by Scott Neuffer, Special to The Carson Valley Times
Hmmm, how to start?
What if I told you that one of the world’s greatest composers, a best-selling, Grammy-winning, genre-bending virtuoso of international repute, was a Douglas High grad?
Would you believe me?
I wouldn’t. Not because Douglas High isn’t capable of producing genius. The music program is one of the best in the state. But I wouldn’t believe myself because the statement sounds like something made up. G-ville hyperbole at its best.
And maybe it is made up. This brilliant composer risen up from the small slice of humble pie that is Carson Valley. As I’m writing this now, I still don’t know if it’s true. I’ve only heard rumors, speculations, stories. But I’m going to explore these leads, and you, the reader, are going to explore them with me until we both know what is legend and what is fact. Maybe we’ll never know.
There was something else, too. A song. A beautiful, haunting song. A chord I’ve never seen before. It was stretched across three black piano keys, one white key in the middle. I didn’t know which of the black were sharp or flat notes. I’d forgotten how to read music. But the sound. The sound was as ethereal as dusklight: that dreamy white light that sometimes hums over the mountains here. Yes, this story starts with a song, a piano, an image. So here we go.
It was my sister-in-law, a ’97 Douglas grad, who first mentioned Eric Whitacre. It was fall. I had come to Elko to hunt deer with my brother. He’d drawn an archery tag and had been practicing with his bow in the backyard. A haystack, I believe, was his target. Inside the house sat their old, out-of-tune upright piano.
My sister-in-law played often. I played a little.
But I listened when she played. And this one afternoon, before we ventured into the mountains with our provisions, she played a song I had never heard. It began with a simple, two-chord progression. The second chord was stunning, strange, its sound both eerie and transcendent. Like a hawk sailing through the twilight. Like the high, far-off strain of an angel weeping.
What is this? I asked. She told me it was a song by Eric Whitacre.
She told me he went to Douglas and was now composing some of the most fantastic music in the world.
Teach me this song, I demanded. I must have this song forever.
And she did. Two chords. The second I had never seen. It seemed impossible. Inconceivable. But it was so beautiful. And two more chords for the chorus. Also beautiful. I played and memorized the progression. I internalized the song.
Of course, over the years, it became imprecise. Sitting at my keyboard, I would take liberties where I had forgotten notes, extemporizing what I had forgotten. The song morphed beyond the original, much the same way cover songs grow beyond their source material, taking on the personality of the performer. I once got into an argument with a friend over who had the better “Landslide” cover, the Dixie Chicks or Smashing Pumpkins. So our songs evolve.
The song is called “Lux Aurumque.” Though I learned it on the piano, it is actually a choral composition. One YouTube video for it has more than four million views:
The name of the song I confirmed in recent correspondence with my sister-in-law about this story.
Yes, she told me, the song I taught you is “Lux Aurumque.” Did you know Eric Whitacre personally? No, he graduated a few years before me. Check Wikipedia or his personal website, she told me. Mr. Zabelsky would know.
Mr. Zabelsky. A legend at Douglas High. Now music director of Carson High. We’ll talk to Mr. Z in a bit. But what about those aforementioned websites? Using Wikipedia as a source is always treacherous. Let’s check the man’s professional website, http://www.ericwhitacre.com.
The achievements, the accolades, crowd the screen like the high notes of a great Romantic opus. He was born in Nevada in 1970. That makes him 44 years old by my count. He joined a marching band at school and also played in a techno-pop group. But nothing about Douglas High… He went to UNLV. His life apparently changed forever when he sang Mozart’s “Requiem.” He completed his first choral composition, “Go, Lovely Rose,” in 1990. He went on to Juilliard, earned a master’s degree in 1997. Now he’s composer-in-residence at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. In 2010, he launched his Virtual Choir with a performance of “Lux Aurumque.” The project used teleconferencing to bring together 185 singers from more than a dozen countries. In 2013, his Virtual Choir 4 project, “Fly to Paradise,” received more than 8,400 submissions from 101 countries; it was televised on BBC and used as part of the coronation ceremony at Buckingham Palace.
Whitacre’s 2012 album, “Light & Gold,” earned him a Grammy. It topped the charts in the U.S. and UK, clinching the No. 1 spot for classical music on iTunes and Billboard. His first vinyl EP was released in 2013, featuring a choral arrangement of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.”
This latter project is important to understanding Whitacre’s versatility as an artist. Many of his works have entered the core choral and symphonic repertories, but he’s also striven to connect contemporary classical with other musical styles. A 2014 project, for instance, included collaborations with British soul artist Laura Mvula and Norwegian singer-songwriter Marius Beck. He also collaborated with legendary film composer Hans Zimmer, one of my favorites, for “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”
And if his career weren’t fantastic enough, Whitacre is married to Grammy-winning soprano Hila Plitmann. According to his website, the couple lives in London. All wonderful. All glamorous. But did he go to Douglas? Does he have roots in Gardneville? Or is all this just some wishful distortion of a small-town rumor-mill?
Eye of the Tiger
Eric Whitacre was indeed a student at Douglas High School. His pictures, his shenanigans, are all over the 1988 yearbook, his senior yearbook. From the looks of it, he was a popular student, perhaps an overachiever. He was student body president, known for whipping up crowds at pep rallies. He played soccer and baseball and ran track. He participated in forensics, the International Club and the school band, including the honor band. He was also a prom prince, nominated for prom royalty, though not crowned king.
Looking at his pictures, the striking thing about young Eric Whitacre is his rakish fashion sense, his flamboyance. He boasted a jutting cliff of blonde hair, huge and top-heavy, teased out at the sides, like some new-fangled blend of David Bowie and Vanilla Ice. At school events, he wore lavish outfits, a Tiger robe, a tweedy blazer and flowing scarf. He had the look of a magazine model, or a sophisticated theater actor, or simply a rock star. The yearbook staff often described him as a wild and funny man, an exhibitionist of sorts, a budding artist.
But there was something different about his senior portrait. It was the last page I looked at it, a color photo. There he was in the standard tux, the same handsome features, the same styled blonde hair, but there was something unsettling in the way he stared out at the world. He wasn’t smiling, and the cockiness I had seen before, the haughty excitement of adolescence, was gone. It was a serious-looking portrait, betraying a certain mood I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Less than a smile but not exactly a frown. A sternness. A shade of defiance.
“You could feel real talent there,” Bill Zabelsky remembered of Eric Whitacre. “Eric could hear music and then play it.”
Zabelsky said he taught Eric during his junior year. The young Whitacre played a valve trombone in the band, Zabelsky recalled. But something happened. Teacher and student had a falling out. Whitacre was dismissed from the band. That’s right, one of the world’s greatest composers was kicked out of the Douglas High School band.
When Zabelsky talks about the incident, his voice betrays a note of pain. Not that he would’ve done things differently. He explained his reasons to me, which I’ve decided not to divulge here.
“If I knew then what I know today, I’d go through with it again,” he said. “But I’m tired of getting ribbed by my fellow teachers that I’m the one who threw Eric Whitacre out of band.”
Whitacre was scheduled to speak in Reno on Oct. 28 as part of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s annual conference on tourism. The organizers of the event had sent out a media alert which claimed the renowned composer “hails from Yerington, Nev.,” which confused the hell out of me. Not able to attend the event myself, I tried to coax a direct contact for Whitacre out of the event PR director, but I was simply added to a list of several other media outlets interested in interviewing the man.
Nothing came from this lead. After the event, I checked some local news sites, even Vegas sites, but couldn’t find an interview, although Whitacre was briefly mentioned in multiple stories.
Fortunately, I was able to find an email address for his producer and manager, a woman named Claire Long. I sent her a query and soon heard back from another managing agent: Megan Davies of England-based Music Productions, Ltd. Eric would be delighted to answer some questions by email, Davies wrote me. So off went my questions.
What were they? Well, they focused on Douglas, on Whitacre’s connection to the school and community. They also delved into his adolescence, his experiences growing up here, and his dismissal from the band, if he cared to comment.
After a lengthy back-and-forth with Davies, it became clear that Eric Whitacre was in a whirlwind schedule and wouldn’t have time to respond, at least not this year. It appeared that after his speaking event in Nevada, after his return to England, he was needed back in the studio.
When Douglas High English teacher Jeanne Turnbeaugh learned just how famous her former student Eric Whitacre was, she and another teacher, Phyllis Bateman, “pinged” him online, and the three were able to have a nice conversation. This was about eight years ago.
“He kindly credited us with his beginning interest in poetry,” Turnbeaugh recalled.
I was heartened to hear from her after failing to reach Whitacre myself. Turnbeaugh taught at Douglas High for nearly four decades before retiring in 2008. She had Eric for Honors English his sophomore and junior years.
“I remember after the terrible loss of Sarita Uhart (a student who died in 1986) that Eric and others wrote and performed a song that I think tied into Students Against Drunk Driving,” Turnbeaugh remembered. “He had knowledge about lots of different things. I remember there was a picture of the cosmos in a literature book, and he casually mentioned that it was the Horsehead Nebula. When I was surprised, he said that he thought that was just common knowledge.”
True to Whitacre’s yearbook image, “He dressed fashionably, and had some great haircuts,” said Turnbeaugh. “I thought he was lots of fun to have in class.”
She doesn’t remember Whitacre being defiant or rebellious. To the contrary, she said he was attentive, enjoyed the curricular reading material, and had great ideas for discussion.
“I’m very glad for his success,” she said. “I really liked him.”
Her best memory is of a practical joke the class played on Whitacre and B.J. Alder.
“They had gotten into a habit of strolling in late after lunch, and someone in the class said we should do something. So I filled the board with an essay question about the ‘existential paradox’ that led to the tragic blah, blah…” Turnbeaugh reminisced. “It made no sense, but when the two miscreants came in, everyone was working away. I said, ‘Timed essay, so you two better get busy.’ They attempted to ask questions, but I told them they had missed that opportunity. Deer-in-the-headlights look as they watched everyone else busily writing.”
Turnbeaugh remembers the two tardy students “sweating bullets” until a note from the back of the class reached them, clarifying the joke.
“Everyone had a great laugh. I do remember Eric saying, ‘You got me. I can’t believe it. Nobody gets me like that.’”
Wings of Fame
There’s something unaccountable in fame, in a persona elevated to mythic proportions. We search for the definite roots of the myth but can’t find them. We’re not sure the real person was ever different than what they have become in the public eye.
On Eric Whitacre’s website, there are, no surprise, tons of professional portraits. Sharply dressed, lean and handsome, with long, parted blonde hair, he looks the part of a brilliant composer. As a writer, though, I’m tempted to find the chink in the armor, the tender spot, the button you push to open one’s humanity.
I wanted to know about Eric Whitacre’s experiences at Douglas High. I wanted to know how his adolescence shaped the course of his life. At the end of our journey here, however, I can’t help but feel that these things were, and always will be, out of reach, that there’s so much in one’s life, in one’s youth, that we can never know.
“It’s been fun. May you have all your dreams come true,” reads the message from Whitacre’s parents, which accompanies his baby photo near the end of his senior year book. He was a happy baby, from the looks of it. Ruddy cheeks. An indomitable smile.
Pondering this image, I return to that first song I heard, “Lux Aurumque.” I think of how the chords lift beyond this earthly plane, becoming the very wings of aspiration. And maybe that’s it. Maybe I can’t find Eric Whitacre because he left this provincial life long ago. He now exists in a realm where dreams and reality are one.
Scott Neuffer is a freelance writer who lives in Gardnerville with his wife Maria and son Andres. He recently published his first book, “Scars of the New Order,” which is available in local bookstores and on Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com. Besides reading and writing obsessively, he enjoys long walks on the beach, any beach, and poorly scripted romantic comedies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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