If you had to choose a perfect illustration of the globe-shrinking power of the internet, you could hardly do better than Eric Whitacre's "virtual choir" recording of Lux Aurumque. Edited together from 185 separately-recorded vocal parts from singers around the world, each performer individually guided by Whitacre's own conductor's video, the piece has erupted into a YouTube phenomenon which has already notched up well over a million hits. Choirs and audiences had already felt the emotional force of Whitacre's music, but this magical and somehow slightly miraculous incarnation of Lux Aurumque suggested that its potential could be limitless.
The liberating power of communal singing has driven hit TV shows like Glee or, in the UK, The Choir, but Whitacre took the idea several steps further. He managed to make the entire planet his constituency, bringing together singers from all countries, classes and walks of life to create choral music of awesome emotional power and technical accomplishment. He really did teach the world to sing.
The composer is proud of his achievement of course, but adds that "even more than pride, I think I'm just flabbergasted by it. Truly, the whole project began as just a whim. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would start getting passed around and go viral, so it's really astonishing to me."
In Latin, Lux Aurumque means Light and Gold, which happens to be the title of Whitacre's new debut album for Decca. It's a mixture of works from the Whitacre catalogue alongside three World Premiere recordings of new pieces, all of them freshly recorded for the occasion. It's the perfect gateway through which new listeners can experience the allure of Whitacre's music for the first time, while giving existing fans pristine new recordings of some of his most successful pieces, tailored by the composer himself.
"This album is the first time that I've ever conducted on record my interpretations of my own pieces," Whitacre explains. "The new pieces haven't been recorded before. Previous recordings of the older works have always been nice, but they've never been exactly what I was hoping they would be. That's the most interesting part for me; it's finally a chance to say it the way I'd like to say it."
The pieces on the disc are performed by the British chamber choir, Laudibus, alongside Whitacre's newly-created vocal group, the Eric Whitacre Singers. "That will be a permanent ensemble," he explains. "Knowing I can hand-pick my own group and mould them from the start is pretty thrilling."
For a one-stop dose of Eric Whitacre's music, the album is hard to beat ("there are some pieces that are new, and then of course we had to put a couple of hits on there," deadpans the composer). It includes new versions of his Five Hebrew Songs and Three Songs of Faith, as well as a newly-Whitacre-ised take of Sleep (the piece with which Whitacre first tried out the "virtual choir" concept on the net).
Among the new works, Nox Aurumque (Night and Gold) was conceived as a companion piece to Lux Aurumque, while The Stolen Child is based on the Yeats poem of the same name. Whitacre composed the latter as a commission to mark the 40th anniversary of the King's Singers and the 25th anniversary of the National Youth Chorus of Great Britain, and he needed to devise a composition which could accommodate both of them.
"I thought `jeez, what text can I possibly find that justifies having six men up there with all these young people'?" he recalls. "Then I remembered The Stolen Child, and it's perfect. It's about these woodland fairies who are calling these children away from the world of adults. I decided I would make the King's Singers the Woodland fairies, and they loved that description! Then the big chorus became the young people, all of this seduced youth. The strange thing about it was I wrote it in this very high kind of romantic, Brahmsian style. I wasn't expecting that at all, it just came gushing out of me."
That's an indicator of the way that Whitacre's music manages to remain rooted in the classical tradition while pulling in influences and references from countless different sources. Asked to cite his musical inspirations, he lists classical composers including JS Bach, Bartok, Stravinsky and John Adams, and he has a particular passion for Debussy. "I'm entranced by almost everything I've ever heard by Debussy. It's just so beautiful and I aspire to that, and I find it ends up in my music all over the place."
But during his teens, Eric played pop music and dreamed of being in a synth-pop band, so there's a universe of other sounds filtering through his work. "I feel equally influenced by Bjork and Radiohead and Peter Gabriel and Rodgers & Hammerstein and Thomas Newman, the film composer," he adds. "Maybe it's just being in the iPod generation now where there are no genres any more; it's just whether music is good or bad."
At 40, Whitacre is young enough to be an enthusiastic embracer of modern technology, whether it's the iPhone or all kinds of social networking, and he's well aware of what a huge role this has played in finding an audience for his music.
"I didn't have a masterplan, like `oh, here's a way to build a career and get to talk to all these people,'" he protests. "I think at first I was just genuinely a fan of the technology. I remember when YouTube first appeared five years ago, my first thought was `this is fantastic, it just works'. Previously video on the web had been a disaster, but with YouTube you'd click it and it would play and it was really cool.
Then I started a blog three years ago and didn't think anybody would be interested, but it became like a living piece, and in a tiny way it was like being the editor of my own magazine. I found I was cultivating a readership and that was quite exciting."
Looking back over his meteoric ascent, Whitacre says he "can't imagine having a career as a composer or a performing artist without these websites and without the technology. It would be so strange to write something and then people would find out about it... how? I guess by hearing it somewhere, like way back in the 1990s! Now there's just such an immediacy."
The booming digital era has allowed Whitacre to follow fresh ways of thinking about music, but from the start, he has never followed a conventional composing career. He was born and raised in Nevada, and comes from a non-musical background.
"I grew up in a white collar family, and both my parents worked really hard. My father worked for the State of Nevada as a manager for unemployment security benefits. My mother worked as a graphic artist and owned her own printing press, and that's real labour - unlike composing! I feel guilty that the worst thing that happens to you as a composer is you might get a little callous on your hand, or maybe your back aches a little bit. Sometimes when I'm composing I really have to struggle and beat my head against the wall before I come to the right solution. I wonder if I've conditioned myself that I have to suffer to some degree before I feel I've accomplished something."
Whitacre had no experience of choirs or classical music while he was young, but he admits he'll always be grateful to fast food giant McDonald's for giving him an unexpected career boost. In 1984, when he was 14, he heard a radio ad for a casting call for a McDonald's TV commercial. He persuaded his mother to drive him to Reno, where he joined 2,000 other teeenaged hopefuls, and to his amazement he passed the audition. A day of shooting ended up with him making a two-second appearance in the McDonald's Great Year commercial, which didn't launch him to Hollywood stardom, but did bring him royalty cheques worth $10,000. He bought an ESQ-1 synthesizer and a Drumulator drum machine, and spent hundreds of hours writing songs in imitation of his synth-pop heroes Yaz and Depeche Mode. He now credits these machines with teaching him the basics of counterpoint and musical structure.
Nonetheless, he had never considered a serious musical career before he came to the University of Nevada. He auditioned for a music scholarship after he'd arrived at university, and was invited to sing for the choir director.
"I think he could tell I had a good ear but I certainly couldn't read any music. He invited me to sing in the choir, I said `sure', then I left the room and said `there's no way I'm joining the choir'. About 10 days later a friend of mine said `listen, there are all these cute girls in the choir and they're taking a trip to Acapulco'. That was all it took for me to change my mind and join up."
But even more than an urge to date girls, it was Mozart who fired up Eric's musical passion. On his first day of choir practice they sang the Kyrie from Mozart's Requiem, and Eric experienced a supersized epiphany.
"I didn't even know what a Kyrie was, because I was raised with no religion, but hearing that music in three dimensions, or four I suppose, all around me I was just totally transformed. After that first rehearsal, I left a completely changed human being. I became the world's biggest choir geek."
He took a further giant leap up the professional musical ladder when he attended the Juilliard School in New York. He admits he naively expected Juilliard to be like the movie Fame "where everybody was dancing on the tabletops," but instead he found it was a cauldron of hyper-competitiveness. "It's full of super-ambitious people who want to have a career, or insane geniuses all sort of touched by the hand of God. But that being said, I met some of my best friends there, and I met my wife there too" [soprano Hila Plitmann].
And he also fell under the influence of composer and tutor John Corigliano, who he believes transformed his outlook on music and freed up his innate creativity. "I'd never worked with anybody before who talked about the creative process the way John did. Typically, in composition classes, they just tear apart what you've been working on, which is totally ineffective for me. John helped me get my mojo back."
Fast-forward to 2010, and Eric Whitacre is one of the most popular and frequently-performed composers of his generation. The Los Angeles Times has raved about his "works of unearthly beauty and imagination", and when he heard The Stolen Child, composer John Rutter commented that Whitacre had "made the leap to being one of the quintessential composers of the 21st century." He has an ever-lengthening list of new projects on the go, including a new composition for the LSO Chorus, which will premiere at the Barbican in October, and his wildly ambitious high-tech stage musical Paradise Lost - Shadows and Wings, derived from Milton's epic poem but supercharged with advanced technology, imagery from Japanese manga cartoons, and set-piece battles of massed ninja warriors. Not bad for a fair-haired kid who looked more like a member of the Beach Boys than the next Beethoven.