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Whitacre's Way

Eric Whitacre walked into his first UNLV music class as a pop musician who couldn't read music. He left for Juilliard and a career in classical music that's garnered Grammy nominations and a devoted fan base among the MySpace generation.
People  |  Oct 1, 2007  |  By Adam Baer

Los Angeles's Route 101 is a passage to success. In Hollywood, it snakes north into hills, Passing the iconic Capitol Records building before coming to Mulholland Drive mansions and soon Universal Studios. Nearby, the neighborhood of Studio City houses those working in "the business": studio heads, casting agents, music execs. This is where TV stars buy glitzy rims for their Range Rovers while screenwriters order pricey sushi next to cellists who just recorded the latest Pixar score. It is a land that rewards creative risk-takers, proud to know how to market their art. It is also home -- at least, for now -- to composer Eric Whitacre.

Called "fabulously gifted" and a "major discovery" by the American Record Guide, Whitacre ('95 BA Music) is an anomaly among artful concert music composers, many of whom suffer from a lack of broad appeal and exposure. At just 37, Whitacre stands among the top-selling composers of choral and band music in the United States and Europe. He is a skilled synthesist with an innovative voice known for deeply eclectic and emotional scores made of intuitive mood transitions: a little minimalism, a little romanticism, even some electronica.

In August, when we meet at a local caf? as his newest rock-musical-opera Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings plays at Pasadena's Boston Court theater, he wears stylish jeans and his blonde hair long. With a chiseled grin and relaxed confidence, he could easily be mistaken for one of the neighborhood's popular film actors. This man is happy. But you would be, too, if your MySpace page was flooded with fan messages as your latest Grammy-nominated album has enjoyed more than a year (and counting) on the Billboard charts.

"I never thought this would happen," Whitacre says. "But people began asking me to write music for them in college -- for money." Whitacre chronicles his seven-year undergraduate degree. "I had terrible grades and couldn't even read music when I started. I thought of it as an apprenticeship -- that they let you out when you were good enough."

But soon enough, Whitacre, who could improvise on the piano and played in a high-school pop band, found himself "tricked" into auditioning for choir, and the experience changed his life. "I got obsessed," he says. "I'd go to the library constantly and listen to CDs while following along with the scores. Every day was a new discovery: Mozart, Mahler, Mussoursgky."
He began writing music and soon enough, David Weiller, UNLV's director of choir studies, had performed one of Whitacre's first pieces at a choral convention in Hawaii . A publisher approached the student and asked if she could sell his work. A year later, the 23-year-old Whitacre wrote a short piece called "Ghost Train," which continues to sell phenomenally well. He had also learned an important lesson: hold onto your rights. Whitacre had been working at Kinko's at night, so he self-published, making the copies himself and keeping 80 percent more potential revenue than a publisher would pay him. "That was the last real job I ever had," he says. Whitacre went on to graduate school at Juilliard in Manhattan -- "It was the only school that didn't require a GPA," he says.

The transition wasn't easy. Whitacre stayed in touch with his UNLV mentors. He wrote the decidedly anti-establishment piece Godzilla Eats Las Vegas for UNLV's wind orchestra. Of Juilliard, he says, "There was touched-by-the-hand-of- God talent there. But there were also people whose cortexes were burned by their genius. Young musicians should be careful of that kind of academia -- it can burn your spirit."

Whitacre found support at Juilliard from one of classical music's most famous atonal composers: Milton Babbit, who advised, "'Do what you were made to do." And he began studying with celebrated tonal composer John Corigliano of Red Violin fame.

After graduating, Whitacre moved to Los Angeles with his new wife, Juilliard-trained soprano Hila Plitmann, to explore film music. Meanwhile, his popularity grew among the educational band and choral community, a world that academics and symphony purists shun even though it offers tremendous exposure. Recently at a Northwestern University performance of Paradise Lost, for instance, Whitacre heard audience members singing along with a brand new work (they'd heard snippets of it online).

Whitacre humbly admits that he could live off his royalties alone. "Water Night" is a choir staple and "Ghost Train" has been recorded more than 40 times. His February Hyperion album -- featuring the beloved U.K. conductor Stephen Layton and his choir, Polyphony, performing the hit "Cloudburst" -- debuted at 11 on the Billboard classical charts and elicited glowing reviews from such outlets as The London Times, BBC Music Magazine, and Opera News. (Whitacre's music is arguably the most performed choral music in England.)

UNLV director of bands Thomas Leslie worked with Whitacre from his start. The two collaborated on the university's alma mater: Whitacre wrote the music; Leslie and graduate student Robyn Lemon Chapman wrote the lyrics. Leslie continues to champion Whitacre's music. "It reaches into your soul and lifts you," he says. "It started from choral writing. He took the sounds of choirs and integrated them into his approach with wind instruments and then realized the potential of every instrument, their ranges, and color contributions."

Whitacre's inventiveness, Leslie notes, helped an unusual instrument become popular. Whitacre found an instrument called the waterphone. Leslie describes it as "a big metal trombone mute that you fill with water and bow like a violin." It creates a "metallic screeching sound that mimics a railroad coming to a halt." Others have likened it to the sound of whales. Whitacre used this instrument -- which, incidentally, was invented by a man called Richard Water -- in "Ghost Train." And, as Leslie tells it, "Mr. Water has sold hundreds of instruments simply because of that piece's success."

"It's totally misleading," Whitacre says of the term "classical music." "People hear it and get a very specific idea in mind. It's not what I'm trying to do. It implies stuffiness. I'm just trying to write beautiful, engaging music." While he doesn't claim to feel stuck in choral and band music, he also admits that his phone isn't ringing off the hook with calls from symphony orchestras. "I just don't think I'm on the symphony orchestras' radars," he adds. "I know that because I've submitted orchestral works and not even received a rejection letter."

Whitacre's latest work, Paradise Lost, is a departure for the classical music fan. It blends taiko drumming, computerized sounds, and projected anime with operatic singing and martial arts fights. "It's like a musical. It has songs and scenes, but it's like an opera in that there's big story-telling with classically trained voices," Whitacre says. "It's very story-heavy, like an action film."

In fact, it's a brand of music that appeals to the Internet generation. Hence, Whitacre's popularity on MySpace and Facebook, two social networking sites that have revolutionized -- and globalized -- the popular music world.
YouTube has more than a hundred videos of ensembles playing Whitacre's music. A two-minute clip of Whitacre energetically conducting a recording session with the University of Southern California Concert Choir attracted more than 17,000 viewers in six months and a slew of gushing fan mail.

"Being published is strange," he says. "Music gets purchased and performed, and sometimes you don't even know. It wasn't actually until I started MySpace two years ago that I started getting contacted from European groups."

So when will Whitacre compose a big film score? He admits that he hasn't yet had the time to pursue that goal despite his Hollywood home. "I would actually love to do it," he says. "Some of my favorite composers write film music. Thomas Newman, John Williams. These people are extraordinary musicians. But I like what I'm doing now. There's not as much madness surrounding it. No one [a producer or financier, say] is telling me what to do. If there is a song or a scene I dislike, I can cut it."

And what of being a part of the educational repertoire? "I'm grateful," Whitacre says. "One of the beautiful things about writing for college choruses and bands is that every four years, it's a new group of people. Once a piece enters the standard repertory, it just keeps getting purchased and repurchased. I just now signed a partnership in London and Europe, and I'll soon be releasing my recordings on my own label." And Universal Classics, no slouch in record sales, will release a Whitacre album in the spring with a big marketing push.

In fact, like popular artists, Whitacre doesn't see his interest in electronica or other genres as inorganic. "I fell in love with Petshop Boys and Duran Duran and European techno as a kid," he says. As a teenager, he used the $15,000 he earned for being in a McDonald's commercial to buy the electronic instruments he learned to compose on. Acquiring technical facility on these tools from a young age paid off. "If you're going to score films or even compose, you have to be a computer-head. It's all about home studios. That said, I write my scores on paper and hire somebody else to notate them on a computer. But that's just to be efficient. What if I have a meeting or a new e-mail connection to follow up on? Or another piece to write?"

For now, Whitacre remains content in L.A. -- he fits in here. But if Paradise Lost moved to London or Broadway, he'd follow. "There's a wild-west entrepreneurial spirit here that's energizing." As is the quality level of L.A.'s musicians. "You know the big joke at Juilliard used to be: 'What's the best orchestra in the world? A pickup band in Hollywood.' There are ridiculous sightreaders here. When the stress level is highest, that's when they get most relaxed. You just can't miss anything because you have to get hired again."

As if getting hired were a concern for Whitacre. He's currently writing two commissions: one for the King Singers' 25th anniversary and one for the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus's 40th anniversary. He also just accepted a commission for the opening of the new Long Center in Austin, Texas. "They want a 70-minute oratorio for full chorus, orchestra, and soloists," he says.

"So the symphony orchestra world isn't noticing you?" I ask. Whitacre nods modestly again. Perhaps that's just a matter of time for the young composer. As we both know, some pretty important composers did all right with choral music and oratorios. Their names were Handel and Bach.