Eric Whitacre on composing work honouring the sacredness of life and death
Known for his celestial and tender compositions contemplating everything from the human condition to the natural world, Los Angeles-based choral and orchestral composer Eric Whitacre takes a metaphysical and humanistic approach to his work. We spoke to Whitacre about the development of The Sacred Veil, seeking solace in music and the Hubble Space Telescope’s Deep Field image.
MLIVE: Written in collaboration with poet Charles Anthony Silvestri, The Sacred Veil honours the sacredness of life and death. Can you explain the impetus of the project and how it developed as a 12-movement work?
Eric Whitacre: Tony Silvestri, the poet, lost his wife, Julie Silvestri to cancer 13 years ago, ovarian cancer. I knew her well; I was friends with her as well – I was there at their wedding. For years and years after her death, Tony and I would talk about it, and you can imagine just him trying to understand it and process it. And I guess it was about three years ago; he just set a poem down on my piano. He was visiting, and before he left in the morning, he set this poem down, and it was what eventually would become the first movement of the full Sacred Veil.
He hadn’t written it for me to be set to music or for anything, he had just kind of started to write about this idea of the veil and this world between the living and those who were dead, and I set it pretty quickly to music, much quicker than I usually do. I called him and said I think we’ve got a bigger piece here, and we talked about first to how could we write the piece and then second, did we really want to dive into this and write a piece about it? Eventually, we decided that we did, but we had no idea how to do it, and so my thought with Tony was let’s dive in. So the first thing I asked him to write was what is now the 11th movement, You Rise, I Fall, and I had those words, I had written those words ‘you rise, I fall’, and I said to Tony, let’s write about the moment of Julie’s death, the exact moment of Julie’s death. And so he wrote the poetry all around these words ‘you rise, I fall’, and then I set that to music and then we knew we had this pillar that would eventually be part of the piece.
The next thing I asked him to write was right about the moment he knew that he was in love, and so he described it to me over the phone, and he said: ‘It was our second date’, he and Julie, and
‘…they were looking out over the ocean and talking, and he remembers looking at her and just having this single thought in his mind that, you feel like home.’
And that became the only poetry for that movement which is now called Home.
So with those two pillars, the love and the loss, we started to build the rest of the journey from start to finish slowly. It took all kinds of turns. We ended up setting some of the actual medical records from Julie’s diagnosis. Three of the movements were written by Julie herself. These were things that she had written first before she had cancer and was hoping to have a baby, and then two other movements after she had discovered she had cancer and was writing to her friends, kind of keeping a journal, so those are her poems.
MLIVE: As fewer people in the West are describing themselves as religious, the number of people seeking solace in music associated with religion is rising. Why do you think this is so?
Eric Whitacre: When I was Composer in Residence at Cambridge University, I worked closely with a man named David Skinner; a great conductor and a good friend, and he’s an expert in Renaissance music. Exactly this kind of music that you’re talking about, music designed for cathedrals. And I think music designed for seeking solace as you say in your question, and
‘…I remember him saying that the music itself was designed to create in the listener a sense of twilight.’
I always loved that. I think that is what people who are aren’t religious are drawn to, in the music itself. There’s more than an atmosphere there. There’s, in a way, a pool of water to float in and cleanse oneself. Even if you’re not religious at all, even if you strip away the religious meaning from that music, I think there’s something in the harmonies and the counterpoint, the way that the music itself is written that invites the listener into this pool of water, into this pool of twilight. And I think that as human beings we need that, we long for it. And more and more in our modern world there’s not the architecture for that kind of experience, and not just literally architecture – the cathedrals themselves, but the architecture in our daily lives. There’s really no place that we go to ritualistically anymore to cleanse ourselves spiritually and mentally.
MLIVE: There’s a deep interest in metaphysics and the human condition in your practice. What have you read, seen or listened to recently that has resonated with you?
Eric Whitacre: Well, I’m also fascinated by science – all aspects of science, biological sciences, mathematics, but particularly astrophysics. And I’ve been working on a project for the past several years called Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of our Universe which is about an image that the Hubble Telescope captured back in 1995. I wrote an orchestral piece about it, we made a film to accompany the orchestral piece, and the inspiration that I find in studying the natural world is boundless and is food for a metaphysical and a humanistic approach to art and to living I think.