August 11th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Doctor-patient privilege dies with My Health Record

EDITORIAL By-elections reflect disenchantment with major parties

CANBERRA OBSERVED Longman result may force PM to rethink policies

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS No question about it: the Don is in charge

ENERGY Lower electricity price a fantasy

EUTHANASIA Vulnerable will be victims of Leyonhjelm's deadly bill


PHILOSOPHY On human nature

CULTURE AND SOCIETY The shadow of that hyddeous strength

FICTION A Scent of Musk

MUSIC Globalised Music

CINEMA The Equalizer 2

BOOK REVIEW ADF as modern peacekeepers

BOOK REVIEW The men who built up a great tradition


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Globalised Music

by David James

News Weekly, August 11, 2018

Eric Whitacre is one of the few contemporary classical composers who has been able to achieve popular success; he has been awarded Grammies, had record contracts and enjoys a strong following.

One reason is that he uses large choirs which are intensely atmospheric – not so much because of Whitacre’s composition but because choirs are intensely atmospheric. You can’t miss really. The sound of so many human voices resonating is always impressive.

Another reason is that he does not challenge listeners to any great degree. Most of the music uses a method called pandiatonic clusters, a compositional approach that ensures there is never any dissonance, but nor is there a strong sense of a tone centre. It means that the music rarely has tension and release. Rather, it floats. It is the method used by pianists and guitarists in simpler forms of jazz, and it has a peaceful and comforting effect.

Most contemporary composers would wish to break out of this compositional approach to pursue more contrast and explore a wider expressive palette. Whitacre’s choice to stay inside such a strong consonance is curious. It could be because he hears it that way. Or it could be because, having achieved success using such an approach, he is playing to his audience.

The result is that his music is very linear. There is very little complex contrapuntalism, although some of the voice movements are sophisticated. He instead relies heavily on pauses, crescendos and decrescendos. There are some complex rhythms and time metres, and sound effects of various types. But overall it is music that relies mostly on textures rather than melodic or harmonic distinctiveness.

It is atmospheric. Throw in some images of galaxies, or the cosmos, and the music is sure to produce a reflective mood, perhaps even a sense of repose. That is certainly pleasing, and no doubt another reason why his music has been so successful. Film star good looks also do not hurt, and being married to the beautiful operatic singer Hila Plitmann completes the picture.

Yet there is an argument that, although he has been a commercial success, he is not an impressive artist. There is a blandness about his oeuvre that can become irritating. One unconvinced critic even described his work as the “sort of music Vaughan Williams might have composed in the Cambridge branch of Dunkin’ Donuts.” (I am not sure about that. Dunkin Donuts wasn’t even in England when Williams was alive, so how could he have possibly composed music in one of its shops? More research needed there.)

In some ways, Whitacre’s (pictured below) most interesting contribution is the way he uses technology. He has developed a way of combining singers on-line into a choir. It has allowed him, in one project, to combine 4,000 singers in 73 countries. That demonstrates not inconsiderable organising skill, and is a way of producing music that was definitely not around before about 1990.


In a TED talk, Whitacre intriguingly combines live choral singing using a large ensemble, with hundreds of online singers. This has some challenges. Because of the latency (delay) of on-line interaction, it is all but impossible to synchronise the live players with on line singers.

So Whitacre instead uses the latency as part of his sound tapestry. Particularly effective in this respect is the finger clicking from both the physical and on-line performers, which introduces a kind of chaotic randomness that contrasts with the structured singing.

It is as visually impressive as it is a satisfying aural experience. The mixture of real people performing, and dozens of faces on screens also singing or clicking fingers, is arresting. Whitacre’s music may not be as multi-layered as one would like, but the audio-visual experience is entirely convincing.

It points to two developments that are likely to heavily shape music in the future. One has already happened; indeed it has been evident since the advent of the pop music video. That is, that music tends not to be appreciated just as sound now; increasingly it has to be experienced in conjunction with visuals on a screen. That has changed the role of music, making it more subordinate to the visual image.

The second development is the different way musicians will be able to combine in the on-line environment. In the past, music has been geographically fixed; an orchestra or a band necessarily plays together in one place. But in future, that may become less the case. Whitacre’s on-line choirs are probably just an early example of what will become globalised music performance.


David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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