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Story by Jarret Keene
Nevada-born composer Eric Whitacre talks Godzilla, Grammys and being mistaken for a ‘Game of Thrones’ actor.
It’s cold and raining in London, but the weather doesn’t darken Eric Whitacre’s demeanor. The Grammy-winning composer sounds honored and upbeat to know the Las Vegas Philharmonic will perform his piece “Equus” Jan. 18 at The Smith Center. The composition is part of “Battle Born — Nevada Proud!”, a concert celebrating Nevada’s 150th anniversary as a state in the union. We chatted with the in-demand composer about studying music at UNLV, assembling a choir of 6,000 voices via webcam and writing scores for imaginary movies in his head.
You grew up outside of Reno in the ’80s. How did you find music?
I bought vinyl 45s at a tiny record store in a farming community called Gardnerville, about an hour from Reno. The first single I remember buying is Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The first album I recall buying is the Star Wars soundtrack, with the John Williams score. I loved the movie and thought the record would help me better memorize the film’s dialogue. I took the record home and discovered, to my horror, that it was only the damn music.
What’s your best memory of your time at UNLV?
My first day in choir, singing bass, imprinted itself onto my brain. The very first moment of my adult life happened at that moment. It changed everything for me.
You were a huge Duran Duran fan. What’s your favorite track of theirs?
“Save a Prayer,” with its lilting, romantic synthesizer motif. It’s unforgettable.
You grew up wanting to be a rock star. Are you jealous of Brandon Flowers and (fellow UNLV music grad) Ronnie Vannucci of The Killers?
Yes, but not for the reason you might think. I’m sure The Killers got to meet Depeche Mode. I still haven’t. What a great songwriter Brandon Flowers is. My son, who is now 8, adores “Human.” The Killers seem like really authentic people.
Speaking of Depeche Mode, you re-imagined their hit “Enjoy the Silence” as a haunting choral piece. It’s emotionally wrenching, otherworldly and very much in the style of French Romantic composers like (Gabriel) Fauré.
Fauré was a huge influence. When I started to cover “Enjoy the Silence,” I had a different idea in mind. I wanted to do it much sweeter. But then I did what I usually do: I memorized the lyrics first, as if the words were a poem. They were so much darker and painful than I’d remembered. So an edge came out in my arrangement that I hadn’t anticipated. Later, I discovered (Depeche Mode songwriter) Martin Gore had originally written “Enjoy the Silence” as a solo piece, with only voice and harmonium. But (the band) decided to punch it up into a dance track, which is the recorded version that appears on the album Violator.
Let’s talk about a more lighthearted piece you wrote called “Godzilla Eats Las Vegas.” It’s a kind of mash-up in the way it blends eerie, ominous monster-movie passages with old school Vegas, big-band-in-a-lounge-act kitsch.
It’s absolutely a mash-up. Really, the whole idea was to write a score to a really bad Godzilla movie that didn’t exist. I even wrote a script treatment for Godzilla Eats Las Vegas, which was printed at the front of the score.
[HEAR MORE: A Nevada composor creates global choirs on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
How important is humor in your work?
Ideally what I hope my music does is show different sides of my personality. To be honest, getting a laugh is the sweetest honey there is. The hardest thing to do is to get a genuine laugh from an audience, especially in music.
[HEAR MORE: All Things Considered - They've Never Met, But 2,051 Singers Perform Together ]
The Virtual Choir, which you launched four years ago, now comprises 6,000 voices from 100 countries. It’s an ongoing project that embodies the best qualities of the Internet, the way it brings people together. Did you have any inkling going into the project that it could grow this big? That you’d end up doing a TED talk like you did last March?
I had no idea. I thought I’d build this Tinker-toy machine, press the button and see if it works. I’m stunned by the response, and even more stunned by the response from outside the choral word. I thought it would be limited to our little choir-geek circle.
Does the Virtual Choir result in headaches? After all, you’re conducting singers from Texas to Sweden and beyond.
You know, it’s funny. The music-making part of it, the writing, is relatively easy. Everything after that, especially post-production, takes up all the time. I wish I could clone myself a dozen times over.
Your TED talk last year was well-received. What was the experience like?
Easily one of the greatest experiences of my life. I have no memory of standing onstage. I remember walking out, scanning the audience and seeing Al Gore, Peter Gabriel, Bill Gates, Cameron Diaz. And that’s it. (Listen to TED Radio and watch Eric's presentation.)
“Equus” is lushly cinematic. How important was film music to you in college? Did you sit around studying John Williams scores?
Yes, except that it’s very difficult get access to scores. I learned it all by ear. Film music was my only exposure to classical music of any kind. I think of myself as a film composer without films. With “Equus” I didn’t have a movie in my mind — just close-ups of hooves, the working power of a horse.
You co-wrote with Hans Zimmer some themes for 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Is more film scoring in your near future?
Not yet. I’m waiting for the right project. Scoring is a huge amount of work that takes over your life for three or four months. I need something I can really connect with artistically.
You admit to being a fan of Emily Dickinson. What do you love most about her poetry? She’s a poet of isolation, alienation. Yet your work strives to erase those feelings.
What I’m trying to do is provide a communal experience. But when I read poetry, what I’m looking for, most of all, is authenticity. There’s something about Emily Dickinson that is so heartbreakingly authentic. She’s not gushing, yet she’s so vulnerable. Her poetry is wide open. She uses simple gestures that crystallize the whole human experience in just a few words.
Your debut album, Light & Gold, won a Grammy in 2012 for Best Choral Performance. Does it offer satisfaction or add pressure for more success?
This year Woody Allen is receiving a big Golden Globe award. He’s not attending, he says, because showing up when they say your work is good means you have to believe them when they say your work is bad. I’m honored they gave me a Grammy, but in no way do I think I deserved it. It’s bizarre, really. Music is the last thing there should be a competition for.
Describe your writing regimen. Every day or when inspiration strikes?
With conducting and public speaking, it’s difficult to get a few weeks of pure writing time in a row. Right now I get up in the morning, get my son off to school, get two or three solid hours at my piano in the studio, and then I go to the gym, walk a bit, and in the afternoon I start polishing what I wrote in the morning.
Are you ever mistaken for country singer Keith Urban or the guy who plays Thor in the movies?
(Laughs.) More recently, the actor in “Game of Thrones,” Jamie Lannister.
What are your feelings about John Tesh?
Hey, John Tesh followed his dreams. He was making serious money with “Entertainment Tonight” and gave it all up to be a musician. He’s very successful. I’m not saying I have Tesh in my iTunes. OK, just two or three songs.
Las Vegas Philharmonic performs “Equus” as part of its “Battle Born — Nevada Proud!” concert 7:30p Jan. 18 in Reynolds Hall at The Smith Center. $25-$94. Info: thesmithcenter.com
[HEAR MORE: Hear Las Vegas native Suzanne Vinnik talk about singing opera on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
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