Out of the silence, a single word unspools. Lux. Latin for “light” and the ancient word for “bright”. Three voices in harmony: alto, tenor, bass. Up, up they soar, a phosphorescence etched in sound, as a solo soprano line emerges from the lower registers to scale the vaulting heights of a pristine G-sharp. The music becomes a sonic cathedral; an abstract analogue to the magnificent stone edifices in which people have been coming together to sing for over a thousand years.
“Lux Aurumque” describes the birth of Jesus: “And the angels sing softly to the new born baby.” During Advent, you can hear it performed in churches the world over. But this is not music composed in Renaissance Europe, the golden age of choral polyphony. The piece was written in 2000 by an irreligious American called Eric Whitacre, who was born amid the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada in America on the second day of 1970.
Modern spiritual music, sometimes inspired by the Christian liturgy and often sung in Latin, is enjoying a revival. It holds an improbably wide appeal among young composers – some of whom have faith, others who don’t. Like their forebears, they are enlisting older musical vocabularies to navigate the desperate realities of the modern world. Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem”, written in the early 1960s, intersperses the Catholic mass with verse by that most ardent critic of conflict, Wilfred Owen. In the 1970s and 1980s few modern classical composers dabbled in anything so seemingly conservative as church music, but today many have come to the view that choral music can reinvent itself in new contexts.
Its listeners are growing exponentially too. On Spotify, a digital music streaming service, you can explore at least 13,000 playlists, many made by millennial curators, with titles that contain both of the words “sacred” and “choral”. Lists with either one of those words number a staggering 600,000. This music is most popular among American men aged between 18 and 24, with their British cousins not far behind. That is precisely the demographic least likely to say they are religious.
It is a curious irony of modern Western life that, as fewer and fewer people describe themselves as religious, the number of those seeking solace in music associated with religion rises. “What I find in the liturgical service is this deep wisdom,” Whitacre says. “The moment I started to separate it from dogma and saw it instead as poetry, as a way of investigating, that was the revelation for me.”
“I wasn’t raised Christian,” he goes on. “But I do consider myself a scientist, gathering evidence. And there simply isn’t enough to say there is no God.” Whitacre exudes curiosity. Tall and rangy – his arms have the span of a condor’s wings – his intellectual breadth is notable. He moves easily from chatting about particle physics, cosmology and astronomy, to Renaissance polyphony and YouTube algorithms. Distraction has been a hallmark of his career. As a boy growing up in Reno, he hated the regime of daily practice so piano lessons “didn’t really stick”. He was kicked out of the junior high-school marching band for being a troublemaker then tricked into joining the college choir because of the promise of meeting girls. When he showed up for a rehearsal of Mozart’s “Requiem”, he says, he found his calling: “My life was profoundly changed on that day, and I became a choir geek of the highest order.”
Whitacre says he seeks out the “humanistic” context in the texts he sets to music. ”Lux Aurumque” is about the birth of a child. The song “When David Heard” takes one single, devastating sentence from the Bible about a father losing his son: “‘When David heard that Absalom was slain he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, my son, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee!’ These are huge human moments,” he points out.
He mentions an American composer, Ned Rorem, an atheist who has written hundreds of pieces for the church. “When accused of hypocrisy, Rorem simply declares: ‘I believe in belief’,” Whitacre tells me. “I think that when people who are not religious respond to his music they are partly reacting to the inherent drama in the poetry that is saying something profound about the human condition,” he goes on. “There is also something about Latin, with its five perfect vowels, that makes it a dream to set and which seems to work on us in a profound way. And, by its nature, this is music of meditation, designed to induce a state of twilight.”
What distinguishes Whitacre and other modern composers of sacred song is their refusal to be pigeon-holed. Over the past decade, Whitacre has released several Grammy-winning recordings as well as working on the “mermaid theme” for “Pirates of the Caribbean”. In March 2016 he was appointed as the first artist-in-residence for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, a large professional choir, at the new Walt Disney Concert Hall.
He is also an evangelist for the common humanity of voices. “Nothing bonds people like music,” he enthuses. In May 2009 he posted on his blog: “Oh my god, oh my god. I just had the coolest idea.” A Long Island teenager named Britlin Losee had filmed herself singing one of his compositions – “Sleep” – and uploaded it on YouTube as a fan letter. “I was deeply struck by her spirit, and her voice, and her chutzpah. I know I would never have the courage to make something like that and send it to someone I admired...And then it hit me: what if hundreds did the same thing and then we cut them all together creating the very first virtual choir.”
The project became the foundation of Whitacre’s hugely popular TED talk in 2011 with the piece that the teenage Losee sang. The virtual choir continues to grow. In 2013 “Fly to Paradise” brought together nearly 6,000 people who contributed some 8,500 videos from around the world of themselves singing, alone or in twos and threes, in college dorms or in their own bedrooms at home – a choral ensemble that brought music-lovers together in a single voice.
Its next incarnation, “Deep Field”, commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra and BBC Radio 3, was inspired by the Hubble telescope and will include orchestra, chorus and an audience playing electronic music on smartphones, all in celebration of NASA’s 60th birthday later this year.
Sacred choral music emerged to fill a need. For centuries it brought people together in formal public worship. But it also answered an individual spiritual call, whether in singers or the silent. Young people today may be moving away from God, but the solace of the spiritual in music is as powerful as ever. Whoever you are and whatever your background, Whitacre says, “the medium itself, those voices distant with the bloom of a stone cathedral, puts you in a place where you’re prepared for an ecstatic experience.”