Ahead of our feast of orchestral and choral works with composer Eric Whitacre on Wednesday 31 May at the Royal Albert Hall, journalist Hannah Nepil uncovers the Grammy Award-winner's musical style and preparations for his new work.
Skyping from his Los Angeles home at some ungodly hour in the morning, Eric Whitacre immediately turns his smooth charm on full beam. “Why don’t you start by telling me about you?” he says, flashing his Colgate smile. It takes a while to bring the composer-conductor round to the more pressing topic: his upcoming gala performance, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
But when the topic comes, he is just as forthcoming. The concert, which includes a world premiere and other works by Whitacre, takes place at the Royal Albert Hall, and he wastes no time in launching into a colourful analysis of the venue. “I’ve done two Proms there now, but I’m always struck by the grandeur of the Hall. It plays to extremes: middle of the road [music] doesn’t work there. Either the audience has to be dragged on the stage by their lapels or they have to be hit over the head by a hammer.”
The odds are his works won’t be quite so violent. At 47, Whitacre is one of the most popular musicians in the world, thanks to his accessible and infectious musical style, his charisma and his innovative approach to music-making. In 2010, he founded the Virtual Choir, an online ensemble of musicians who individually upload videos of themselves singing from locations all over the world. And at his concert in May, the audience will be invited to activate a mobile phone app, designed to enhance their concert experience.
“The idea for the app came while I was sitting in a concert and they made the usual announcement, asking us to turn off our mobile phones. I always automatically question authority, so I found myself thinking, ‘why are we turning these phones off? Wouldn’t it be better to use them instead?’”
Growing up in rural Nevada, Eric Whitacre took a while to find his niche. He played brass instruments by ear in his school marching band, and wrote “hundreds” of songs as part of a pop band. For a long time he was convinced that he was going to be a pop musician. “Then I went to university and joined the choir to meet girls, and that changed everything: I discovered there was this whole new world of classical music that I had to be part of. I became obsessed.”
So it’s no wonder that Whitacre’s compositions are hard to categorise. “A lot of my classical music has a pop sensibility. And there’s one thing I do shamelessly: if I find a chord by, say Benjamin Britten or Ravel, and I think it captures a certain emotional depth, then I’ll try to incorporate it into my journey,” he says. “I always felt I could go from Bach to Björk to The Beatles and back without any sense of irony.”
Does he strive for originality? His answer is measured: “Sometimes when you stick all these strange influences into a stew, you end up with something new, just because of the way the stew has been mixed. But I’ve never once woken up and thought to myself, ‘this morning, my music will be original.’ Instead I think, ‘this morning, it has to be true, it has to be authentic.’”
Whitacre speaks almost like a missionary. Yet there is nothing purposefully evangelical about his music. “Never once did it occur to me that composing would be a vehicle to gain an audience for classical music.” Nor are his works in any way religious, despite being frequently described as “spiritual”. Whitacre says: “I’m not a Christian. If I had to take a label I’d think of myself as a scientist or a sceptic.”
What, then, inspires him? “When I’m composing, I imagine the group that I’m writing for. In my head I put myself on the podium, I imagine what the musicians’ faces look like and I try to write for their characters.” His latest piece, which will be premiered at the concert in May, is a prime example. When we speak, Whitacre doesn’t yet know what it will be called, or indeed exactly how it will sound. But he does know that that it will contain the “DNA” of the orchestra: “Because I’ve worked with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra before and have talked to the players, I have actual faces in my mind, so I’m drawing from an energy that is very specific to them.”
Written by Hannah Nepil
Eric Whitacre: World Premiere at the Royal Albert Hall
Want to know more about Eric Whitacre's new work? In clip one of A Conversation with Eric Whitacre, Eric Whitacre discusses Bachianus Americanus, which will be premiered at the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday 31 May.