Senior music major Charlotte Wang ’24 conducted her thesis “Requiem: Ceaseless Life” for an audience in Buckley Recital Hall on the evening of Feb. 3. When she lowered her baton for the last time, the performers onstage (myself included) smiled at each other at what was probably our best run of her piece to that point. Applause, flowers, and bows followed, and our weeks of rehearsing and Wang’s months of composition and planning paid off.
When I asked Wang about her experience writing a music thesis, she told me that pursuing a thesis in the music department was far from the path of least resistance. Before coming to Amherst, she felt pressure to pursue a career that would guarantee a high salary, like becoming a lawyer.
“Since I succeeded in academics, I was expected to do something practical … I didn’t ‘have to’ become an artist,” she said. In spite of this pressure, Wang decided to pursue music at Amherst, in part due to encouragement from a high school music teacher.
Upon arriving at Amherst, Wang was still unsure about what exactly she wanted to study. She tried ethnomusicology and musical analysis, but was not captured by either of them. She eventually decided on a thesis in composition under Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Music Eric Sawyer, with whom she’s taken class with every semester since her sophomore year. Around the same time, she started learning how to conduct from Director of the Choral Music Program Arianne Abela and Director of Instrumental Music Mark Swanson, and took classes with Professor of Music Klara Moricz. Wang joined the Amherst Symphony and chamber ensembles where she got valuable experience performing with and befriending other students playing classical music at the college. Composition was attractive because Wang could involve all these people in her endeavors, and as she committed to this path, the music department “started to feel like a family.”
Having received all this support over the years, Wang said she felt indebted to the department and that this motivated her thesis: “Writing a composition thesis felt like a way to give back to the community,” she explained.
When she got to work on “Ceaseless Life,” Wang enlisted the poetic talents of Haoran Tong ’23 as her librettist. “There was a lot of back and forth between me and Haoran in the early stages,” she said. Wang gave Tong themes and a general story she wanted him to articulate, and she often made edits and requested revisions. “Haoran’s writing was very metaphysical in some of the later movements, and I couldn’t write music for it,” she recalled. They agreed to make it more colloquial, and the text started to match Wang’s vision. Once the words were completed, Wang began to write the choir’s parts. With the choral foundation established, she used the technical capabilities of an orchestra to add depth and texture to her piece; she also gave the orchestra their own sections to be in conversation with the choir.
When it came to writing parts for the performers, Wang knew who was going to join her ensemble beforehand and kept their qualities in mind to create the best parts possible. During her time in the Amherst Symphony, Wang often contributed to the percussion section, so she composed four percussion parts for her requiem as a gift to her four percussionist friends. She wrote the solo tenor part specifically for Andy de la Torre ’23E to thank him for including her in his own music thesis, “Atempause — Ein menschliches Requiem.” Wang also composed both his and soprano Jessica Strauss ’27’s parts to highlight their particular vocal strengths. When writing challenging passages, she consulted the musicians on whether the techniques she wanted to incorporate could realistically be played, and adjusted them accordingly. And when Wang learned that Reid Dodson ’24 was going to join on flute, Wang told me “[the] flute part got crazier” to fully take advantage of Dodson’s capable musicianship. Keeping all these factors in mind, Wang produced a composition showing the fingerprints of the entire ensemble, as it was written for particular people in the music department she has formed relationships with since her first semester at Amherst.
Wang’s work is a requiem, which is a form of music on the subject of death. Although many of the great requiems of the past draw from Catholic masses, Wang told me: “I’m an agnostic, so I wouldn’t be able to access the full meaning of those words.” The emotional weight behind the libretto and the music came instead from Wang’s own experiences, where her struggles brought her to the border between life and death. In her high school years she suffered from severe depression, and she often contemplated suicide. Since that time, after getting treatment and rediscovering the beauty in her life, she has been able to appreciate the things she learned from being at that lowest of lows, and incorporated those ideas into her requiem. Musings on whether life is really that different from death, the inherent struggle of being alive, and both despair and hope for what happens when we die pervade the libretto. In the end, Wang’s requiem is a reflection of her own emotional journey: “This is an output of me, and a celebration of my undergraduate composition career, so I’m pulling out all the different parts [of myself] that I can.”
Wang’s collaboration with the students, professors, and staff of the music department was essential for her to make it through periods of solitude that writing a composition requires. She looks to study conducting after college and to eventually make it her profession. But before she does, she would like to extend her gratitude to everyone who helped her with her thesis, and for participating in what is, to her, a celebration of the entire Amherst music department. I am so glad to have been a part of this myself, and I hope, Charlotte, to see you on a podium in a great concert hall conducting Mahler someday.