Eric Whitacre is an American Grammy-winning composer whose works are primarly scored for a cappella choir or wind ensemble, although he does compose and transcribe his work for the orchestra.
Born in Reno, Nevada, Whitacre attended University of Nevada and then subsequently the Julliard School where he studied under John Corigliano and David Diamond. In 1993 he wrote Ghost Train for Wind Orchestra. This piece quickly gained popularity and has been recorded over dozens of times. It was the success of this piece that inspired Whitacre to consider full time professional composition. However, he has since expanded into conducting. While he mainly presents concerts of his own works with various ensembles internationally, he has also conducted many concerts featuring other 20th Century American composers.
He is possibly most famous outside the choral world for his Virtual Choir project. This project has taken the YouTube submissions of thousands of people singing a specific part to one of Whitacre's works and compiled them into a single unifed choir. The videos of the edited and compiled files have gone viral and led Whitacre to present at TEDtalks on the communal and technological aspects of this project.
Sleep was commissioned in 1999 and originally set to the Robert Frost poem, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening." The piece was performed at the National Convention of the American Choral Directors Association in the spring of 2001. However, soon after Whitacre recieved word from the Robert Frost Foundation that he had illegally used the poem. After a long legal battle, Whitacre was forced to abdicate and withdraw the work. He then asked his frequent collaborator, poet Charles Anthony Silvestri to write a new poem to the already composed music. The poem needed to not only match the structure of the piece, but also use key words from the Frost poem, such as sleep.
The piece features many of the characteristics which have come to define Whitacre. These include a building in texture by adding voices and divisi, a heavy use of pleasant but sometimes striking dissonance, and strict tonal and predictable resolutions of the dissonance. The dissonance in Sleep is usually approached in step-wise motion and usually resolved in the same way. Each inner voice is also funcitoning somewhat melodically, this creates lines that are memorable and easy to sing, but also function to create something that sounds quite complex harmonically. The density of the texture lessens after the climax of the piece, until the end where the word 'sleep' is repeated with the same notes several times as the dynamic falls to virtually nothing.
This work can be compared with almost any of Whitacre's choral composisitons. The Lux Arumque features similar textures and a similar use of dissonance. However, it does not feel as climactic. The piece remains genreally reserved throughout. It also features a greater use of the pedal tone. In Lux it occurs in the upper soprano as a solo. The same idea is taking place at the end of Sleep, but not to the full extent that it is in Lux Arumque. The endings of the pieces are quite similar. The choir is intoning the same two chords under the soloists sustained G as the whole thing softens to nothing.
I performed this work as a Junior in High School. While over time I have come to realize that much of Whitacre's work, while beautiful, is quite similar, at the time I performed it I guess I thought it was about the best thing ever. It seemed to sound so complicated, yet it was managable by the choir. We were able to put together something seemingly complex rather well. It is a great piece to entice and enliven a group of young students.