Composer Eric Whitacre on his writing process and combining words and music

The choral conductor and composer tells Freya Parr about his compositional methods and how he still uses pencil and paper

Composer and choral conductor Eric Whitacre

Eric Whitacre’s music is hugely popular with both amateur and professional choirs. Renowned for his digital projects, he has created an 8,000-strong online ‘Virtual Choir’ and collaborated with scientists to create Deep Field, a work for orchestra, choir and phones. The Sacred Veil will be performed across Europe in 2020. He recently released ‘Sing Gently’, a new work for virtual choir.

He spoke to BBC Music Magazine‘s Freya Parr for the Meet the Composer column in the Christmas 2019 issue.

‘My imagination is more visual than sonic. Everything I write has a cinematic approach, because there are few art forms as moving and visceral as movies. It’s extraordinary what a great film score can do. When I’m conducting my work, I endlessly use visual metaphors.

I started conducting because I wanted to get the music as close as possible to how I imagined it. I always found it excruciating sitting in the audience and watching someone else conduct my music. In the case of The Sacred Veil [a eulogy to a friend’s late wife], it’s such a personal piece that I desperately don’t want to be there if someone else is conducting. They’re more than welcome to perform it, but I’ll be far, far away.

I still write everything with a pencil and paper. Ideas flow better, and when I have all the pages laid out in front of me, I can see several minutes of music at a time. This helps me visualise better what the piece is and where it needs to go.

The governing principle of music is structure. I’ve found that no matter how big the screen is, when working on a computer I can never really get a sense of the structure of a piece. Sometimes when I’m listening to music being performed live, I can hear the limitations of those composing programmes on the music – bars have been copied and pasted without any kind of variation, and there’s a sense of ‘page-itis’, where phrases tend to be about the length of a page on screen. It’s so important that words and music are married completely in choral music.

I never understand music where texts are used simply as a vehicle for the notes and are considered secondary. To me, the whole reason we have this art form is to illuminate the poetic word with music. When I’m setting poetry by someone from history – which is usually the case – there’s a beautiful agony to it, because the poetry cannot change. I have to find my path through the structure they’ve already built.’

This article initially featured in the Christmas 2019 issue of BBC Music Magazine.