Model citizen: Composer Eric Whitacre, dashing star of high-school choruses worldwide, makes the big bucks

Whitacre at work. ()
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Fifteen months ago, the composer and conductor Eric Whitacre got a brilliant new manager.

"She's just a genius," he said the other day in the lobby of the Parker Meridien. "I had thought of myself as a businessman, but I realized I was holding myself back by thinking that. Now almost all of my headspace is creative, which is a dream. Now I can do what I actually do well, which is write music."

Write music, and also do all the things that are associated with writing music when you are a composer in the year 2011: press and marketing and social media and merchandising and—if you are 41 and as smoothly, pleasantly good-looking as Whitacre is—modeling.

"I shouldn't say it's modeling," he said with a laugh of both self-deprecation and barely concealed pleasure. "It's what they call ‘special bookings,' for actors and musicians. I'm representing a product, like if it's Hugo Boss then I'm wearing Hugo Boss suits at appearances." His hair—shoulder-length, dyed blond, and carefully styled, giving the effect of a buttoned-up former surfer dude—takes up its own substantial part of his thoughts.

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"My hair has become this thing we joke about sometimes, that it has a career of its own," he said. "Some days I'm just sick of it. I just want to cut it short, and now I actually have to have meetings about this shit with my manager and publisher and the modeling people about, like, should I cut my hair?"

You have very possibly never seen Whitacre's flowing locks, nor heard his music, but he is famous. His "profile among choral enthusiasts amounts to a rock star's adulation," wrote Steve Smith in the Times last year. "To call Mr. Whitacre a phenomenon is to sell his rapid ascent short." His lush and emotional music pushes the envelope of harmony and rhythm just enough to stand out in the insular world of high-school and college choirs and concert bands, where Whitacre's work is simply inescapable.

"I love these songs, I truly do, but it is almost impossible to find a choral C.D. without one of these songs," writes a choir director from Minnesota on Amazon.com, gently criticizing the inclusion of three of Whitacre's most popular compositions on his first album for Decca. The album, Light & Gold, quickly hit No. 1 on both the U.S. and U.K. classical charts when it was released in October. In addition, Whitacre has organized a series of "virtual choirs" that synthesize the contributions of hundreds and thousands of individual singers from around the world and have been viewed by millions; it was the premiere of a new one that had brought him to New York last week.

If Whitacre likes to focus on the sheer size of his choral forces, it may be because he is constantly attempting to replicate the experience of his overwhelming, life-changing introduction to choirs.

"The very first day of rehearsal when I was 18, we did the Mozart Requiem," he said. "It just changed my life in 50 minutes. I was a transformed person."

At the time, he was a student at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, majoring, he said, "for the first three years in girls." He played keyboards in a pop band, but couldn't read music. He had long hair and earrings. "I was reading all this Socialist Marxist manifesto stuff, decrying the dollar," he said.

Then came the Requiem.

He became a self-described chorus geek. Three years later he wrote his first choral work, a precociously expert combination of smooth textures and impressive solos called "Go, Lovely Rose," to an Edmund Waller poem. His own choir at UNLV performed it, and it got him a publisher. Like the concert-band world, the choral-music community is organized around a series of conventions. There are competitions; new works get played; new voices get recognized, quickly. It's very different from the slow, arduous struggle for even occasional recognition in the orchestral sphere. By the mid-'90s, when Whitacre was studying for his master's in composition at Juilliard, he was already getting commissions and demands for new performances of his preexisting work.

"I had written two pieces for concert band, ‘Ghost Train' and ‘Godzilla Eats Las Vegas,'" he said. "They were selling enough to kind of keep me going. The smartest thing I ever decided to do was self-publish. It was all profit, basically. It wasn't a huge amount of money, but it was enough to survive. You charge, say, $150 for a score and a set of parts, maybe $200 or $250 if it's bigger. And there are twelve or thirteen thousand concert bands just in America."

Whitacre became known for the steep fees he charged for new pieces. A vague mixture of naïvete and instinctive savvy led him to price his work at least three times as high as other composers'. "I just kept pushing the envelope on commission fees," he said. "It's just like Craigslist, where if you sell your futon for ten bucks everyone thinks it's a crap futon, but if you list it for five hundred everyone thinks it's a great futon. So I just priced myself into a place where it was perceived as more valuable than it was."

In 2000, a consortium of 30 high schools commissioned "October," a seven-minute piece that swiftly became Whitacre's biggest hit.

"There's not a lot of beautiful music written for concert band," he said. "Usually it's kind of percussion-y, not soft or beautiful. There's a mentality in concert band world that's pretty aggressive. But this sounds to me like a combination of Vaughan Williams and the score for Shawshank Redemption, just very cinematic and beautiful. For some reason it just caught fire and still to this day it sells. I get a statement and I don't believe it. Thousands and thousands of bands have done it."

Not coincidentally, it was also in 2000 that he stopped exclusively self-publishing. Hal Leonard, a giant in the field, took over his marketing and distribution. But he doesn't have the traditional arrangement, in which the composer ends up with just 10 percent of the revenues. Whitacre has retained his copyright, which lets him also retain 75% of the proceeds. He has, as he puts it, "a nice situation," and by the early aughts he was finally in a place of real financial comfort.

"We had this thing that didn't seem to be going away. In the publishing world we call it an ‘evergreen,' which means it's ever green," he said meaningfully, rubbing his thumb and forefingers together in the universal symbol for money. (So much for Marxist manifestos!)

He spent several years developing a musical called Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings, based not on the Milton poem but on an original story, also about angels. He performed it at Carnegie Hall last year, in a concert performance that starred his wife, the soprano Hila Plitmann, and is bringing it to Los Angeles in June. The show combines trance and techno music with Japanese manga, anime, and taiko drumming, with vocal music that ranges from traditional musical theater styles to, as he put it, "full-on balls-to-the-wall singing."

"It's so natural to me," he said of the show's genre combinations. "Something happened, and my generation was the first to get it: this iPod phenomenon, where genre just disappeared."

In 2009 a young girl uploaded her performance of the soprano part from one of Whitacre's choral compositions, "Sleep," onto YouTube. Whitacre, who had sensed the role that the Internet and social media would play in music's future, responded by asking fans to upload their own versions of the piece, recorded while while listening to a recording of the song available on iTunes. He mashed them together into a video (which is now, oddly, password-protected on YouTube).

In March 2010 came "Virtual Choir 1.0," which did the same thing with Whitacre's "Lux Aurumque," though this time he created a video of himself conducting the piece for people to follow while making their own recordings. In the beginning of the final video, a traditional red curtain opens, revealing the 185 participants' videos arranged, well, like a choir, suspended in what appears to be a starry night sky. Whitacre's video is in front, where the conductor would be. It is elegiac and, in its way, moving, and has been viewed over 2.1 million times.

"When I saw the finished video for the first time I actually teared up," Whitacre writes on his website. "The intimacy of all the faces, the sound of the singing, the obvious poetic symbolism about our shared humanity and our need to connect; all of it completely overwhelmed me."

The "2.0" video, which was revealed last week and features "Sleep," is far more sophisticated. The individual videos, over 2,000 of them, are now little circles which cover the surface of luminous copper-colored spheres like the indentations on golf balls. The spheres are linked, in turn, by swooping filaments of light, like something from the movie Contact. The empty space is full of stars and great angular shafts of light. The lyrics appear in golden small-caps, like lines from the Bible. Whitacre hovers in his own sphere—like Glinda, or God.

It's mildly disconcerting to see each sphere inscribed in those small-caps with its singers' country of origin: "Kazakhstan," "Canada." Even at the front lines of the Internet's redefinitions of community and connection, the traditional national boundaries hold. And there is, of course, none of the immediacy, the physicality of Whitacre's own fateful first encounter with choral music. But it is the endeavor on which he focuses the largest part of his considerable enthusiasm: "To all of the singers who participated," he wrote on his blog, "thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the leap; your spirit and passion have lit up the world."

"There's no chance we'll monetize the Virtual Choir," he said the other day, "but it works as a great platform to promote the other things I'm doing."

Those "other things" include his conducting engagements, merchandise (the word "merch" pops up three times at the top of his website, which sells T-shirts with logos like "Band Nerds of the World Unite"), and speaking engagements; Whitacre did a TED Talk on the Virtual Choir and is appearing at a digital media conference in Seoul next month. His profitable endeavors conspicuously don't include his albums. In a classical recording industry so hobbled that, in certain weeks, a couple hundred sales can get you a number one record, even Light & Gold won't really deliver for him.

"Frankly," he said, "I tend to look at recordings—I shouldn't be saying this because I just had a Decca album come out—I tend to look at recordings as a loss leader, kind of. There's the chance for people to hear it, but live shows and selling scores and all those things are actually making money."

Since switching to his new manager, those things and other have accumulated; his career has accelerated. There's the exclusive Decca contract, for one thing. And the TED Talk. He's had a fellowship at Cambridge; he's conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. He may branch into education; a "Virtual Classroom" section on his website is "coming soon." A T.V. show of his own has been floated, perhaps related to whatever "Virtual Choir 3.0" ends up being. (So much for not monetizing it.)

He remains charmingly self-deprecating but eager to please.

"I'm assuming there will be no bathing suits," he said of his incipient modeling career, in a winking way that clearly indicated that he was open to most any opportunity.