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Eric Whitacre's Top Five for Inspiration

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American composer and conductor Eric Whitacre has developed a wide following for his choral works. His CD Cloudburst became an international bestseller in 2008.

More recently, the 41-year-old Nevada native signed with Universal/Decca and has completed his first album with the label, entitled Light and Gold. Released in October 2010, the album became the No 1 Classical Album in the U.S. and U.K. charts within a single week.

But he is perhaps best known for tapping the choral talents of thousands of unknown web surfers around the world who have voluntarily filmed and sent him tracks for two of his choir pieces, Lux Aurumque, followed by Sleep. In a recent TED Talk, Whitacre described being deeply moved by people’s impromptu participation in these virtual choirs, speaking of “These souls all on their own desert islands, sending electronic messages in bottles to each other.”

Whitacre recently shared with WQXR his top five works to have inspired him over the years.

1. “This was an easy one" Whitacre says of his top pick -- J.S. Bach's Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. The work prompts Whitacre to reflect on his own writing process, which he describes as “a constant battle of forcing my will on the piece itself and letting go, being in the moment, and dancing with the material as it comes back to me.” Harry Christophers conducts the Sixteen in a performance that fills Whitacre with “perfect and pure joy.”

2. For his second selection, Whitacre points to one of his own choral works, a piece entitled A Boy and a Girl, based on a poem by Octavio Paz. “This is a poem that I really lived with since I began composing in 1992,” Whitacre said. From 1992 to 2002, Whitacre tried multiple times to write music to the poem. But it was only on his third try in 2002 that the composer got it right. “It was a strange experience," Whitacre said. "It felt less like composing and more like dusting off an old painting to find the color beneath.” A Boy and a Girl is performed by the Eric Whitacre Singers.

3. Ravel’s String Quartet in F inspires Whitacre, both for its austerity of being Ravel’s only string quartet, and for the quiet perfection Whitacre finds in its notes. “I’ve taken from this quartet sort of an ethos,” Whitacre said. “It’s my style of writing for chorus and for strings, when I’m writing for them. Every part is perfect.” The Emerson String Quartet performs the first movement of Ravel’s string quartet in F.

4. For his fourth selection, Whitacre cites his “first and biggest influence” as a choral composer: Morten Lauridsen, whose Mid-Winder Songs are performed by the British choir Polyphony under the direction of Stephen Layton.

5. Romantic pursuits, not lofty arrangements, first attracted Whitacre to choral music. “I joined the college choir at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on a whim, really as a chance to meet girls,” Whitacre said. The Kyrie of Mozart's Requiem was the first piece he would perform with the singers. “My entire life was changed in that first rehearsal.” Whitacre’s fifth selection is a performance of the Kyrie by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Robert Shaw.

Text: Caroline Cooper; Production: Matt Abramovitz & Mike Shobe