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ClassicsOnline Home » WHITACRE, E.: Choral Music (Elora Festival Singers, Edison)
Eric Whitacre’s dedication to the beauty of sound, paired with exquisite texts, results in a poetic combination that creates a unique sonic experience. These works are existential choral moments, beautifully crafted, and harmonised to express a compressed moment in time. Such sublime sonorities transcend descriptions such as ‘warm’, ‘glistening’ or ‘shimmering’, although these features of his choral works do suggest affinities with the sound worlds of Arvo Pärt or John Tavener, for instance. However, Whitacre’s fluid lines and blossoming harmonies give his music its own highly personal and irresistible magic.
By Colin Eatock
By James Manishen
Winnipeg Free Press
By Stephen Eddins
Eric Whitacre (b. 1970)
As a choral composer, my first and greatest responsibility is to the poem. I work very hard to understand the meaning of each poem I am setting, and when it comes to time to compose the music I simply try to quiet myself enough to hear the notes already hidden below the poet’s words. I am so deeply honored to have this outstanding chorus record my music. Their commitment to and passion for each piece is so apparent, and every note seems to shimmer with the joy and wonder of singing. Above all is their dedication to the subtle nuances of the poetry, elucidated here with a deep and profound sense of the poet’s intentions.
Los Angeles, February 2010
What is it about music that creates sensations best described with tactile words such as warmth? Or how is it that a musical chord can evoke the visual description of glisten or shimmer? These are a sampling of the verbal attempts describing the music of Eric Whitacre. A study of the choral compositions of the early 21st century gives some insight into these descriptors, and particularly the study of Whitacre’s sonorous playground. His music has struck a universal chord, in an area that no longer seems to be universal. But while music may no longer be thought of as a universal language, through its ability to play with sound in imitation of the dualisms found in the human experience and the shades in between, music imitates a universal language—the language of life. The music of Eric Whitacre, along with the texts it freights, explores this life language as it moves at the speed of the heartbeat, ever lyrical and legato, while creating energy through a fresh harmonic language.
As is the case for all music, the key to the life-force energy in Whitacre’s music is found in the combination of elements available to all composers—melody, rhythm, harmony, texture, and timbre. In Whitacre’s music these tactile and visual terms are evoked through secundal harmonies, which have become the new consonance for choral composition in his music, as well as the choral music of Conte, Ligeti, Ticheli, Lauridsen, Pärt, Clausen, and others. For centuries, the minor and major second (the distance, for instance, between a note on the piano, and either the next pitch up or down, a half step, or two notes up or down a whole step) has been a source of harmonic tension, resolving up or down as a dissonance moving to consonance. In the music of Whitacre, the harmonic interval of the second does not function as a suspension or a passing dissonance, but rather, has become the new consonance.
Drama and tension are both created by the compounding of this intervallic convention. Whitacre creates an organic growth of tones that move out from, and return to, a source of rest. Where many romantic harmonies create their energy and sensations through widely contrasting harmonic spectrums, Whitacre limits his contrasts to a very small number of interval combinations, the interval of the second, and in many cases, to the tonic and subdominant tonal centers. Although triads frequently appear in pure form, in Whitacre’s music they are extended, altered, or colored to create moments of tension and climax, to highlight important words, or as Andrew Lloyd Larson states in his analysis of Whitacre’s music, “merely to suit the composer’s fascination with sound.”
The harmonic interval of the major second is no stranger to the choral genre. Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and other works of the musical era we classify as Impressionism certainly exploited this harmonic device. The one-degree-of-separation that creates this tension of tone proximity, results in setting off a series of vibrations that evoke the visual terms often used to describe Impressionistic works. As these musical units are stacked upon each other vertically, vibrations multiply, and the best terms that come to mind are words used to describe light, and descriptions such as warmth. Given the fact that vibrations are literally energy in motion, the terms are not off base.
The texture of Whitacre’s music is seamlessly smooth. When added to the conventional harmonies, tonal melodies (if indeed melody in the usual sense can be found) and steady, regular rhythms, the listener is left to focus on those vertical moments of secundal harmony, and remarkable words. Yet, this acoustic analysis still does not explain the strong and deep energy created within these compositions, nor the enormous attraction by both audience and performer. Choirs love this music, primarily because it has that close-harmonic attraction that draws singers to the choral medium. This is music that attracts those, like the composer, that are fascinated by sound. The fluid, legato, movement aided by shared harmonic relationships, offers that tactile sense of warmth to both singer and listener. As solitary and unison parts open up to this intervallic architecture, the combustion engine that is Whitacre’s harmonic signature begins its magic.
The fact that melody, the conventional anchor for most compositions, is not even a topic of consideration with this music, should betray that something very special is happening. Indeed, it is. Sonority enjoyed as a total experience is the strength of this music, making it unforgettable, yet without a melodic motive to catalogue the sonic experience. This sonority is one in which every singer participates, not only equally, but critically, in the proportional balance and blend necessary for perfect intonation and the resulting glisten and glimmer.
In A Boy and a Girl, the added second is found in the upper voices in nearly every chord. 40 out of 52 measures contain this characteristic sonority. The composer alternates between tonic and subdominant triads on strong beats, often moving through passing mediant triads on weak beats, as heard in the first three measures. In one of Whitacre’s earliest works, Water Night, the early kernels of the use of the moving secundal harmonies were first heard, as well as the tonic and sub-dominant harmonic shifts.
In Lux aurumque, Whitacre builds energy and forward movement by increasing the number of pitches in a chord, as evidenced in the opening four measures. When the voice parts divide, one voice ties a pitch from the previous measure, and the other creates the interval of the second. As this continues, the anticipation of the next second gives forward momentum. An interesting sequence of expectation is formed. The glistening is underscored by the use of the word lux, or light. Whitacre speaks of this work in terms of “blossoming” and “surrendering” to the light. Quoting the composer, “I think that’s what Lux is for me. It’s this constant gentle surrender, teaching me how to work my way through life.”
When David Heard represents a rare use of Biblical text, II Samuel 18:33. Compared to other works, this is a monumental piece with minimalistic-layered patterns, opening subtly with a recitative ensemble statement, sustaining the initial harmony of a minor second. He uses a similar idea with text when he repeats a single vowel, but on disjunct intervals on the text O, Absalom my Son. Again quoting Whitacre, “For me, though, what struck me most about the Scripture is that it’s so loaded with a fundamental human suffering. It was so real as I was reading it.”
Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, a work commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association, also displays minimalistic rhythms, but departs from his rather subdued rhythmic treatments in other pieces. Here we are reminded of the Renaissance madrigal with the use of rapid sixteenth-note patterns on an ascending d minor tetra chord.
i thank you God for most this amazing day begins with the intervals of the second added to a triad. It concludes with a sonority built on multiple harmonic seconds, disguised as polychords, but generally rooted in a tonic, subdominant, dominant traditional harmony. The harmonic movement of clusters of tones, all based in these conventional structures creates the characteristic sonic wall of tonal color. Sleep moves steadily forward with quarter-note rhythms, like the tick-tock of a clock. Monotony is avoided by the sonorities and the internal movement created by the play with harmony. In this strongly homophonic texture, this piece juxtaposes two separate blocks of homophony to create something of a textural counterpoint, giving variety to the usual chordal movement.
In Little Birds we hear rapid minimalistic patterns in the accompaniment over a single harmony. Beginning in unison, the choir moves to aleatoric singing to create sound clusters, using core rhythmic durations.
When melody, harmony, rhythm, and texture are removed from the arena of compositional complexity, one would wonder where the depth lies? For singer and choir, it is clearly in the challenge of tuning and balancing the sonorities for the desired effect. For the listener, it is in the experience of the harmonic compression and forward momentum created by the play with harmony. Whitacre’s dedication to the beauty of sound, paired with exquisite texts, results in a poetic combination that creates a unique sonic experience. These works are existential choral moments, beautifully crafted, and harmonized to express a compressed moment in time.
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