Reasons Why I Like Eric Whitacre

I was satisfied to see the line-up for next month’s Yellow Lounge, the classical club night currently resident at the Bankside Vaults, Southwark. It’s always come across as the glossy, corporate, major-label cousin of the more grungy alt-classical events, but up until this point, this identity has been accompanied by programmes of fairly safe older music, albeit delivered with rockstar panache by some of the better-looking of today’s young superstar performers. May’s event is different, featuring a contemporary programme and – very appropriately – showcasing two of the more remarkable, populist strands in new music: Eric Whitacre, and Hilary Hahn & Hauschka.

Both Hahn and Whitacre are major label, big-dog Grammy winners, golden personalities in new music who have nevertheless been accepted into all the most mainstream classical media and celebrated by the non-musical press. Hahn’s collaborative work with Hauschka is typical of the German musician’s ambient/post-rock inspired approach to prepared piano music – hyper-tonal, concerned with ‘beauty’ and ‘atmosphere’, and riding high on the Icelandic post-minimalist wagon. Their presence at this event, supporting their new album Silfra (on Deutsche Grammophon, of course), makes them representatives for a developing school of pop-fringed, audience-friendly ambient classical (Olafur ArnaldsJóhann Jóhannsson, Valgeir Sigurðsson, etc.) that clearly have a perfect home in the kind of club that Yellow Lounge are trying to be create.

Eric Whitacre represents another, even more powerful, trend in audience-friendly new music, which is none other than the cult of Eric Whitacre himself. While not an exponent of the kind of loungey, ambient chamber music that Hauschka produces, the Whitacre brand is ideally compatible with that of Yellow Lounge, in its perfect, quasi-corporate glossiness, and its unabashed and apolitical populism. These artists comprise a programme representing, in actual new work, a close correspondence with what Yellow Lounge is attempting in terms of presentation and tone. It shows that the Yellow Lounge approach to classical music can extend into new composition, making the whole project at once more substantial and more distinctive.

If you’re familiar with my posts, you might expect that I’d take against Whitacre for these kinds of association. His music, website and persona totally lack irony or – in fact – any pretence at trendiness. He presides over his enormous fanbase with the charisma (and uncanny looks) of a cult leader (or possibly a tight-trousered, Vegas-style celebrity illusionist), and his aesthetic is thoroughly American in its cleanness and cheesiness, with none of the cultivated shambles with which most un-trendy British composers attempt to retain an edge.

But, as much as I can take or leave Hauschka (and Yellow Lounge in general, although I’m kind of pleased it exists), I actually really like Eric Whitacre. And in saying this, I think I probably differ from much of the ‘serious’ new music world, academics and avant-gardists alike. However, one of the key qualities of the Whitacre cult is that it isn’t based in that world (and it could never exist in that world) but was constructed instead in the choral world, where there are very different ideas about what is ironic and what is geeky and what is political and what is progressive and what is beautiful. For that reason alone, he has managed to rise to absolutely ridiculous heights (actually inconceivable outside of the choral world) without really getting much stick at all. So, while the music he makes does have a kind of apolitical (and therefore amoral/immoral) approach to harmony – in which the ‘dissonant’ potential of dissonance is assimilated into clusters and made impotent, effectively denying all suffering and pain within clouds of pandiatonic narcosis – he is, in other ways, quite delightfully transgressive.

Reasons why I like Eric Whitacre

1) He’s reclaiming choral music from religion – Whitacre is ‘a-religious’ and, while he has written a few Christian works, most of his mega-hits retain an air of post-Christian ‘spirituality’ whilst remaining avowedly humanist. Whitacre’s music takes much of the sense of awe and wonder that can be created through working with large ensembles of human voices, and he demonstrates that these ideas and moods are not specific to Christian conception, or indeed to theist world-views, but that effective and inspiring music can be made in that same tradition, accessing those same themes, but in a post-religious world. We already perform religious choral music outside of churches and liturgical contexts. The next step for a choral culture eager to explore these topics and atmospheres of spectacle and wonder, beyond the metaphysical confines of the Christian paradigm and without excluding those who might quite reasonably feel alienated by Christian institutional attitudes and hypocrisies concerning wealth and social justice, is to confidently compose music that doesn’t rely on name-checking those same archetypes.

2) He’s really tenacious with his style and his populism – Not only has he really stuck with the whole pandiatonic clusters thing, but he certainly doesn’t do it by halves. It’s a very clear and simple compositional device, but he really owns it and its come to totally define his sound in a way that is quite difficult for composers to achieve these days. In a way, it’s kind of avant garde, because it’s so absolute and because – in its ultra-accessibility – it does really buck all the trends of 20th-century music, while still being based on formalist notions and not solely reliant on pastiche. And, thanks to the booming American choral world, and the special qualities of the choral world in general (immediately accessible to very large numbers of relative amateurs), and Whitacre’s charisma and looks and unique-yet-unrepellant, easy-yet-impressive ‘sound’, he has become just ridiculously famous and popular. He’s the world’s most performed living composer. He managed to galvanise thousands of earnest, wide-eyed teenagers from around the world into posting themselves, singing his pieces, on YouTube. He’s like the Justin Bieber of choral music; it’s not old people who are obsessing over him but young people. It’s just quite incredible actually.

3) His uncynical, unpatronising pop influences – Kind of like Hauschka I suppose, Whitacre is actually deeply indebted to pop music – perhaps more so, deep down, than the choral tradition itself. But also like Hauschka (whose Salon des Amateurs attempted to inhabit the spirit of techno), he doesn’t take an ethnographic approach to pop, borrowing or estimating or referring in a patronising way. He doesn’t just pastiche awkwardly, as is the tendency of British choral megaliths like John Rutter and Bob Chilcott, whose ‘pop-inflected’ pieces don’t actually sound like any real popular music past or present, but have more in common with Pam Wedgwood’s pedagogical minstrel tunes, and neutered evangelical worship music. Whitacre’s pop roots run far deeper; actual electronic projects and Imogen Heap collaborations aside, his deeply non-functional, pandiatonic cloudiness is more pop asceticism than Impressionist sensuousness. As much as they may try to evoke the architectural grandiosity of the ‘holy minimalists’, his manufactured ambiences have their roots as much in audio sends and effects units – reverb, delay, echo, tremolo. Whitacre’s is a post-production music, taking simple, attractive musical ideas and building them into artificial ambiences via ‘composed’ production techniques. His inventiveness flows in the same channel as that of certain pop and electronic artists then – working not with harmony, content or even narrative, but with melting and expanding materials to produce textures that push their technologies to extremes.

4) He’s kind of a bit of a ‘fuck you’ to new music – Because he’s so popular – more popular than anyone perhaps thought it was possible to be as a composer, and especially popular with the kids. Many of his projects, the Virtual Choir in particular, actually achieve things and make statements that many contemporary composers could only dream of – in terms of harnessing and reflecting optimistically upon modern technology, in terms of saying something ‘universal’ which is in total harmony with its production means and its final result, and in terms of seriously engaging huge numbers of young people and amateurs. He ticks most of the boxes that I discuss in my manifesto regarding the composer-personality figure, including now touring with his own ensemble, the Whitacre Singers who are performing at Yellow Lounge. But he’s not really fashionable, and he’s not derided by the institutions (he’s got a Prom this year), and he doesn’t really get shunned or given bad reviews. This could be because no-one really takes (American) choral music seriously, amongst the composers and musicians who consider themselves the defining force in contemporary music. But it could also be a sign that we really are all genuinely ready for straight-up, un-ironic ‘beauty’ again, not just the ‘masses’ but the ‘serious’ critics and the new music programmers too.

I’m not wholly behind this idea, of course. The ‘positive’ aspects of choral music are always present in the genre – the working-together, solidarity, team-building, shared-goal aspects – and these are what Whitacre really goes in for whole-heartedly, exploring them for their own sake rather than for commemoration or worship or national pride. They are good, humanist qualities, and better when removed from any residue of jingoism or religious dogma, but they do also demand some context. Without enough specificity, Whitacre’s work could be used to any ends (and it already is – hence his place as the most-performed composer). It also risks smacking a little of the neoliberal, advertisers’ co-optation of such hard-won principles as secularist, multiculturalist tolerance and ‘greenwashing’ global consciousness. Even unabashed beauty can be used to look at and critique our contemporary world: what is particularly good, and what could be better? With great popularity (and perfect stubble) comes great responsibility. Most choral composers dedicate their lives and work to praising God. Whitacre could do a lot more…

Yellow Lounge is on Friday 11th May (doors at 8pm)  – Bankside Vaults, Southwark, SE1 9UF – Tickets: £10 – website is here —–> **** <–

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2 Responses to Reasons Why I Like Eric Whitacre

  1. I take issue with your first point. You use in the title “reclaiming” from religion. To “re-claim” something, one must have had a claim to it in the first place; however, choral music, until recently has always been within religious confines. Most notably, the Catholic Church took choral music to advances unmatched, but choral music, of course pre-dates Christianity and can be found within Jewish culture amongst others. You may argue of a trying to “claim” it, but not “reclaim” – previous to now, it always belonged to religion. And there is a good reason for this. To make my point I will reference a quote from you which does not make sense to me:
    “Whitacre’s music takes much of the sense of awe and wonder that can be created through working with large ensembles of human voices, and he demonstrates that these ideas and moods are not specific to Christian conception, or indeed to theist world-views, but that effective and inspiring music can be made in that same tradition, accessing those same themes, but in a post-religious world.”
    I would like you to explain to me your understanding of the words “awe” and “wonder”. Both awe and wonder intrinsically point to transcendence. Something that inspires awe and wonder does so because it points beyond itself – if I am filled with awe and wonder at a star filled night, it is doubtlessly not simply because of extraordinary amounts of fire and gas burning trillions of light years away. It is because I am marveling at beauty. Beauty transcends first and gas – it is the result of a desire within us sparked at a sense of awe and wonder – beauty in creation reminds us that there is something more than just the fire and gas. This is transcendence.
    You seemingly want choral music outside the confines of theism; however, atheism could not allow for a sense of transcendence. It would have to simply define wonder and awe as chemical reactions within one’s neurological structure. I doubt you believe wonder and awe are simply chemical reactions. You don’t seem to. you seem to realize that the measure the magnitude of these elements you must account for a soul. Something connecting spiritually sparked by a marveling at beauty. Atheism would not allow for this – there can be nothing greater than this world. Anything such as wonder and awe are simply reduced to “feelings” which must be defined as chemical reactions, and all things of importance simply are reduced to some sort of notion of protection of species. Do you believe this? Or do you believe that wonder and awe are intrinsically transcendent? they stir up desire through beauty(interesting enough, desire comes from de sidiere which means “to look to the stars” or “long for what the stars offer”? they point beyond to something greater?
    I wouldn’t buy the argument that you might give me which would say, “I’m not saying that they awe and wonder aren’t spiritual, I just don’t want choral music to be confined to religion.” But if religion, as being a response to God who is reached through transcendence and grasped by faith, is the natural habitat for wonder and awe, as I have demonstrated, it would not be confining to keep these things in their home, to allow them to grow and prosper. You would take a plant out of the ground, take it into a lab, and try to figure out why it is dying. That’s absurd – you have taken it away from its habitat where it can survive. So you are attempting to do with awe and wonder – you are attempting to kill them. Embrace transcendence. Embrace the God they point to.

  2. correction: you wouldn’t take a plant…

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