How does Eric Whitacre write beautiful music? He says it all comes down to ‘the golden brick’

24 May 2019, 14:42 | Updated: 29 May 2019, 09:28

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Eric Whitacre has composed some of the most hauntingly beautiful choral music of the last ten years. So, what’s his secret? The Grammy Award-winning composer reveals all…

From his viral Virtual Choir videos to his enviable head of blonde locks (don’t pretend you haven’t noticed), Eric Whitacre is choral music’s coolest composer-conductor.

But what’s his secret to creating gorgeous, spine-tingling music? Eric spoke to Classic FM at Blüthner Pianos in London, and revealed a few of his secrets...

The golden brick

“What I’m looking for when I improvise is what I call the ‘golden brick’,” he says.

“The ‘golden brick’ is just a few notes of music that contain within it all the DNA for the piece of music that will come.

“The best way to describe it is that I get haunted by these worlds that are created. I remember even as a child being like this, before I could read music. I would sit at the piano and play intervals, and just listen to the sound of it resonating.”

Cluster chords

Whitacre has become defined by the use of ‘chord clusters’ in his music – chords with a chromatic quality that produce an almost shimmering effect. You can hear them in almost all his choral compositions, including Lux Aurumque, Sleep and A Boy and a Girl.

“I didn’t imagine that I’d be the cluster chord guy,” he tells Classic FM.

“It only happened because when I started singing in choir, I was moved physically by the sound of these close harmonies together. I remember giggling or tearing up. I still do when I hear them, I just feel them in my body.

“And when I started to write, I found I could find certain emotional colours in a very specific way.”

Teaching the audience how to breathe

In 2010, Whitacre released a choral version of his work Lux Aurumque for his virtual choir. It was recorded with 185 voices over 12 countries performing over the Internet.

“What I wanted to do with Lux Aurumque,” the American composer explains, “Was teach the audience how to breathe, without them knowing that they were being taught how to breathe.

“It’s done with crescendos and decrescendos. The idea was that an audience listening to it would find themselves, as this was repeated over and over, breathing in for 4, out for 3, and lift.

“When I hear myself talk, I sound like a California yoga instructor. But that’s really how I was thinking about the music.”

“And I really have found when I’m sitting in the audience, watching Lux Aurumque being performed, that if the tempo is right, if it’s in tune, if the atmosphere is correct, then by measure 9, you really see the audience start to settle in. They start to breathe.

“I’ve been at performances of Lux Aurumque where people come up to me afterwards and say, ‘it left me breathless’. And I just smile and say, ‘then it worked’.”

Eric Whitacre is performing in Brooklyn and Los Angeles (US) this June – find his upcoming concert dates here.