Student’s composition impresses at premiere

Student composer Alec Schumacker ’08 conducted the Williams College Concert Choir and the accompanying orchestra in the world premiere of his newest work, Mass on American Poets, before a crowd in Thompson Memorial Chapel on Saturday night. Schumacker, who is also co-director of the Springstreeters and co-conductor of the Student Symphony, wrote the composition as his senior thesis, and designed it to complement the Choir’s performance of Bach’s Credo from Mass in B Minor. While composing an entire Mass might seem like a daunting task, Schumacker executed his piece with a degree of grace and control that mirrored the work’s thoughtful construction and beautiful blends.
The Mass itself is based upon American poems Schumacker selected to correspond with each part in five movements – including poems by Longfellow, Hughes and Whitman – reinterpreted to apply to the format.

Composing the Mass was no easy task according to Schumacker. “Some of the biggest challenges of writing it are envisioning how people are going to play it, and almost half of the work is not necessarily writing the piece, but crafting it in a way that people can play and read off the page,” Schumacker said. “I spend most of my time making parts and proofreading parts, and that’s one of the biggest challenges of it all.”

Surprisingly, translating the piece from the page into performance is not as challenging to the music major as might be expected. “The way I write music is I always start with one sort of idea and I usually sing it or play it or bang it out on something, and so in that sense I always perform what I’m writing as I write it,” Schumacker said. “Computer stuff is great now so that you can actually have it play back certain things for you. Mozart would have hated that – probably would have thought it was cheating.”

Although Schumacker wrote his first piece at age 12 (“a really terrible little ditty for piano”), becoming a composer is no overnight task. “It sort of takes a leap of faith to get into it and to believe that you have the ability or merit,” said Schumacker. “Composers are one facet of society that’s held up as ‘genius’ and ‘untouchable’ – I always say I’m a composer and people imagine long crazy hair and stuff.” This preconception of what it takes to be a composer is sometimes intimidating to those trying to write their own pieces in the wake of such distinguished precedents. Schumacker resolved this fact by incorporating his own innovations, such as poetry and representations of the natural through vocalizations, which give his work a sense of originality.

In presentation, this careful attention to detail and nuance could clearly be heard in the performance of the choir and orchestra. The first movement, using the text of “My Cathedral” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, began with the choir vocalizing the noises of wind while bird songs emanated from the wind section. “I wrote down bird songs from Williamstown this summer, and there are sort of wind and insect noises in the choir, kind of these whooshing things – so a lot of the winds play these bird motives, and actually almost every movement has some sort of reference to animals,” Schumacker said.

The choice of this first poem is perhaps most appropriate for the entire Mass, as the text itself summarizes the religious overtones that pervade the work, which follows the model functionally used in worship services. Rather than worshipping a god or gods, however, Schumacker’s piece glorifies nature, as “My Cathedral” intimates in its final line: “Listen, ere the sound be fled,/And learn there may be worship without words.” The movement’s ethereal crescendo leading to its a cappella and gently hummed conclusion invokes a sense of devout worship appropriate for the part’s function as a traditional Sanctus.

The second movement continued this concept of glorifying and revering nature, as the text of “Heaven” by Langston Hughes took a majestic tone through usage of triumphant horns and drums. Grander than the first movement, appropriate for a Gloria, the frenzied intonation of “everywhere” (“Heaven is/The place where/Happiness is/Everywhere”) created an earnestness accompanied with iterations of bells and further vocalizations.

The Kyrie took on the text of Cherokee war poem “From the South,” and marked a notable change in tempo and tone to a warlike aggression with agitated strings and a jarring, undulating tempo. “By the middle movement, which is a war poem about these war birds coming and getting swept up in this kind of war fever, the bird songs are actually transformed in a way that I hope makes them sort of much uglier and more gripping to the audience,” Schumacker said, an intent that was successful in its performance. This escalation is reminiscent of an eager, desperate plea for mercy, brimming with the immediacy of an imminent doom. A canon on the line “I wish to change myself/to the body of that swift bird” furthered this intensification, as the choir then erupted into unintelligible whispers that evoked the sound of buzzing wings in a crazy flutter. The entire movement was utterly effective in imparting a sense of foreboding danger and war, and could easily have been excerpted from an epic movie soundtrack for its emotional intensity.

The final two movements, the Agnus Dei, from by Walt Whitman’s “In Vain,” and Credo, from “Old Woman” by Carol Montgomery, take a more humanistic tone. “In Vain,” which featured a haunting solo by Matt Allen ’08, began with the percussion of an executioner’s march, and was an ominous, mournful keening. When joined by the choir, its dark beginning was greatly contrasted with hopefulness almost reminiscent of a musical theater piece in its humming fullness. Certainly the most serious of the movements, its ghostly choral accompaniment had a chilling effect, and Schumacker again employed an a cappella final line – “Books are not men” – evocative in its simplicity.

“Old Woman” effectively served its purpose as an assertion of belief, continuing attaca from the previous movement in a seamless transition. As it is a haiku, the minimal lyrics were repeatedly invoked, including beautiful solos by Yanie Fecu ’10, Augusta Caso ’09 and Chaz Lee ’11. This repetition suggests a churchlike call-and-response, a sentiment affirmed by the exhaling “Amen” at its conclusion, while the alternation between solo and group and dark and light reflects a final confrontation between the conflicting powers that ominously loom throughout the other movements.

The Mass on American Poets was undeniably successful at innovating on a standardized format, and received a standing ovation so fervent and prolonged that Schumacker modestly fled the stage in true Streeter style. Schumacker partly attributes his success to his time here at Williams. “One of the great things about Williams is that unlike a conservatory, you can get everything heard as a composer because there’s so few of us, so people are always really happy and willing to play pieces, and the department is small enough that they can afford to let students premiere their own stuff,” he said.

After Williams, Schumacker plans to attend graduate school to pursue a degree in choral conducting. At our interview’s conclusion, when asked if he had anything else to add, Schumacker earnestly exclaimed – “Hopefully that’s in the music!” No better summation can be made to encapsulate Schumacker’s goal and intent of making the intangible manifest. He unquestionably succeeded in the stunning Mass on American Poets and clearly showed his promise as a composer.