Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
Interview | Eric Whitacre
The American Conductor and Composer is appearing at Southbank Centre with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra this May 15. Eric Whitacre tells us about bringing an all-American program to London
Buy Tickets: The Music of Eric Whitacre, May 15 at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, Lambeth, London SE1 8XX
Thank you for speaking with us Eric. Our traditional first question - where in the States are you from?
I am from Nevada. I was born in Reno, Nevada, and I grew up all over Nevada. My father worked for the State of Nevada. I suppose I call home Gardnerville, Minden, which is just outside Lake Tahoe.
You're known across the world for your work, but where did it all begin - how did music become an important part of your life?
I’ve always had a musical ear, and I played by ear growing up. When I was 14, I got a synthesiser and a drum machine and started making pop music. I did that all through high school. When I went to college at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, when I was 18 I joined the choir and that completely changed my life. Totally transformed me.
I've read that at one stage growing up you were in a techno-pop band with hopes of being a rock star, is that true, and if so, did working with different musical styles help your later work in some ways?
Yes that’s absolutely true. I was in a techno-pop band. I suppose it most helped my later work in that, especially early synthesisers and drum machines like those I was working with, it was all about composing by layering. So you put down one idea and then you layer on top of that, you layer on top of that, you layer on top of that, these tracks, they were all sequenced tracks, and I suppose in a way I still think of composing in that way. Even though it’s, I think, a bit more sophisticated now, and maybe for an orchestra or a choir, there’s generally an idea that there’s a single good musical idea, and then I build and build on top of that.
You worked with two iconic American composers whilst you were studying at Juilliard, John Corigliano and David Diamond, and your upcoming Southbank Concert is proudly noted as an All-American programme. How do you negotiate with the qualities of American classical music through your work?
I definitely don’t do it consciously. Funny story, a conductor, Stephen Layton, who’s a Brit, early on in my career sent me an e-mail saying that he wanted to make a recording of all of my music that I’d written up to that time. He said that he’d gone into a music store and, looking through some of my sheet music, had looked at one of the pieces and said to himself 'only an American could have composed this'. I remember at the time being struck by that, it never occurred to me that I was an 'American Composer'! Somehow I didn’t think that it had seeped into my music, but the more I’ve traveled and spent time outside America I do see that there seems to be a quality in American classical music that I think is infused in an American ideal, which is that of hard work and optimism and in the very best way, a naivete. So all the American pieces that I’m doing at the Southbank concert, and frankly the music of John Corigliano, I find to just be incredibly optimistic and wonderfully naive.
Your Southbank Centre event on May 15 is the latest in a series of concerts and projects you've worked on in the UK. Your album Light & Gold was huge here as well - how has working in the UK been for you?
I’ve loved it. I lived for 5 years in London, and was composer in residence at Sidney Sussex College at Cambridge. My professional choir is in London, my manager is British, Claire Long, she’s been my manager for 10 years. I have a real deep warm spot in my heart for England and the UK. I think if I listen to the music that I wrote while I was living in London, I think I can actually hear some British influence, if you will. I’m grateful for that.
Visitors to your Southbank show will have the chance to see you conducting in person. Your style of conducting is really engaging, and it looks like you're just really enjoying the music and the performance - how does it feel for you when on stage conducting?
Thank you so much for that! There’s no question that 95% of the time I’m just up there thinking I have the greatest seat in the house. I can’t believe that I get to stand here and hear the music from where I’m standing, so I’m truly enjoying it. The other part of it is that as a composer, I spend a lot of time alone in a room, and I can kind of get lost in myself, and there’s something about conducting that is the complete opposite of that. It’s very extroverted and alive and social, and so most of the time I’m truly enjoying it. There’s the other 5% where I really have to work, and work hard! Especially when we’re doing a piece called 'Equus' that I wrote. For lots of 'Equus' I’m concentrating harder than I ever do any other time in my life.
One of the pieces you'll be playing is 'Godzilla Eats Las Vegas', which has a real contemporary feel, and you've often been described as a moderniser of music - is that something that's important to you and your work?
To me, 'Godzilla Eats Las Vegas' isn’t so contemporary, it’s just pastiche. It’s taking every style I can think of and making fun of it and having fun with it, turning it upside down on its head. And thank you for saying that I’m a ‘moderniser of music’, I never thought of myself like that. I tend to think of the sound of my music as pretty old fashioned, in fact some of it I think of as kind of ancient. But I definitely don’t do any of it intentionally, I’m not trying to be new or groundbreaking with the music. For me, it’s just all about being authentic. That no matter what piece I’m writing, the music needs to serve that piece as best as possible.
You'll also be performing Bernstein's 'Overture to Candide'. With last year being the centenary of Bernstein's birth, I wonder if you had any thoughts on the almost timeless quality of his work?
Yeah, I mean Bernstein, he just lives outside space and time, he’s completely singular. There’s something ... it’s more than infectious, there’s just a joy to the music that he wrote. This unabashed joy, and he somehow seems to capture not only an American spirit, but the New York spirit, I find. There’s something that was happening in New York in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s that I think just speaks to the best of humankind, or at least an aspirational best where it’s just fireworks and color and light and sound. Yeah, I think he’s timeless because it’s truly good and truly original.
A big project you've worked on are your Virtual Choirs which involve the voices and videos of singers across the world being incorporated into a performance. They're magical to watch, but do they also represent an important symbol for uniting as a world?
I certainly didn’t start that way thinking of them as a symbol, it was just a little experiment to see if it would work. It was only after I saw the first couple of them and I myself personally started to see the poetry of all of these individual voices, disparate, actually kind of a diaspora from this little tribe of people whose only defining feature that unifies them is that they all want to be part of something larger than themselves. I found that quite beautiful. I’m not sure if it’s a symbol for uniting us as a world but one of the things that’s nice about the Virtual Choirs, you can see and hear instantly that there’s something larger than politics and nation states and dogma, that there’s a basic humanity that seems to unite people through the Virtual Choirs that’s palpable.
With your London performance coming up, is there anything you're hoping to do whilst in the UK?
I’ll definitely visit some old friends. I’ll do what every person in the UK does which is I’ll talk about the weather and pray for sunshine. And I’ll eat some good food, but more than anything truly what I’m looking forward to doing is just playing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Not only are they one of the world’s great orchestras, they’re just an incredibly lovely group of people. Everytime I’m there I feel like I’m at home.
What's next on the horizon for you in terms of performances / projects etc?
I just premiered a new piece called 'The Sacred Veil', it’s almost an hour long. We’ll give the UK premiere in October in London, I’m very very excited about that. I’m just now starting to sketch a little one act opera on an American story by O. Henry called the Gift of the Magi.
Finally, what is the best thing about being Eric Whitacre?
Haha! Really, just one thing? No, I don’t know if there’s a best thing about being me. I get to make music for a living and a vocation. That’s pretty good.
Eric Whitacre will be on stage at the Southbank Centre, London on May 15 conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert will feature an all-American programme, with works by Eric himself, alongside works by Leonard Bernstein, John Adams and Aaron Copland. Head to the Southbank Centre website for tickets.