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Seal Lullaby (everything connects)

I’ve been listening to a lot of choral music lately, and in particular to Eric Whitacre’s most recent collection, Light & Gold, which features  the Eric Whitacre Singers and the King’s Singers, with soprano Grace Davidson on solos.

It’s a lovely disc, with gorgeous arrangements of poems by Cummings, Paz, Yeats and Silvestri, and five Hebrew love songs which also feature the Pavao Quartet. There’s a generosity and glow to Whitacre’s music which it’s difficult not to respond to, and this is captured beautifully in the recording, which is immensely warm and uncluttered (it’s probably not coincidental Whitacre himself conducted the pieces).

The highlight of the disc is probably the Hebrew Love Songs, but I’ve formed a great affection for the arrangement of Kipling’s ‘Seal Lullaby’. Almost too sweet, and deliberately sentimental, it’s similarly almost impossible not to respond to.

Some of you may know ‘Seal Lullaby’ from The Jungle Book, where it forms the epigraph to ‘The White Seal’, if not, it’s a poem that captures the intimacy and tenderness between parent and child very powerfully:

Rudyard Kipling, Seal Lullaby

Oh! hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us
And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, O’er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, there soft by the pillow.
Oh, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, no shark shall overtake thee
Asleep in the storm of slow-swinging seas.

The arrangement reflects this, rising and falling like the sea, or breath, and in a way it’s unsurprising to learn Whitacre had his own child in mind when he write it.

Delightfully Whitacre wrote the piece at the request of Disney executives who were planning a movie of ‘The White Seal’. It was, as Whitacre explains, one of those commissions which strike a chord almost immediately, and he wrote the song quickly, delighted by the lyrics and the idea of the seal and her child, and sent it off in very short order.

But then silence fell:

“I began to despair. Did they hate it? Was it too melodically complex? Did they even listen to it? Finally, I called them, begging to know the reason that they had rejected my tender little song.

“Oh,” said the exec, “we decided to make Kung Fu Panda instead.”

I’ve uploaded a video of Whitacre conducting an impromptu performance of the piece in Canada a couple of years ago at the bottom of the post: there’s a rather more polished version featuring the California Lutheran University Choir on YouTube as well, but I like this one, both because Whitacre himself is conducting and because one of the singers (rather gorgeously) is holding a sleeping baby.

But Whitacre is fascinating in other ways as well. Not only is he that most improbable of things, a rock star classical composer (complete with flowing golden hair and rock star looks) he’s also one fo a relatively small group of classical musicians and composers leveraging the possibilities of social media and the web not just to connect with fans, but to build communities around their music.

Part of this process is simply about using Twitter to open up the process of composition to public view. While I know novelists increasingly exteriorize their process via social media, there’s still something very striking about hearing a composer like Whitacre say things such as, “YEEESSSSS! Solved the transition. As always, I was over-thinking it; it’s always the simplest solution that is the most elegant”.

But it also involves Whitacre’s remarkable Virtual Choir Project, a project that brought together 185 singers in 12 countries in a special recording of Whitacre’s ‘Lux Arumque’. Each member of the choir recorded their part separately, then submitted them to Whitacre and Producer Scott Haines, who mixed the recordings together, then created an accompanying video.

Whitacre (who blogs, naturally) has written about the process, but you can also listen to him explain it on the video below, and listen to the recording itself beneath that. And if you like what you hear you can buy Light & Gold from Amazon, iTunes or JB Hifi.

And finally, just a little reminder of the way that once you’re looking, everything connects. After spending a chunk of Sunday afternoon writing my post about George Pollard and Moby Dick, I sat down in front of the television and turned on a recorded episode of the BBC’s South Pacific. And what’s the episode using as its framing narrative? The story of the wreck of the Essex. Then after a week of listening to ‘Seal Lullaby’ I go upstairs to read the next book I have to review, Téa Obreht’s rather brilliant debut, The Tiger’s Wife, and what’s it all about? The frickin’ Jungle Book.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Check out too Charles Koechlin’s setting of ‘Seal Lullaby’ in his Jungle Book symphonic poems. One of those pieces that makes time stop.

    February 15, 2011
  2. Thank you – I’ll try to track it down.

    February 15, 2011
  3. I’ve just been listening to some samples on iTunes and Amazon and they are, as you say, sublime. Thank you so much for the recommendation.

    February 16, 2011
  4. That man has an AMAZING website. And the virtual choir!! wow.
    Thanks James, this is a great post. Looking forward to following him up.
    Did you see my tweet about Takemitsu and Debussy yesterday? forgot to hash one of them.

    February 17, 2011
    • He’s great, isn’t he? And yes, saw the tweet – thought I RTed it but perhaps I missed it in the melee. Was a fun thread.

      February 17, 2011
  5. it was indeed! and in my box of CDs I found some Mahler, still in its wrapping! so, fun times ahead as well.

    February 20, 2011
  6. This is glorious, James.
    Beautiful.
    Thank you.

    February 22, 2011

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