The American choral composer talks about his new residency at Sidney Sussex College and conducting in Cardiff
Eric Whitacre is one of the most exciting choral composing voices to emerge in recent years. Championed by choirs around the world, Whitacre’s music is characterised by its rich textures and harmonies – often splitting the choir into eight or more parts. On 16 October, Whitacre will be conducting the Welsh choir Côrdydd in a programme of choral music including some of his own celebrated pieces.
Tell us briefly about the concert you’re doing with the Welsh choir Côrdydd.
I’ve fallen in love with Côrdydd – the Welsh in general, really, but this group is magnificent. They’re so warm and have such a luscious sound. Alongside the mixed programme, Côrdydd will be performing the Welsh premiere of a new piece I’ve written, called Alleluia. It was written for Sidney Sussex chapel choir and was originally a piece composed for wind symphony called October that I wrote ten years ago. I then transcribed it using only the word ‘Alleluia’. My wife [soprano Hila Plitmann] will also be singing in the concert, performing the Five Hebrew Love Songs that I wrote for her.
You’ve just arrived in the UK to start your residence at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
What will you be getting up to? My duties are very flexible. I go a couple of times a semester and give masterclasses either in conducting or composition, and they’ve supplied me with a place to write, so I can go there any time I need a bit of inspiration, which these days is more often than not… And I’ll be filling my heart and soul with the beauty that is Cambridge – I can’t get over that place. David Skinner, the music director at Sidney Sussex, has become a very close fried and he started giving me a crash course in 14th-, 15th- and 16th-century British choral music. Really what I look forward to most is going up there and spending two or three hours with a bottle of red wine and talking through it with him!
Do you think that the popularity of your music is as much down to the exploding numbers of choirs today as the quality of the writing?
I’m not sure there are more people singing than there were 20 years ago, but it seems to be that for a long time there were millions of singers living this anonymous subculture. I don’t know if they were afraid to tell other people they were singers. In my own experience, watching over the past five or six years on Facebook alone, it seems that everyone is coming out of the shadows and announcing themselves as proud singers, creating this incredible wave of energy.
You mention Facebook – how valuable for you is social media?
I find Twitter powerful, but I find Facebook incredibly powerful. There’s a kind of ubiquitousness to it now. I can announce a concert and see the ticket sales instantly being affected, really within minutes of the announcement on Facebook. That certainly didn’t exist a few years ago.
Has it affected the way you write music?
Not yet. But part of my process has changed – if I was struggling over a passage I used to only consult my closest friends or my wife, but now several times I’ve been on Facebook where I’ll have a technical question, say, a viola bowing, and I’ll post it to the crowd and say ‘is this difficult for viola’. Within ten minutes I’ll have 100 responses. And that’s changed the way I write.
What do you think the benefits of singing in a choir are?
It’s the best place on earth to meet people – I love singers in general. I love everything about them. I love the personality types and the social aspect of it. There must be some physiological benefit: coming together in a room and breathing together and making beautiful sounds with your body. I feel terrific after singing with a choir. And then you’re exploring some of the world’s great poetry though music – that can only make for a more compassionate person and a more compassionate society.
Interview by Oliver Condy