The September 2017 issue of Choral Journal featured an article by Tom Wine titled “Searching for an Icon: Eric Whitacre on Composing & Conducting.” Below is an excerpt from that interview, and you can read it in its entirety online at acda.org/choraljournal. Click “Search Archives” and choose September 2017 from the dropdown menu.
How would you describe the creative process?
Every time I start a piece I feel like a complete novice. What I tend to do now is I go back and look at earlier works and deconstruct them. Certain things seem to work and that sets a foundation. I have also taken to writing out existing works by composers like Bach or Debussy and literally copying by hand in pencil. I want to write exactly what Bach wrote so I can get a sense of how he builds a piece. I look for structural, perhaps numerical, icons that are connected somehow to the theme of the piece.
Then I start to build the composition around it. For instance, with Ghost Train I used my girlfriend’s phone number, and that unrequited theme with the last number missing appears all over the piece itself. In When David Heard, the passage I set is from Second Samuel, Chapter 18, verse 33. In the beginning of the composition of the piece the measures are grouped in sets of either 18 or 33 (two groups of nine or three groups of six). I make those choices before I write any music.
Once I have the structure or emotional architecture of the piece, I start to develop my palette much like a painter develops a color palette. It is either a chord or a musical gesture with a couple of notes, and somehow I know that these are the colors that will work together and paint the picture. Like a painter, you never stray from those colors. You might mix them a little bit and scatter the motives, but you keep those colors at the forefront. It’s kind of a way of putting myself in a box. For me, music is profoundly personal. It is an extension of my personality and ultimately my philosophy—I suppose my ethos and how I see the world.
The older I get, the only way to continue to be authentic and have music resonate for me and for performers and listeners is to become more and more vulnerable. I really have to get in there and dig in the dirt. Each piece now seems to be more and more personal in that I have cracked open wider who I am. Who I am can be, “I don’t know what I am doing,” and that goes into the piece as well. The things happening in my life—a joy or a tragedy, an important event such as when my son was born—all of these things find their way onto the page.
What are your thoughts on the future of choral music?
Ten years ago I am not even sure Facebook really existed. It is interesting, in terms of social media and what is possible. I have found in the past couple of years a more measured relationship with social media. I am not sure if others can relate to this, but I have the heart of a very empathetic person. I love people and adore being around them and being authentic with them.
Social media is not just me posting something. It was never a monologue for me. It was always a dialogue, so if somebody posts something that is halfway meaningful, you can feel across media that they are bearing their soul. I can’t just “like” that; I am in it with that person because a connection has been made. Between Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat, there are a lot of connections. I started, on a personal level, to realize I was not doing a very graceful job of carrying those connections.
I could not be in this quiet place long enough in order to compose and be able to feel connected to all of these people in this intimate and specific way. Over the past few years I have given myself this little bit of distance. Mostly that means spending less time on social media. That being said, I still check in several times a day. . . . .
Read the rest of this article (and more!) in the September 2017 issue of Choral Journal, available online at acda.org.