Composer Eric Banks Takes Audiences On Intellectual Adventures

May 5, 2013

If your concept of choral music is somewhere between the TV show “Glee” and the Kings College Choir, the music Eric Banks loves may come as a revelation.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the choral group The Esoterics held a recording session at Queen Anne Christian Church. They’re stuck in the competing rhythms of a new work by composer Mason Bates.  
Eric Banks is the founder and guiding force of The Esoterics. Right now he’s standing before the group in his socks, begging them to keep their eyes on him while they sing.

Banks criticizes and cajoles, as they make their way through lyrics in German, English and Quechua. “I think it’s very very close!” he said encouragingly as he asked them to do another take.

They have to get through some challenging pieces this afternoon. That’s not unusual said member Rick Sipe. The Esoterics call themselves “the hard choir,” and they’re only half-joking. Their typical concert program is a heady mixture of musical premieres. It’s an opportunity for listeners to “not only feel the music emotionally but feel it intellectually,” Sipe said. He added almost apologetically, “I love show tunes, but there’s not a lot of intellectualism that goes on with listening to a  showtune.”

Sipe said it was Eric Banks’ vision that brought him onboard. “The guy’s brilliant and he’s tough,” Sipe said of Banks. “It’s a joy to sing music that you have to really work at.”

At this recording session, the mix of concentration, affectionate banter and exhaustion seemed like a throwback to college life. Banks attended Yale University and sang with the Yale Glee Club as an undergraduate. The club recently commissioned a new piece from him entitled “Voices,” to commemorate the career of the club’s longtime choral director, and Banks’ mentor, Fenno Heath. “That piece is about the voices of those we have loved, come back to inspire us or guide us after they are gone,” Banks said.

Founding the Esoterics

From Yale, Banks came to the University of Washington to do graduate work, and started The Esoterics in 1992. He named his group The Esoterics because, for one thing, that word contains his name, “Eric.” The group’s concerts and albums stand out because they are more like intellectual journeys. Their last concert explored the idea of a “call:” everything from the seductive song of a temptress to Jesus calling his disciples.

Banks said he’s committed to offering Seattle audiences the most cutting-edge work he can find or compose. “I find that when people sing the same music over and over again, that music becomes less and less relevant. I have nothing against music history, I just think it’s a very safe place to live,” Banks said. “I wanted to found a group that would be a vessel for modern art, for contemporary art.”

With a name like The Esoterics, audiences might be intimidated. But Banks wants just the opposite – for their ideas to be accessible and for the audience to feel welcome. At their concerts, they put the text on a screen in supertitles, so audience members can become immersed in poetry without paging through a program. And the music they champion, including his own work, doesn’t tend to sound angry or dissonant. But it’s about “now,” said Banks. “I’m really after things that are beautiful and compelling. And after all of that, music needs to be relevant there as well.”

An example of that relevance is Banks’ composition entitled “Ru’ia,” or “sacred visions inspired by Islam.” It’s made up of verses from the Koran, sung in Arabic. Banks said it was his response to post 9/11 hysteria.  He draws on everything from ancient texts to scientific data for inspiration. In one upcoming commission he wants to map climate change musically, with tide charts translated into vocal parts.

New Projects

Banks’ music is attracting numerous commissions. Arts organizations seem drawn by his passions for foreign poetry, natural science and social justice. Banks said his composing career has “ballooned” in recent years. The Seattle Opera chose him to write a cycle of shorter operas for families called “Our Earth.” The first is called “Heron and the Salmon Girl.” It depicts the magical journey of two siblings and the wildlife of Puget Sound.

The operas will be performed in places far from the main stage – in schools and community centers around Washington state. At some performances the musicians in the orchestra pit will be members of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Sue Elliott is Seattle Opera’s education director. She said the project shares Banks’ goal of making art that’s beautiful and current, and, in this case, welcoming especially to children.

“People are used to long ago, far away, opera,” she said. “How can you write an opera about here and now? What’s it going to be about, traffic? Well, there’s a great joke about traffic in Heron and the Salmon Girl.”

Elliot described Banks’ music as tuneful, humorous, dark, foreboding and ominous – as when he depicts a storm from the viewpoint of animals in the water.  “It’s really fun because their world is alive underneath the water in a different way during a storm. And that kind of youthful exuberance is also expressed really well in [Banks’] writing for these projects,” said Elliot.

Banks also composed the music for a dance project performed last year called “Approaching Ecstasy.” It seems like an apt title for much of his work, which often features ethereal and soaring melodies.

Now he’s writing music – including his first completely instrumental piece – for ensembles around the country. The singers in The Esoterics feel proud to see Banks’ profile rising. The group is planning its 20th anniversary concert in June. And Banks wants to continue with the group, even as he devotes more time to composing music. For one thing, he said, directing The Esoterics is an important part of his anti-aging strategy.

“We are all going to avoid Alzheimers together!” he said emphatically. “It’s not the doing of music, I think, that keeps us young, I think it’s the doing of NEW music,” he said.

Consider it Eric Banks’ perpetual university of the mind. Open to all.  

This series, "13 for '13" is in partnership with the Seattle Times and profiles 13 members of the Seattle-area’s diverse cultural community; people who have had an impact and are poised to shape the cultural landscape in the decade to come.