“The orchestra was joined by the Providence Singers for the last movement, the so-called ‘Ode to Joy,’ which was one of the more moving moments in the Philharmonic’s season. The Singers sounded terrific.”
Eric Whitacre (b.1970)
“As a composer, I know that all sorts of sounds I hear are making their way into my brain and soul and later sneak into my music.”
“I try to find sounds that exactly match the emotional journey that I want to take the listener on through the music.”
— Eric Whitacre
Eric Whitacre is among the world’s best-known living choral composers. Beyond having his work performed by choruses in major international cities, he has designed choral projects that cannot be fully realized unless singers from around the world submit recordings of their own vocal performance. These “Virtual Choir” performances grew from 185 participating singers at VC1 in 2009 to an assemblage of 8,409 videos from 5,905 singers in 101 countries, all stitched together for VC4 in 2013.
Yet for all the sophisticated technology behind those large projects, Whitacre keeps his focus on the choral fundamentals, allowing the text to shape the composition and keeping the actual tools of manuscript creation surprisingly spare:
“I use a pencil and paper. That’s it. ... I just seem to write better when I’m using ‘old school’ materials. Something about the smell of the lead and the feel of the paper make me feel more like I’m working, and for me that’s an essential part of the process. I like to get to the end of a writing day and have sore fingers and little bits of eraser all over my clothes, like a woodworker leaving his studio. ... I always use the biggest manuscript paper I can find, at least 11 by 17 and at least 18 staves, even when I’m writing four-part a cappella music.”
The Singers have performed a sampling of Whitacre’s music in recent seasons: His Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine and Five Hebrew Love Songs, a setting of poetry by his wife, soprano Hila Plitmann. The Providence Singers participated in a multi-chorus commission of Little Man in a Hurry, a setting of the e.e. cummings poem, and presented the New England premiere.
In Cloudburst, composed when he was 21 years old, Whitacre used the poetry of Octavio Paz as a point of departure to conjure a rain storm over parched earth. The chorus snaps its fingers to mimic the sound rain slapping the ground, the snaps following a line of storm-driven dynamics. There is slapping of thighs, raised fists, handclaps, thunder, cymbals, handbells. The commission, Whitacre has written, arrived at exactly the right time:
“I had recently been given an exquisite book of poems by Octavio Paz, and around the same time I witnessed an actual (breathtaking) desert cloudburst, and I guess it just all lined up. The finger snapping thing ... is an old campfire game that I modified for the work, and the thunder sheets were giant pieces of tin we took from the side of [a school building].”
Born in Nevada, Whitacre studied at the University of Nevada–Reno. His musical studies and interests, he has written, were particularly inspired by the life-changing experience of singing Mozart’s Requiem. He subsequently studied composition with John Corigliano and David Diamond at the Juilliard School in New York, earning his Master of Music in 1997.
In 2001 Whitacre became the youngest recipient of the Raymond C. Brock commission from the American Choral Directors Association, a significant achievement for a composer who discovered classical music relatively late in life. His list of works includes commissions for, among others, the BBC Proms, the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Chanticleer, Julian Lloyd Webber and the Philharmonia Orchestra, The Tallis Scholars, the Berlin Rundfunkchor, and The King’s Singers.
“El Cántaro Roto” (The Broken Water-Jug) by Octavio Paz (1914-98)
Adapted by Eric Whitacre and translated by Lysander Kemp
El cántaro roto
Ojos de aqua de sombra,
ojos de agua de pozo,
ojos de aqua de sueńo.
Soles azules, verdes remolinos,
picos de luz que abren astros
Dime, tierra quemada, no hay aqua?
hay sólo sangre, sólo hay polvo,
sólo pisadas de pies desnudos sobre la espina?
La lluvia despierta...
Hay que domir con los ojos abiertos,
hay que soñar con les manos,
soñemos sueños activos de río buscando su cauce,
sueños de sol soñando sus mundos,
hay que soñar en voz alta,
hay que cantar hasta que el canto eche,
raíces, tronco ramas pájaros, astros,
hay que desenterrar la palabra perida,
recordar lo que dicen la sangre y la marea,
le tierra y el cuerpo,
volver al punto de partida...
The Broken Water-Jug
Eyes of shadow-water
eyes of well-water,
eyes of dream-water.
Blue suns, green whirlwinds,
birdbeaks of light pecking open
But tell me, burnt earth, is there no water?
Only blood, only dust,
Only naked footsteps on the thorns?
The rain awakens…
We must sleep with open eyes,
we must dream with our hands,
we must dream the dreams of a river seeking its course,
of the sun dreaming its worlds,
we must dream aloud,
we must sing till the song puts forth roots,
trunk, branches, birds, stars,
we must find the lost word,
and remember what the blood,
the tides, the earth, and the body say,
and return to the point of departure…