Coming to Terms with Whitacre’s “Deep Field”

I just got back from the Minnesota Orchestra-Minnesota Chorale concert led by Eric Whitacre—a concert that featured a slate of new works by American composers, which concluded with the world premiere of Whitacre’s Deep Field for chorus, orchestra… and app. If time permits, I might post reflections of the concert as a whole, but while it’s still fresh in my mind I wanted to share a few thoughts about Deep Field.

As I mentioned in my preview of the concert, Deep Field was inspired by the “deep field” photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope—a photo created when NASA trained the telescope on what was previously thought to be an empty area of the night sky, and left the recorders running for several days. The resulting photo was remarkable; the sky wasn’t empty, but filled with nearly 3,000 celestial objects. It wasn’t just a picture of stars being born, but whole galaxies being born, moving across the universe, and colliding. Cosmic life, cosmic death that stretched back nearly to the moment of creation. “Emptiness” was revealed to be fullness.


Eric had explained that he wanted to create a work that encompassed all that cosmic grandeur, and would recreate it through music—sort of a celestial version of Debussy’s La Mer.  But he went on to explain that as he worked on it, the meaning of the piece changed for him, becoming far greater, and deeper than a simple depiction of natural phenomena.

Having just performed it, I know what he means.

For me, Deep Field isn’t just about celestial beauty, it’s about us—or more specifically, how that celestial beauty touches us. The human experience is at the core of Deep Field, serving as a guiding theme in the same way that Elgar’s hidden “Enigma theme” animates his Enigma Variations.

We as humans have always had questions about our place in the universe… questions we have repeatedly posed to scientific and religious authorities in an unending quest for Truth.  Or at least for some sort of definitive answer.

In Deep Field, humans ask those questions on a cosmic scale. In our search for truth, we have created the most sophisticated piece of technology we can conceive, the Hubble Telescope. And we have directed this technological marvel to peer into the deepest, darkest corner of the universe—a corner we believe to be devoid of anything at all. Sure enough, it does provide us with an answer, but an answer we did not expect. An answer that is more vast, more beautiful, and more profound than our mortal lives can comprehend. In fact, this answer is so vast that it shows the inadequacy of the questions we asked in the first place.

I don’t want to get too “meta” here, but for me, Deep Field only makes sense if you realize that it’s not about the “deep field” image itself, but rather our awe and transformation as we view the “deep field” image… and see for the first time the full majesty of the universe. In looking at this image, we see a brief vision of a greater cosmic truth, but that vision humbles us. And makes us want to learn more.

If I were to plan my ideal concert with Deep Field, I would pair it with Haydn’s The Creation. Although on many levels the pieces are vastly different, they are spiritually closely connected; they seek to understand the cosmic, divine order that animates the universe and gives us meaning. Hadyn’s Enlightenment-era God tames chaos and creates structure to the universe, and ultimately sets humans within this divinely-inspired system.  Eric’s Deep Field shows humans as actors that seek to understand the cosmic order so they may understand The Divine Power that created it. Together, these two works form a clear continuum of thought.

Plus, Eric’s cosmic grandeur would make a brilliant prelude for the cosmic chaos with which Haydn opens his work.

And as long as I’m dreaming… if I were to really do this pairing right, I’d include a pre- or post-discussion with faith leaders, and someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson to discuss what creation means, along with a broader discussion of the cosmos and how we come to understand it.

* * *

More thoughts soon, but if at all possible, come hear this work for yourself. Tickets are still available at the Orchestra Hall box office.


3 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with Whitacre’s “Deep Field”

  1. I feel you had an advantage hearing it in rehearsals. I was a tad underwhelmed with it last night, but I like your idea of pairing it with Hayden. It’s a piece that should be heard more than once.


    • In truth, we had not run through the entire piece with all components assembled until Friday night… so Friday night was the first time than any of us heard it. Hearing it again tonight was a different experience–I felt like I could relax more and let it sweep over me rather than watching the podium like a hawk.


  2. Pingback: To love or to loathe? | Stay Tuned...

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