Christoph Müller-Girod/Flickr

Sitting in Pembroke’s half-built auditorium awaiting the arrival of Grammy Award-winning composer Eric Whitacre, I start to get flashbacks to my music A-Level. A year ago, I was writing about the suspensions and cluster chords in his piece ‘Lux Aurumque’. Today, the atmosphere is much more relaxed. You would never guess we were listening to one of the most popular classical composers of his generation.

“Whitacre did not always want to pursue classical music; his initial dream was to be a pop star”

Indeed, far from the sterile impression you get from over-studying his pieces, Whitacre seems warm and whimsical. He says things like “I make music so the smaller part of my brain can communicate with the larger part” and “the poetry finds me” without sounding pretentious. Instead, he seems filled with a limitless and contagious enthusiasm for music.

Nevertheless, Whitacre did not always want to pursue classical music; his initial dream was to be a pop star. Until he joined a choir at university, he could not read music, and it was only through experimentation that he learnt to conduct. Now, however, he is a chart-topping conductor, an ambassador for the Royal College of Music and the visiting composer at Pembroke. His unconventional journey is an inspiration to those who lament that there is just one route to success in classical music.

Eric Whitacre pioneered the idea of a ‘virtual choir’YouTube (Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir)

Interviewing Eric Whitacre is Anna Lapwood, Pembroke’s director of music and herself an accomplished organist and conductor. She poses the crucial but oft-neglected question of how to remain focused when facing a mountain of expectations. Eric explains that he finds it hard to unwind after work but uses meditation to offset this. Anna says that she pictures herself teaching her girls’ choir to clear her head before shows and that she writes her worries on post-it notes so that they don’t interrupt her mid-practice.

“The ability to connect with listeners has expanded since the invention of the internet”

The pair goes on to paint a dismal picture of music journalism, with Whitacre recalling a review of his piece ‘Equus’ (meaning “horse” in Latin) which compared it to “what comes out of a horse”. According to Whitacre, the only possible explanation for this critique is that the reviewer must have had problems in his personal life. More likely, however, is that they were using sensationalism to boost sales. There is an unfortunate tendency among critics to pen extremely negative reviews, which grab your attention but offer nothing remotely useful to fans or musicians. This is an insult to the majority of reviewers who aim to provide genuine insights into the music. Nevertheless, Anna and Eric have devised a constructive response to this, noting that it is impossible to please everyone and that not every performance can be your best.

One of the points often raised by critics is that Whitacre’s work is too accessible. This reveals a confusing propensity to view anything new and popular as inferior, despite it being only the old, popular pieces that are performed at concert halls. Whitacre contends that the main aim of music should be to connect with your audience and that, by overcomplicating a piece, you are ignoring its performers.

“Perhaps his strangest prediction is that music will become one continuous track tailored to the individual”

This ability to connect with listeners has expanded since the invention of the Internet. When then-17-year-old Britlin Losee uploaded a cover of Whitacre’s ‘Sleep’ to YouTube in 2009, Eric responded by calling upon others to do the same. These clips were then edited together to produce the world’s first “virtual choir”. Once a novelty, virtual choirs became the norm during the pandemic. Whitacre explains that, although they will never equal the experience of singing in a real ensemble, virtual choirs offer vital opportunities to those for which that isn’t possible, whether this be due to a lack of confidence or a disability.


Mountain View

Interview: Eric Whitacre

Therefore, Whitacre is optimistic about technology’s implications for the music industry. He recalls that autotune initially seemed like a way to avoid hiring talented singers but ended up being used as an effect and hopes that something similar will happen for AI. Perhaps his strangest prediction is that music will become one continuous track tailored to the individual. Then again, with Spotify having released its AI DJ feature in February, maybe we’re closer to this than we think. Despite suggesting that AI could write better music than him, Whitacre seems more excited than fazed by recent developments. Indeed, when discussing streaming’s emphasis on singles over albums, Whitacre shared his willingness to work within constraints like previous composers.

This laid-back eccentricity was not necessarily what I expected from a man who has risen to the top of classical music. His “fireside chat” allowed me to attach a personality to the music that I had studied in ludicrous detail at A-Level and get a taste of what life as a professional musician must be like. Anna and Eric’s conversations about dealing with stress were undeniably valuable. However, it remains to be seen whether Whitacre’s predictions will come true.