11 November 2010

A (Digital) Hymn to Eric Whitacre

Eric Whitacre is that remarkable thing: a composer able to write classical music that is at once completely contemporary and totally approachable even at the first hearing.

Just as, er, noteworthy is his total ease with modern technology. His website is undoubtedly one of the most attractive ever created for a composer, and uses the full panoply of the latest Internet technologies to support his music and to interact with his audience, including a blog with embedded YouTube videos, and links to Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Perhaps the best place to get a feel for his music and his amazing facility with technology is the performance of his piece "Lux Aurumque" by a "virtual choir" that he put together on YouTube (there's another video where the composer explains some of the details and how this came about.)

Against that background, it should perhaps be no surprise that on his website he has links to pages about most (maybe all?) of his compositions that include not only fascinating background material but complete embedded recordings of the pieces.

Clearly, Whitacre has no qualms about people being able to hear his music for free, since he knows that this is by far the best way to get the message out about it and to encourage people to perform it for themselves. The countless comments on these pages are testimony to the success of that approach: time and again people speak of being entranced when they heard the music on his web site - and then badgering local choirs to sing the pieces themselves.

It's really good to see a contemporary composer that really gets what digital music is about - seeding live performances - and understands that making it available online can only increase his audience, not diminish it. And so against that background, the story behind one of his very best pieces, and probably my current favourite, "Sleep", is truly dispiriting.

Originally, it was to have been a setting of Robert Frost’s "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening". The composition went well:

I took my time with the piece, crafting it note by note until I felt that it was exactly the way I wanted it. The poem is perfect, truly a gem, and my general approach was to try to get out of the way of the words and let them work their magic.

But then something terrible happened:

And here was my tragic mistake: I never secured permission to use the poem. Robert Frost’s poetry has been under tight control from his estate since his death, and until a few years ago only Randall Thompson (Frostiana) had been given permission to set his poetry. In 1997, out of the blue, the estate released a number of titles, and at least twenty composers set and published Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening for chorus. When I looked online and saw all of these new and different settings, I naturally (and naively) assumed that it was open to anyone. Little did I know that the Robert Frost Estate had shut down ANY use of the poem just months before, ostensibly because of this plethora of new settings.

Thanks to copyright law, this is the prospect that Whitacre faced:

the estate of Robert Frost and their publisher, Henry Holt Inc., sternly and formally forbid me from using the poem for publication or performance until the poem became public domain in 2038.

I was crushed. The piece was dead, and would sit under my bed for the next 37 years because of some ridiculous ruling by heirs and lawyers.

Fortunately for him - and for us - he came up with an ingenious way of rescuing his work:

After many discussions with my wife, I decided that I would ask my friend and brilliant poet Charles Anthony Silvestri (Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, Lux Aurumque, Nox Aurumque, Her Sacred Spirit Soars) to set new words to the music I had already written. This was an enormous task, because I was asking him to not only write a poem that had the exact structure of the Frost, but that would even incorporate key words from “Stopping”, like ‘sleep’. Tony wrote an absolutely exquisite poem, finding a completely different (but equally beautiful) message in the music I had already written. I actually prefer Tony’s poem now…

Not only that:

My setting of Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening no longer exists. And I won’t use that poem ever again, not even when it becomes public domain in 2038.

So, thanks to a disproportionate copyright term, a fine poem will never be married with sublime music that was originally written specially for it. This is the modern-day reality of copyright, originally devised for "the encouragement of learning", but now a real obstacle to the creation of new masterpieces.

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Phil Driscoll said...

The good news is that the resulting piece is spectacularly beautiful. 'Sleep' is definitely one of my desert island discs!

Glyn Moody said...

@Phil: yes, art and genius triumphed in the end, happily...

Jeremy Benett said...


Thanks for introducing me to Eric Whitacre's music. I hadn't come across his work before.

Perhaps the positive message is that when lawyers and artists do battle, even when the lawyers win, it may be a very hollow victory indeed.

Glyn Moody said...

@Jeremy: really glad to do so - it was one reason I wrote the post. I find his music really affirmative without being trite or cloying.

And yes, I don't think Robert Frost really "won" that one....