem (the basses at least) with the repeated double forte high c "My Son" from bar 151 onwards, we used pour all of our guts in to it, and it sounded bloody magnificent, but in pulling back suitably for the quieter end, we suffered a rather unique issue - our hearts were beating with such a fervour from the ff section that it caused our voices to jump in time, and we couldn't really control it during the piano original motif from bar 195, to the extent that we'd nearly be singing "Whehehehen Dayayayayvid hererererd."
Anyway, Keep 'er lit.
I am not a crackpot.
With Pirates they had already contracted it, in London. If you want to break into that business (and it is a good one) I would suggest living in LA, Seattle or London, and doing everything you can to meet and impress the contractors. They are the gate keepers.
BTW, that Pirates session was of the craziest days of my life. I gave my first TED talk (the one about the Virtual Choir) then walked immediately out of the hall and got in a car to the airport. (I met Peter Gabriel on the way out, one of the highlights of my life). 14 hours later I arrive at Abbey Road in London, record Pirates for six hours, then back on a plane to LA. Door to door to door in less than 36 hours. Surreal.
Hello, Eric Whitacre! 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.
Some boring questions for you!
-Who would you say was the most important composer in musical history?
-What composer (pre-20th century) would you say has had the largest impact on your life as a composer?
1) 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.
2) Hmm... probably Thomas Tallis, or possibly Monteverdi.