Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
“Tell me, burnt earth: Is there no water? Is there only dust? Is there only the blood of bare-footed footsteps on the thorns?” “The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.”
Eric Whitacre is a conductor and composer with matinee-idol good looks, personal magnetism, a slick marketing strategy, and arguably common sense, too: he recommends young composers not waste time acquiring training in academic theory beyond what they need to write music that sounds good. Whitacre is beloved in the choral world, but also, sometimes, disdained — for being overrated (he is, although overrated can still be good), for being gimmicky (also true, though his gimmicks often land), and for writing music “suffused with a sense of easy spiritual uplift… Everything [is] maximally radiant and beautiful, and beautifully sung. And that [is] the problem.”
If that’s the problem, it’s a problem many composers would like to have. Or at least it’s a problem many performing musicians wish the composers whose music they have to perform had. Our disdainer continues, “Whitacre is so sincere I suspect he would glow in the dark.”
Sincerity needs content… In the case of Eric Whitacre, content of any kind is exactly what’s missing. To begin with, he avoids anything that might smack of belief. “I’m not an atheist, but I’m not a Christian either,” is about as close as he gets to a credo.
This disdainer does know how to get a good harrumph going — the proper conservative response to having one’s musical lawn infested by Whitacres, I suppose. He, quite conservatively, emphasizes the musical importance of rootedness, rules, and tradition, all of which he believes Whitacre lacks:
In music, this tussling with something difficult and problematic is symbolised by the composer’s tussle with a musical language.
For a great religious composer such as Bach, the musical language he was born into had the force of law, as unavoidable and exacting as religion itself. It wasn’t something he could just pick up and put down at will. The language had tough rules, and yet Bach never dropped any hint that he found them irksome. He actually relished the difficulty of writing counterpoint, and liked to make things even harder for himself. He would have agreed with Edmund Burke that “difficulty is our true friend”. The severity of strict rules is one thing that enabled Bach to “keep it real”.
What better way to keep it real on the right than name-dropping Burke? The Disdainful One continues,
Another was the fact that [Bach’s] music sprang from a particular time and place.
We forget this, because we like to praise Bach for his “timeless” beauty. But there’s nothing timeless about Bach’s great Passions and cantatas. They are absolutely rooted in their own time. They are full of chorale melodies, those sturdy affirmations of the Protestant faith that Martin Luther designed to be sung by the ordinary man and woman. The counterpoint is in the tremendous North German tradition that stretches back through Bach’s great forebears such as Buxtehude.
Look at other great religious composers, and they all have that quality of being rooted in a coherent style, and in a definite time and place. Palestrina’s Masses breathe the air of Counter-Reformation Rome. Thomas Tallis’s English anthems show the stresses and strains of England’s break with Rome. Modern religious composers are deprived of this context, but the better ones try to find substitutes.
And how does Whitacre’s music not spring from a particular time and place? Only, the particular time is now, a time which MacDonald points out is something of a golden age for classical music, with more knowledge about proper music practice — from anytime, anywhere — in circulation than ever before. None of us has distance enough from our own times to see them in historical context, but Whitacre seems as good a candidate as any for a composer emblematic of our time — and our “place” as Americans.
But back to the rain:
La lluvia (The Rain) is a short poem by Octavio Paz, seemingly a paraphrase of his longer, Whitmaniacal poem, El cántaro roto (The broken pitcher). The poem asks the question of the burnt earth which began this essay. Whitacre set La lluvia for chorus with percussion for his seminal composition “Cloudburst”. “Cloudburst” is, as Whitacre admits, not a tightly-structured piece, but rather a youthful outburst, heavily atmospheric and yes, even gimmicky. Still it’s fun, it’s expressive: once the choir’s done getting through the poem, the storm breaks forth, with percussion (including a thunder sheet) and choral vocalising that’s both ghostly and chunky, like Monument Valley in the rain. “Cloudburst” was written for high school choir and it’s exactly the sort of music to get modern adolescents hooked on the innocent pleasure of singing:
True, “Cloudburst” does have a vague spirituality — and possibly a shallow one, though I’m not sure it must be. In response to the question, “Tell me, burnt earth: Is there no water? Is there only dust? Is there only the blood of bare-footed footsteps on the thorns?” the biblically-literate answer, “The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.” Rejoice how? With a thunderstorm? Well, why not? There’s a biblical precedent for that, too.
It’s hard for me to tell whether Whitacre has committed any sin other than being accessible and (good for him!) marketing-savvy, and hence hugely popular. Could an omniscient God find, alive on earth today, dozens more no-names who could, if only given the chance, compose music at least as deserving of fame as Whitacre’s is? Quite possibly. But perfect meritocracy is a pipe-dream, and we can do no better than increase the opportunities for talent to find its big break, recognizing that many who aspire to the lofty heights Whitacre has reached will fail through no real fault of their own. Conservatives talk a big game on risk, and maybe we could show more grace to those who risk pretension for the chance to make real art — yes, even when they fail.
But back to the rain:
Yes, it’s nonspecific inspiration, neatly packaged, tied up with a bow that ends right where it started: the rain.
There’s no doubt the whole Whitacre phenomenon, down to his Barbie-girl locks, is a neat package, not wholly dependent on musical talent for its luster — a luster slick enough to raise doubts it’s phony. A paper moon over a cardboard sea. Or, rather, a paper thunderhead over a cardboard desert. Something which only becomes real if you believe in the “me” that is the Whitacre brand.
Or maybe it’s real enough, even if you’re skeptical of the slick packaging. Maybe what Whitacre does — the conducting, the teaching, the music-writing, the immersion in the world that keeps the work of old composers alive while adding in voices of the new (even if not every new addition proves worthy in the test of time) is the tradition, rooted and “authentic” (well, as authentic as anything ever is). Maybe the “easy spiritual uplift” offers an entry into a world of more difficult spiritual uplift. (After all, people have to start somewhere.) Screwtape warns his neffie-pooh Wormwood,
The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food, the “important” books.”
For Whitacre’s diehard fans, maybe Whitacre is the “best” people, writing the “important” (music) books. For the rest of us, though? He’s just some guy who writes some music that people — young musicians, particularly — come to truly and disinterestedly enjoy. Through enterprise and good fortune (it takes both), he’s been phenomenally successful at it. And his “Cloudburst” really does sound — and feel — like a thunderstorm.
If you ever get the chance, ask to play the thunder sheet.