Eric Whitacre and Voces8 Shine in "Home"
Choral composer Eric Whitacre has long been an admirer of Voces8. As it turns out, the feeling is mutual, and after years of lovingly hoarding and listening to the London-based vocal group’s recordings, he finally got to stand in front of them, give the first cue, and hear his own music pour out “like spun honey.”
For Voces8, recording Eric Whitacre’s music was only a matter of time. They have wanted to sing his renowned cantata The Sacred Veil ever since they first heard of its conception in collaboration with poet and lyricist Tony Silvestri. It’s a work that Whitacre feels as if he’s been waiting thirty years to write. So, it’s only fitting that this new Voces8 album, Home, feels like a celebration of his career, beginning with Whitacre’s very first composition, “Go, Lovely Rose,” and including highlights like “The Seal Lullaby,” and the world premiere recording of “All Seems Beautiful to Me.”
When I talked with Eric Whitacre, he gave me a window into what it’s like to work with his dream vocal group while looking back on a thirty-year-long career. To hear our conversation, use the player above, and read the transcript below.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson I'm Edyn-Mae Stevenson from WCRB and I'm here with Eric Whitacre, whose music is on a new release by Voces8 called Home. Eric, thank you so, so much for being here with me.
Eric Whitacre It's my pleasure. Thanks, Edyn-Mae.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson And so you've called Voces8 one of your all time favorite vocal groups. I'm sure it's been really amazing to hear them singing your music, but I was wondering what makes them such a special group, not just to listen to, but also to work with?
Eric Whitacre Yeah, as you say, I've been a super fan for like 15 years. I have every recording. And so the first thing that happened, you know, I stood in front of them. They usually work without a conductor. So I stand in front of them and I lift my arms, give that downbeat. And the way they sound is the way the CDs sound. You know, it's so . . . it just, it's shocking at first, like, "Oh my God, they really are that good and that clear and that pure." So the first thing is just the technical acumen. They're such superb musicians, you know, they've all been singing their entire lives and they all seem to breathe and think as a single organism. It's uncanny the way they all do it, the way they blend together. But then deeper than that, I think there's an emotional intelligence that they bring to the music that I was unprepared for. And especially as a composer, that's what you're hoping for, is that the musicians take the piece into their hearts, and then make it blossom in ways that you can't expect. And I just found it so, so deep, emotionally, making music with them.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson It's a beautiful, beautiful album. I was just listening to it again before I came in here because it's just so stunning. It features a world premiere recording.
Eric Whitacre Yeah.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson All Seems Beautiful to Me. It's a commission from the United States Air Force Band. It's a Walt Whitman setting. I'm curious if Walt Whitman came with the commission [Eric laughs] or if that was something you picked.
Eric Whitacre No, so the Air Force Band, it turned out being for the Singing Sergeants. So it was just a cappella choir, right? But the band is the one who commissioned it, and they wanted me to write about community. This was in the heart of pandemic, and with the hopes that we were eventually going to be on the other side of it. And what could I say about community? And so I went to Uncle Walt, my favorite poet, and in Songs of the Open Road, he writes this poem, this "All Seems Beautiful to Me," and he talks very simply and eloquently about inclusion, about seeing the other person for who they are and . . . what the last lines of the poem are, "Whoever denies me, it shall not trouble me. Whoever accepts me, he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me" [Voces8 begins singing “All Seems Beautiful to Me” quietly in the background]. And to me, that sums up everything that a community ought to be. And I have to say, on a personal level, just hearing Voces8 sing this music, bring this piece to life [laughing] it was . . . it's one of my musical highlights. Just effortless and effervescent. [music intensifies, enters foreground, fades out]
Edyn-Mae Stevenson Also on this album, "The Seal Lullaby," which is one of your most popular works. And I understand it was written for a movie that never happened [Eric laughs]. I'd love to know the story behind that.
Eric Whitacre It's the craziest thing. So back in 2005, I took a meeting with DreamWorks Animation and they wanted to know, would I be interested in writing music for an animated film? And I said, "Yes, yes, yes!" I loved Pixar movies and Disney animated films. And I said, "Yes, I would love to do something like this." And they were going to make the movie The White Seal based on the Rudyard Kipling story of the same name. And the Rudyard Kipling story starts with this poem. It starts with "Oh hush thee my baby," and it's the mother seal singing to the little baby seal. It's how the story starts. And I thought, "These are perfect lyrics. You know, they even read kind of like a musical theater song." So I set it in my best Stephen Schwartz Disney style.
And I recorded it and I sent it over and waited by the phone. I didn't hear from them for a week, and then two weeks I was just crawling out of my skin. And finally I called them and I said, "Did you not like it? Because I'm happy to try something else." And they said, "Actually, we decided to make Kung Fu Panda instead" [laughs heartily]. So . . . So that was it. It was done. But in musical theater, they call a song that gets cut from a show a trunk song. The idea that you put it in a trunk and you hope that one day there might be a use for it. And years later, I was asked by a group to write a piece that could be performed by amateurs [Voces8 sings The Seal Lullaby softly in background]. And I remembered, "Oh, you know, 'The Seal Lullaby.' Maybe this would make a nice little piece." And then, as you say, it's become one of my most performed pieces, which I just never could have imagined when I was sitting in that room at DreamWorks.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson It's always the one that you won't think will blow up —
Eric Whitacre Yep.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson — that ends up being popular.
Eric Whitacre That's exactly right. Just like Tik-Tok. ["The Seal Lullaby" resumes in foreground, fades out]
Edyn-Mae Stevenson Well, speaking of blowing up and becoming popular, I think that something that a lot of people know and love about your work is your Virtual Choir, which has been going on for now, like over a decade, —
Eric Whitacre Yeah.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson — you have 17,500 singers, over that number. I'm bringing this up because Voces8 decided to record "Sing Gently," which is a song you wrote for the Virtual Choir during COVID lockdown and going from 17,500 voices to just eight. What comes out in the song? What's different that we should listen to that maybe we haven't heard before?
Eric Whitacre It was an experience that I'd never had before, which is that I wrote the piece for the Virtual Choir during lockdown. And as you say, 17,000+ people sang it. But that was the premiere. And in my entire career, I've never had a premiere of a piece where I wasn't there, present for it, in the room with the people who were performing it. So this was the first time. So when I got together with Voces8, this was the first time I'd ever heard the piece in the air.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson Wow.
Eric Whitacre And so even though it was a much smaller group and a much more intimate sound, it sort of marked the end of the pandemic that we could all be together in the room making music together again [“Sing Gently” begins playing in background]. And I'll tell you, after not singing for those two years, not making music at all, I will never again take for granted the live music and the ability for all of us just to get together and sing. Never. I cherish every moment of it. [“Sing Gently” intensifies in foreground, fades out]
Edyn-Mae Stevenson I think that also sort of ties into that wonderful community line that you have running through this beautiful album. And also there's a little bit of poetic order in this album in that it begins with “Go Lovely Rose,” which is one of your first, or your first composition?
Eric Whitacre Very first.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson Very first! And then it ends with your cantata, The Sacred Veil, which you've said is the culmination of the 30 years of composing experience. When you say that, do you mean is it more like a compositional way, or a personal way?
Eric Whitacre I think . . . What I'd like to think is that I believe the heart of writing for choral music, the essence of it is the fact that we illuminate the music in the poetry. And so the marriage between the words and the music are essential. In fact, they are everything. I think it's the whole craft of what we do is listening very, very carefully for the music that's already in the words themselves. And then just doing that. And with [The] Sacred Veil where it was such a difficult subject, you know. Tony Silvestri, my best friend, lost his wife to ovarian cancer and tried to honor that. But at the same time, just tried to look simply and honestly at what happened, not try to adorn it, not try to dazzle, just say it honestly.
And it felt for me like I was . . . sort of been waiting 30 years for this moment, because now I'd like to think that I hear that – the music buzzing in those words. And then I just say that. That there's . . . not trying to do anything else than that. And what's fascinating to me then is some of the music in The Sacred Veil is simple [“Home” from The Sacred Veil begins playing softly in background]. You know, it's more simple than maybe I would have written ten or 15 years ago. But simple, I think, is truer in this case. And so it really did take me 30 years of practice to get to this piece. [Music intensifies, enters foreground, fades out]
Edyn-Mae Stevenson Speaking of 30 years of practice, what would you say to yourself 30 years ago, writing that first ever piece, “Go Lovely Rose,” what would you say to yourself in that time?
Eric Whitacre Huh. That's an interesting question. First, I would tell my younger self to wear sunscreen and invest in Apple [laughs boisterously]. Knowing that twenty-one year old me wouldn't listen to either of those things, but I would at least try. And I’d love to tell my younger self that all of the self-doubt, all of the agonizing as I'm composing, all of the worrying over things, that, believe it or not, that's the important part of the process. That the music is secondary to the evolution you'll have as a person because of the discipline of composing. And then just to take a deep breath and keep doing it. I always have this, I have this image of myself as this jagged rock in the middle of a river, just slowly being polished year upon year, softened, and the discipline of composing a lifetime of composing, I think has helped me in that endeavor. But I couldn't have seen that when I was twenty-one.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson What do you think that that piece, that first piece does really, really well?
Eric Whitacre Well, going back to what we talked about, I think it actually illuminates the poetry really well. The poem is basically a love letter. And it's this classic 17th century trope, which is, "Listen, you're beautiful now, but this doesn't last forever. So we should, you know, let's make the most of it while we can," basically. But it's also ornate and gossamer. And I think the music actually captures the music of the language pretty well [“Go Lovely Rose” begins playing softly in background]. I say this with humility, but even when I was recording with Voces8, I sometimes had to smile to myself and say, "Wow, twenty-one year old me understood that a little bit, or at least intuited it a little bit” [music intensifies, enters the foreground, fades into background].
The other thing that's surreal to me is how much of my musical language is there in that first piece. It's the way that I think of music, in the way I think of writing like, "Oh yeah, that's what I do." It's all there. It's very, very weird, you know? Because I definitely had no idea what I was doing when I wrote it. But somehow I guess it's just . . . that's just me.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson I mean, it sounds like an Eric Whitacre song [laughs].
Eric Whitacre Yeah, exactly, isn't that funny? It's like . . . so I remember Stravinsky. Not that I'm remotely comparing myself to Stravinsky, but that Stravinsky one time said something like, you know, "Every composer has one piece in them and they just keep writing variations of it over and over and over." So maybe that's the case. Maybe it's . . . I've just got that one piece and I'm just doing variations on it for thirty years.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson [laughs] I love that. Well, Stravinsky was a little harsh with himself, I think [laughs], but I like that a lot. I was wondering what other genres of music do you listen to on a regular basis that might sort of influence your composing?
Eric Whitacre Ah, well, I'll tell you, I rarely listen to choral music. So if I listen to classical music, I'm almost always listening to orchestral music. And I'm a massive fan of the 20th century, Britten and Prokofiev and Shostakovich and Stravinsky. But then, I'd say most of the time what I'm listening to is ‘60s and ‘70s prog rock, everything from The Beatles to The Who to Bachman-Turner Overdrive, like everything, y'know, Queen. And then I'm also a massive fan of ‘50s and ‘60s jazz, you know, everything from Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra to John Coltrane and . . . yeah, that's what I spend most of my time listening to.
Edyn-Mae Stevenson Well, Eric, thank you so much for your time.
Eric Whitacre Thanks, Edyn-Mae. It's been a privilege.