Photos by Marc Royce.
Eric Whitacre is proof that there are advantages to breaking some rules – his path to becoming one of the most venerable choral composers has been anything but routine. Maybe that’s one reason his upcoming collaboration with the Dallas Winds – known for their eclectic repertoire and witty, sometimes unconventional concert themes – is a perfect fit. They both take the music seriously, but without pretense. As it turns out, the self-proclaimed “choir geek” has a rebellious streak: He was kicked out of marching band in high school and confesses that he joined choir in college to meet girls. (Which obviously worked out for him, eventually wedding soprano superstar Hila Plitmann.) But long before becoming a Grammy award-winner with a growing list of accolades, Whitacre’s earliest experimentation in composing began with writing for wind ensemble in college. Things come full circle for him March 22nd when the Dallas Winds welcome him to the Meyerson Symphony Center for a program based entirely on his own works, which he describes as “thrilling but terrifying.” Amy Bishop spoke with Whitacre about his first ever collaboration with the Dallas Winds.
With all the success of your work in the choral realm with the Eric Whitacre Singers and the Virtual Choir, this concert is a nice reminder to your fans that you’re just as familiar with writing and conducting instrumental music. Is it kind of like getting back to your roots when you conduct music for wind band – Because you were in marching band in high school, right?
Yeah, although I was kicked out when I was a junior.
Wait… What? Why were you kicked out?
I was a dummy. I was brash and young. The conductor wasn’t the nicest guy and we didn’t really get along. We came to loggerheads and he got rid of me. So when I think about my roots, I really think about University of Nevada Las Vegas, which is where I sort of rediscovered concert band with the conductor Tom Lesley. I just heard them rehearsing and the sound blew me away. I went up to them after rehearsal (I wasn’t even in the band) and said, ‘I’d like to write a piece for you.’ And he said, ‘Okay, great.’ And that’s how it started.
Did you have much experience in composing at that point?
No, nothing. I had written a couple of pieces for choir, but I still really just barely had learned to read music. I played by ear up until then. In fact, when I was in marching band, I just played whatever the person next to me was playing. When I started to write for this group at UNLV, I didn’t understand transposing instruments, doubling and orchestrations, etc. So I really just took my best guess. Then every rehearsal, I would change parts. It was this little piece called Ghost Train. If I tried something that didn’t work, I’d rewrite it and try it again. It was kind of like a three month composition lab in a way.
That must have been a big learning curve for someone new at learning to read music.
I was naïve enough and so green that I didn’t really know that I lacked a bunch of skills. And so really, it was just, ‘Oh, I’ll try this and a little bit of that.’ And those first pieces – especially like Ghost Train – they’re not perfect. They’re all over the place. But at the same time, I think because I was so green, I made some mistakes that actually turned out to be kind of interesting. Had I known what I was doing, I never would’ve done it.
I read that you played synth in a high school pop band. So was the piano your first introduction to music?
I could play by ear. We had a piano in the house so I’d sit down and plunk out the tunes when I was about 6 or 7 years old. Then when I was 13 or 14, I discovered synthesizers and pop music and that’s all I wanted to do. So I wrote hundreds of 80s pop songs.
So what’s your favorite Erasure song?
Oh my God…um, Oh’Lamour has to be my favorite Erasure song.
Next question: Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Good answer. So you said that singing Mozart’s Requiem in college was life changing. How so?
That was my first year in college. I didn’t really even understand what a choir was. I’d seen them in high school and they wore the Henry VIII outfits, looked kind of geeky and it wasn’t my thing. And so I joined choir just to meet girls in college. That first day, we started to sing the Requiem. It’s hard to put into words, but I never knew that kind of musical complexity, sophistication and just sheer humanity – 110 people in a room, all breathing and singing like this living organism. I didn’t know any of that was even possible. And so I went from zero to a hundred miles an hour on that first rehearsal. It blew my mind. I was totally transformed.
I read another interview where you were asked what you sing in the shower. You said ‘Anything, loudly and badly.’ So do you not sing? How’s your singing voice? Do you carry a tune?
I can carry a tune, sort of. I’m alright. In my high school pop band, they would never let me sing lead because they told me I sound like Kermit the Frog. My voice is getting lower and lower every year, so I’ve got these useful bass notes in a choir, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful. My wife is a professional soprano and an extraordinary singer. And my son, who’s ten years old, also has this really beautiful voice and perfect pitch. And so it’s kind of a nightmare living around the two of them. So now the only safe place for me to sing is in the shower.
Your latest work for film just hit theaters in late January with Kung Fu Panda 3. Could you see yourself transitioning into the role of writing full-length film scores more frequently?
Yes. I would really love to do it. I’m living back in Los Angeles and I’ve had some really nice conversations with film directors, so we’ll see. I hope that it happens; I’ve had a blast doing the little bit that I’ve done so far. I also worked on Batman vs. Superman, which comes out next month. I’ve been with composer Hans Zimmer a little bit. I love the process and it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, so we’ll see what happens.
What else are you currently working on?
Let me think… What can I talk about…. I say that because there are a bunch of projects that, unfortunately, I’m not allowed to talk about and they’re all so cool. If only we could have this conversation in a few months.
Is there another virtual choir project in the future?
Oh, good question. Absolutely, we’re going to do another one. We want to make it very, very special and so we’re looking into a bunch of technologies. We don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over. We’re trying to find the next frontier. I think the next frontier is going to be virtual reality with VR headsets. I’m dying to make some sort of virtual choir or virtual experience that uses that technology and is immersive. But we may be six months to a year away from something that really works.
About the Dallas Winds concert, which is titled after one of your works, Godzilla Eats Las Vegas. You’re probably asked this all the time, but what’s the story behind that title?
There are two parts to it. I met my wife when I was getting my Master’s at Juilliard. She started this silly little tradition where, every morning, she would make me breakfast and give me a box of animal crackers. And one morning, I started hacking out this little play….Like where they were walking and then they fell into the milk. Each morning, it evolved. So I’d pick them up and sort of became Godzilla terrorizing this little village of animal crackers. Then I started scoring it like a bad B-movie, trying to use the worst musical clichés you’d hear in all those bad scores. And then around the very same time that all this happened, I had a jury at Juilliard and some of the composers there (like John Corigiliano) kind of admonished me, saying that I really needed to work on something serious, like a string quartet or something with some “meat on its bones” and to stop it with all this “silly band and choral music.” And I had kind of an infantile response to authority and wrote Godzilla Eats Las Vegas.
Tell me about the work you’re planning to premiere at the concert, Deep Field for band.
This is a piece I wrote for orchestra, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, who performed it twice last year. When I found out that I’d be doing a concert with Dallas Winds, I talked to Jerry Junkin and said, ‘I think this could make a great concert band work if I transcribed it.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it.’ It’s a 25-minute work inspired by the Hubble Telescope and the very famous Deep Field image. It was one of the first images that it took where it looks at the tiniest spec of the sky, completely black to earthbound telescopes, and discovered that there were over 3,000 galaxies in that image. Some of them were 12, maybe 13 billion light years away and some of the oldest galaxies that we could see. I tried to capture that sense of wonder and awe when looking at this image and imagining the impossible magnitude of our universe. At the end of the piece, I turn and give a downbeat to the audience, who’s already downloaded an app onto their smartphones. Everybody pushes ‘play’ and then this shimmering electronic sound comes out of each person’s phone. Slowly, the image of Deep Field is revealed on their phone and they’re immersed now in that sense of wonder and awe of the image itself.
Is this your first collaboration with Dallas Winds? How did that happen? Did you just get a random phone call from Jerry Junkin?
It is. I’ve been a fan for years and years. First, because the band is so good. And second, Jerry is one of the world’s great conductors. So for years, I’ve followed them. Several years ago, we talked about the possibility of coming out, but for some reason it couldn’t work. Then I’ve been living in London for the past five years and we just moved back to Los Angeles this past summer. So Jerry and I connected and realized it’s a real natural now. They were very gracious and kind to invite me to come out to do a concert of my music. I can’t believe every single piece on there is going to be written by me… which is thrilling and terrifying. When you lay it all out there, it’s like, ‘Yeah, okay, that’s all I got. There you go. Those are all my ideas.’ We’ll see what it sounds like all in one place.