Eric Whitacre
June 8, 2009 1:23 PM   Subscribe

Over the past few years, Eric Whitacre has been taking the composition world by storm. And now he's all over the web. (Most links silent, personal website has an autoplay rainstorm going on.) His choral works range from the mysterious and brooding Water Night to the rambunctious modern madrigal, With a Lily In Your Hand, to the wonderfully lush Sleep (formerly a setting of Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" - tragically halted by copyright infringement, but still available thanks to the magic of YouTube). While his instrumental compositions run the spectrum from silly musical parody (Godzilla Eats Las Vegas) to poignant melancholy (October) with some delicate crossover between vocal and instrumental (Lux Aurumque - first choral, then instrumental!). If you are or think you may be even remotely interested in contemporary classical music, you owe it to yourself to become familiar with the work of Eric Whitacre.
posted by greekphilosophy (36 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
That rainstorm thing is so old. We did that at summer camp, like, a million times.

carry on
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 1:25 PM on June 8, 2009

Thanks for this -- after getting into Gorecki last year I've been looking for modern choral works and am glad to learn about Whitacre's work.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:32 PM on June 8, 2009

If you, unlike game warden to the events rhino, haven't gotten tired of the faux rainstorm, Whitacre actually wrote it into a piece: Cloudburst.

Which, incidentally, I AM over, which is why I left it out of the post, despite its widespread popularity...
posted by greekphilosophy at 1:35 PM on June 8, 2009

He's mixed anime and electronica with opera in interesting ways, apparently:

"Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings" employs not just original anime sequences, but the very structure and attitudes of classic Japanimation to spin out its post-apocalyptic allegory about angel children's struggle to build a new world. The result may resemble a musicalization of "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" but it's neither pretentious nor kitschy. Musically lush, committed and smart, tuner will appeal to a demographic far beyond comic book fans (who'll adore it), for in composer/librettist/co-lyricist Eric Whitacre it introduces an exciting new, and potentially important, figure in the musical theater.

Thanks for the pointer, greekphilosophy; he looks really interesting.

(hey, gwtter: there's no reason to rush to dump stupidity into an interesting thread.)
posted by mediareport at 1:42 PM on June 8, 2009

Some of his music is interesting- more so than the usual HS band stuff. The kids didn't always get it, though....
posted by cherryflute at 1:58 PM on June 8, 2009

The symphonic choir I sang with in college performed "Water Night". To the singers, it's noteworthy for being very demanding dynamics-wise, and also for difficult breath-control. I had forgotten who exactly wrote it, but as soon as I saw "Eric Whitacre" in this post, a sharp bell was rung in my memory. Nice to be able to check out more of his stuff.
posted by Maximian at 2:07 PM on June 8, 2009

I don't understand the hype. Monotony is written across the face of his music– timbral monotony, harmonic monotony, stylistic monotony. October, for example, doesn't even manage to be neo-Romantic. It's clear that he lacks the rhetorical ability to treat the idioms of the past with any sort of critical distance, and given that, why bother reinventing that particular wheel when others have done it better and the style on its own is irrelevant in the present?

His choral work is overwhelmingly sentimental and he doesn't set texts very convincingly. The harmonies are pretty, to be sure, but he doesn't ever really reach into the words and give them voice. Instead they are given a sensually pleasing presentation that ultimately comes off as clumsy and somewhat false. It gives me the impression that he doesn't really understand the content of the poems he sets beyond the fact that their words are pretty.

It's rococo music for the 21st century.
posted by invitapriore at 2:27 PM on June 8, 2009

October is one of my favorite tone-poems. As a composer for band, his music is stunning and unlike any other.
posted by litterateur at 3:11 PM on June 8, 2009

Uhh yeah, band music.
posted by ChickenringNYC at 3:17 PM on June 8, 2009

That rainstorm thing is so old. We did that at summer camp, like, a million times.

It's not novel to me any more, but it was when I first heard Cloudburst 13 years ago, so at the time, it was a great part of my experience with the piece. I'm not so tickled with it anymore, but I still enjoy the piece. Perhaps some would see it as gimmicky, though.

His choral work is overwhelmingly sentimental and he doesn't set texts very convincingly.

I've had a different experience with enough of these that I'm pretty skeptical about this statement. Perhaps some more concrete examples of failure or pointers to pieces by modern composers who you feel are executing better would prevent this from reading more or less as "your favorite choral composer sucks."

The monotony comment rings somewhat true; I hear a lot of the same tricks across his different works. But apparently I'm more or less still pleased by them.

Instead they are given a sensually pleasing presentation


that ultimately comes off as clumsy and somewhat false.

Except for a few pieces, not to this listener, and while I'm arguably not as highly sophisticated as some, among the plausibly quite sophisticated listeners in my acquaintance there are certainly many who share an enthusiasm for at least some of Whitacre's work.
posted by weston at 3:59 PM on June 8, 2009

If you, unlike game warden to the events rhino, haven't gotten tired of the faux rainstorm, Whitacre actually wrote it into a piece: Cloudburst.

I actually mentioned it in that thread, with a link to an excellent live performance.

Great post... but I'm a little befuddled at the decision to leave Cloudburst out. Like it or not, it's inarguably the piece that really put Whitacre on the map as a young composer (and I say that as someone who was in one of the first choirs to perform Water Night prior to its publication).

A tale: My choral professor at Miami was Jo-Michael Scheibe (he's now at USC). Scheibe was an early champion of Whitacre, and most of the composer's vocal music is published through Scheibe's choral series. In the fall of 1995, we performed Water Night at the state ACDA convention, and Eric Whitacre ended up flying down and tagging along. We stopped for dinner at TGIFriday's while bussing back to Miami from whatever godforsaken Central Florida location was hosting the convention, and of course we were asked to sing something by the restaurant staff (we were a little conspicuous in our concert attire).

So, we sang Water Night. In a TGIFridays. Conducted by Eric Whitacre.

That stands out as an odd but awesome little highlight in my undergraduate career.
posted by the_bone at 4:41 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I met Eric Whitacre for a concert series a few years ago hosted by my university where he was the guest conductor. I was in the concert band (note: in my university that was the band that anyone could join. Several members were very good, but the symphonic band was for the music majors) and we performed the band arrangement of Sleep while the symphonic and performed Ghost Train Triptych. There were guest High School students that performed Cloudburst.

Anyway, a few things stand out in my memory. One, many people were explicitly describing their physical attraction to him which saddened me because I was and remain certain no one has ever talked that nice about me behind my back. And two, he was a day late for no discernible reason so I was pissed at him for missing a session with him. Other than that he seemed like an alright guy. I hadn't heard a large audience do the rainstorm trick so that was fun. Ghost Train Triptych was enjoyable and Sleep was difficult to play well, but pretty. Far more fun than Andrew Boysen who came the following year. His is possibly the most depressing music I've ever heard and his personality didn't seem far from his music.
posted by Green With You at 5:02 PM on June 8, 2009

Actually, the_bone, the decision to leave it out was not one of personal taste as I indicated above, but instead because I really couldn't find a recording of it that I liked. I tried to avoid live recordings in this post, just because they are generally of lesser quality and I actually didn't want to risk it since this was meant to be an introduction. (I was trying to avoid "these recordings suck so I'm not sure if I even like this guy.")

That said, you certainly DID find a good recording of it! Woo! On a related note, I have always laughed when I hear these gigantic unwieldy choirs try to perform things that require precision (I have a recording of a 500 person choir trying to perform Monteverdi's "Si Chio Vorrei Morrire" and it makes me laugh every time I try to listen to it!) but Cloudburst is such a wonderful selection for a huge choir. The lack of precision actually works in favor of this music.

Meanwhile, I'm SO jealous of your TGIFridays experience.
posted by greekphilosophy at 5:07 PM on June 8, 2009

Wow, that's a coincidence--the performance on October you posted, greekphilosophy is from an April 16 concert, conducted by a close friend who is also a doctoral conducting student at ASU. (I conducted some Schwantner on the same concert.)

Uhh yeah, band music.

There is some GREAT music being written for band these days. If I may link to a piece I posted over in MeFi Music a while back, joe's last mix. I think you might enjoy it.
posted by LooseFilter at 5:43 PM on June 8, 2009

I've recently become a fan of Whitacre's work. I wish he did more orchestral pieces, because the work he's done so far in that area has been excellent (sort of a strangely well done bastardization of Holst and Steve Reich). Not to say his choral pieces aren't also awesome, though.
posted by spiderskull at 5:44 PM on June 8, 2009

Also, if you like Eric's work, be sure to check out the work of his friends--four of them, including Eric, are BCM International. (One of them is even a MeFite from way back.)

I highly, highly recommend listening to Steve Bryant's Ecstatic Waters and Jonathan Newman's My Hands Are A City.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:43 PM on June 8, 2009

The choral stuff is innovative and beautiful, and the best material, to me. I hear similarities to Bernstein, Copland, Charles Ives (his Psalm 67) and, (surprised no one has mentioned) Randall Thompson -- notably Peacable Kingdom and the Alleluia. Yet hear much of the structures and phrasing as more Whitacre's own. Water Night was a revelation, as was Lux Aurumque. Whoever says "monotony" is not listening hard enough. Thanks for a truly excellent post!
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 7:39 PM on June 8, 2009

That said, you certainly DID find a good recording of it!

I can understand your trepidation; many of the recordings on the youtubes were obviously taken by someone's mom with a shitty camcorder. I took a chance on the one I eventually linked to figuring, since it was an official All-State video, that it would have been done professionally (I used to direct high school choirs and have had kids in those state ensembles before, and the recordings are usually top-notch.) I was extra delighted to find that the conductor was the aforementioned Dr. Scheibe... I first sang Cloudburst under his direction back in 1994, right around when it was published.

Good observation about the large massed choir working in the piece's favor... that Monteverdi recording you mentions sounds hilarious, and I've always had a similar reaction when listening to 150-voice choruses tackle Messiah, a work intended for smaller groups. (Whitacre's music can sound stunning with the right small ensemble, though: the Stephen Layton recording comes to mind.)
posted by the_bone at 7:44 PM on June 8, 2009

I sang with Eric Whitacre at Loyola University a few years back. Afterwards, I came up to thank him for conducting us. He clasped my hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, "No. Thank you."

To understand why this story is important, take a moment and look at him.

Phenomenal composer and, surprisingly enough, a very adept choral conductor. Also, he is DEVASTATINGLY ATTRACTIVE.

At any rate, my favorite piece of his is "Water Night," which is a setting of an Octavio Paz poem in English. During the first two read-throughs, I was so frustrated by the idea that he'd purposefully used a translation for such a sensual poem. But when you present a line like "night brings its wetness to beaches in your soul" to an American audience, and you couple it with that breathtaking alto line, well. It's amazing how many people are really uncomfortable with choral works dealing with sex, and I find that absolutely fascinating. Instead of hinting at it, Eric Whitacre tends to slap you in the face with it - and you find that you really like it.

If you're an alto, listen to me: you need to sing some Eric Whitacre. He loves you. He wants to make you feel good (really good - listen to the alto line in the latter song from about 3:50 onward) and to make you to leave John Rutter forever.
posted by honeydew at 9:22 PM on June 8, 2009

Yes I read the post but I am morally opposed to clicking on links involving BYU and you should be, too.
posted by honeydew at 9:24 PM on June 8, 2009

I am morally opposed to clicking on links involving BYU and you should be, too.

BYU certainly has its problems, and in a thread that were on some other topic, criticism might have been relevant and appropriate. But refusing to happily link to or politely discuss BYU when choral music comes up, particularly when it comes to Whitacre, would be pretty much like a fundy refusing to play or listen to Chopin because he's gay or Rutter because he's agnostic. It's voluntarily cutting out some of the best work out there for reasons that are irrelevant to the art itself. There are very few ensembles indeed that are pulling off the quality of performances BYU's choirs deliver when it comes to Whitacre's work. The link you chose isn't a bad performance, but it tends to reinforce this.

I'll also say that on a general level the kind of politicization of the arts your comment could be read as representing is a shame. It's hardly new, and for some topics (and perhaps for some minds that are completely polarized) it's unavoidable. But there are wide swaths within the arts that can be places where people have common experiences despite different social and political views. Given the humanizing and even liberalizing potential of the arts, actions that more or less amount to marginalization of people who are interested in participating isn't going to be a productive tack for anyone interested in a society that trends that way.
posted by weston at 12:36 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


One of my favorite experiences in life was singing Sleep with my men's choir in college - we had a relatively good set of tenors who could go into countertenor with decent skill, and we used the first minute or so of Sleep as a warm up. I'm not the biggest fan of Whitacre, and there are certainly composers I like much better (Durufle and Lauridsen come to mind, even if Lauridsen is totally a one trick pony), but he's quite good.
posted by Mali at 6:55 AM on June 9, 2009

So how many of you are going to submit a vocal part to the Sleep Project? I have to say, I'm a little tempted to do it. But then I think that it would be more fun to just invite all my singer friends over to put together some Whitacre in my living room. Hmm.
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:47 AM on June 9, 2009


Eric doesn't use tone clusters often, actually--much of the harmonic vocabulary in his choral works in particular is octotonic. Because of the alternating whole-step/half-step structure of that scale, harmonies from it typically sound much more dense than those derived from a major or minor scale.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:19 AM on June 9, 2009

As somebody who has sung an awful lot of Whitacre (Leonardo Dreams, Sleep, Water Night, Lux Aurumque, A Boy And A Girl, This Marriage, Go Now Lovely Rose...probably some more, like I said, a lot), I would like to agree with invitapriore. While his music is certainly pleasing to sing, and very pretty, it's not particularly revolutionary. It's a bit like Bloc Party in the pop music world. Very pleasing, but very repetitive, and ultimately forgettable. Unfortunately, nobody's really doing anything interesting in the choral medium to my knowledge.

If you want to hear a composer that will be highly regarded in 300 years, listen to Thomas Ades. I'm at work, so I can't look up any youtube links. But I would recommened particularly his Violin Concerto or Asyla.
posted by HotPants at 10:06 AM on June 9, 2009

I've had a different experience with enough of these that I'm pretty skeptical about this statement. Perhaps some more concrete examples of failure or pointers to pieces by modern composers who you feel are executing better would prevent this from reading more or less as "your favorite choral composer sucks."

Sorry to harp, but the argument given against Whitacre was very well reasoned and explained. It seems your definition of trolling is not giving your favorite choral composer the respect you think they're due.
posted by HotPants at 11:07 AM on June 9, 2009

Loosefilter, I'm not entirely sure how you could possibly say that Whitacre doesn't use tone clusters that often, especially when they're present in the first three bars of Cloudburst (between the tenor, alto, and soprano you've got C# D E F# G# A, that's a pretty solid cluster) and the first two of Lux Aurumque (between bass and tenor C# D# E and between alto and soprano B C# D#). I mean they're a trademark of his sound - that tight harmony that sounds like garbage sung poorly and sounds mind-blowing sung well.
posted by Mali at 11:39 AM on June 9, 2009

Mali, I should've been more clear, you're right in the broad sense of the term--I typically use 'tone cluster' in a more specific sense, i.e. "prototypical tone clusters are based on the chromatic scale, and are separated by semitones." Whitacre so often uses those gestures--like at the beginning of Cloudburst--harmonically and more or less functionally that I don't think of them as clusters but rather as dense chords--like how the opening moves to clear cadences in bars 8 & 10. Clusters are much more often used non-functionally, thus I make a distinction in analysis between clusters and dense harmonies.

(One also often finds in Whitacre's music more functional harmonic skeletons within all those notes in addition to his, shall we say, more holistic treatment of harmonic progression, thus it's important to know which notes are significant regarding elements like line, etc.; so a distinction needs to be drawn and labelling the vertical pitch structure a cluster obscures that.)
posted by LooseFilter at 12:22 PM on June 9, 2009

LF, well said. They're definitely more towards tight, close voiced chords than clusters, but we tossed around the terms tone cluster so much in college that the terminology just kind of stuck with me. I agree that the cluster term sort of obfuscates the idea of harmonic progressions.
posted by Mali at 12:47 PM on June 9, 2009

Tones used in the chord at the end of the word "volare", right before "The Flight" section of Leonardo Dreams:

A, Bb, C, Db, D, Eb, E, F, F#, G, Ab

I don't remember what they actually are in the key, the point being they're all there.
posted by HotPants at 1:16 PM on June 9, 2009

Re: Eric's tone clusters/dense chords - they're often diatonic in construction resulting from step-wise scalar motion, and I think LooseFilter is dead-on in pointing out the underlying 'functional harmonic skeletons' inside these chords. There are multiple dissertations addressing these topics in Eric's music, for anyone who really wants to go deeper.

I know Eric's busy right now working on a massive new work, so I wouldn't expect him to join up and drop in, but I did forward this thread to him, and I know he's read it.

(And Stuart, thanks for the Ecstatic Waters link!)
posted by gsalad at 2:27 PM on June 9, 2009

Sorry to harp, but the argument given against Whitacre was very well reasoned and explained.

Perhaps it's easier to see if you've already been over the details of a similar case in your head and come to the same conclusions, but a my reading of invitapriore's comment doesn't reveal much beyond naked assertions. Without going into larger and more philosophical debates on topics like whether or not critical distance from past idioms is a strong guide, I might pick a few prominent observations: monotony, October fails neo-romantic aesthetic in some way, texts diverge from settings. The first two I could be interested in hearing elaboration on, but I don't see anything resembling a supporting case for those statements in his comment. The third I've had such a completely different experience with for at least a few pieces that I have to take exception... but there's not even a mention of a given work where you or he felt this happened much less a case for what a better setting might have done that I could argue with.

It seems your definition of trolling is not giving your favorite choral composer the respect you think they're due.

My comment wasn't meant to imply that there was any trolling taking place, just some criticism that was vague enough it's not particularly more useful than "I didn't like it." If you want to show everybody the man behind the curtain, I'm interested, and your comments were somewhat more interesting to me than than invitapriore's, given that you did provide a composer for contrast and made at least one concrete observation about Leonardo, but outside of that, observations like "overly sentimental" or "ultimately forgettable" sound more like filler from a Pitchfork writer or American Idol judge than a critical education.

I sometimes don't mind if people poke holes in work I like; I can be aware of critical perspectives on them and still derive satisfaction from some aspect of the experience they create. But a little more elaboration is helpful. Tell me what you dislike hearing repeated, tell me how October misses the neo-romantic aesthetic, tell me where the setting creates an aesthetic effect that works against the text, don't just assume these things are givens and expect everyone else to immediately appreciate those perspectives.
posted by weston at 9:55 PM on June 9, 2009

I'm (not shockingly) with weston, here. I would actually really enjoy hearing well reasoned criticism of this work. Citing timbral and stylistic monotony is really just weak. Name a composer that doesn't demonstrate that. It's part of the creative process of discovering your "voice."

I mean, if the voice already existed, I'd love to hear who created it. Otherwise, I'm pretty impressed with Mr. Whitacre's ability to develop and mature within his own style. You might not be - and that's fine. But "I just don't like it" is a lot more intellectually honest than citing a lot of empty terms that ultimately mean nothing in terms of constructive criticism.
posted by greekphilosophy at 5:56 AM on June 10, 2009

Unfortunately, nobody's really doing anything interesting in the choral medium to my knowledge.

Well, you should expand your knowledge! I don't know many primarily choral composers, being an instrumentalist, but I do know Morton Lauridsen's exquisite music. Considering "the choral medium" more broadly, there have been a number of compelling works that include chorus in the past 25 years: Thomas Ades, whom you mention, has a great work called America: A Prophecy that will scare the shit out of you; John Adams wrote Harmonium years ago, but also has written On the Transmigration of Souls, the oratorio El Nino, and the semi-staged choral drama The Flowering Tree; Steve Reich writes for voices constantly; John Harbison's short cantata The Flight Into Egypt is terrific; and Osvaldo Golijov's St. Mark's Passion is remarkable and tremendous fun, and his recent opera Ainadamar (with a fair amount of choral singing in it) is utterly fantastic.

That's just off the top of my head, there is much more great contemporary music all around us. There does seem to be, though, less "choral music", as in music written for choir only, because--right now in the U.S. anyway--it's a dying tradition, so composers are not inclined to write for the medium. They still love the voice, obviously, but are incorporating solo and mass voice into larger concert works.

But "I just don't like it" is a lot more intellectually honest than citing a lot of empty terms that ultimately mean nothing in terms of constructive criticism.

I'm with you in that I like good criticism too, but I really don't care about anyone's opinion. Liking or not liking music is often a capricious and almost always entirely personal reaction; good criticism is much more objective, focusing on aspects such as a composer's craft, success in reaching the internal musical goals as he/she set them up; reflections on originality or derivative quality of gestures; depth of interest and skill in aspects like development, orchestration, pacing, etc. The list can go on, but I very, VERY rarely find real criticism anymore, certainly not in any consumer-oriented venue, and for me criticism rarely has to do with "liking" a work or not, but rather evaluating the skill and craft of the composer as demonstrated through a specific work. If one finds Whitcacre's work lacking in some aspect, that's fine (ask me about my Tchaikovsky or Wagner rants), but be specific. The work deserves no less respect.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:59 AM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

(And Stuart, thanks for the Ecstatic Waters link!)

Steve, I'll give you a shout out anytime!

posted by LooseFilter at 9:02 AM on June 10, 2009

I was lucky enough to hear Ainadamar last season here in Philly, and GOD it was good.

Also, here in Philadelphia there are some fun things happening with choral music. The group I sing with likes to premier new works by local composers, and we had an entire concert in Nov. 2007 dedicated to performing settings of great poetry. (I posted one of the pieces to MeMusic.) Also, Donald Nally has a fantastic choir here called The Crossing, which has done some pretty amazing new works. They collaborated recently with Piffaro, the Renaissance Band - on a new work which is coming out on disc sometime soon.

At least for my tastes, there's plenty of fun stuff going on in choral music.
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:38 AM on June 10, 2009

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