Wendy Mae Chambers: Mass for Trombones


Wendy Mae Chambers was born in 1953 in the USA. She studied at Barnard College between 1971-1975, where she received a BA in Music. She went on to study at Stony Brook University, where she earned her MA in Composition. Chambers delivers her music in very imaginative ways – usually in the form of large-scale events.

Chambers is known for another unique skill – the toy piano! The New York Times has commented saying that “Ms. Chambers is not only a composer, but also possibly the world’s most foremost virtuoso on the toy piano.” She has composed a full suite for toy piano as well as organising an event named Kun which was held in the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, which was scored for a whopping 64 toy pianos.

Known for her unique scoring for various instruments and objects,here is a taste of Chambers’ style:

Real Music – Scored for 9 cars (1978)

Music for Choreographed for Rowboats – Scored for 24 musicians in rowboats in Central Park NYC (1979)

Clean Sweep – Scored for 9 vacuum cleaners (1980)

One World Percussion – Scored for 50 percussionists and solo Tibetan Horn (1981)

Pluck – Scored for 30 harps at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1984)

Marimba – Scored for 26 marimbas (1985)

Solar Diptych – Scored for 30 trumpets (1985)

Kun – Scored for 64 toy pianos (2009)

Popcorn – Scored for percussion quartet (1977)

Suite for Toy Piano – (1983)

Serenade – Scored for Trumpet and Vibraphone (1992)

Solarsonics – Scored for solo Viola (1994)

Songs for endangered Species – Scored for percussion, harp and baritone (1999&2000)

Chambers’ titles are usually eye-catching and this goes hand in hand with the eccentric music she creates. Chambers has worked closely with the likes of John Cage, who appreciated her individualistic approach to music making and sharing. She has a keen interest in Ethnomusicology (specifically community music), which can certainly be heard in a wealth of her works.

The Music

Mass for Mass Trombones is based on the 13th Century Mass for the Dead, which is also in nine movements. The work is scored for a whopping 77 trombones. The work is in memory of Chambers’ father, John Michael Chambers. It premiered live at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1993.

I. Introit – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t1.mp3

The opening movement to the Mass for Mass Trombones is incredibly evocative. Chambers writes block chords in sequence, which I think represents the light shining upon the rested. The growth that can be heard in the chords is spine-tingling within the atmosphere of the Cathedral. These ideas and atmospheres are developed over the course of this movement, making it a fantastic opener.

II. Kyrie – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t2.mp3

The second movement is started with a motif which is layered by different sections of the ensemble. This beginning is much warmer and chorale-like which is a nice contrast from the previous, darker movement. The timbre here is created by the layered textures and overtones that the trombones are playing. This movement shows another side to Chambers’ compositional style.

III. Gradual – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t3.mp3

Similar to the previous movement, the Gradual begins with a chorale, although this time with a soloist singing above. There is a gradual build up of textures, with sections of the ensemble playing a variation of the first solo theme. The tenor trombones you can hear are playing in their upper registers, which sound very pure .

IV. Tract – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t4.mp3

The fourth movement begins with the tonic chord being layered from top to bottom using the ranges of the trombones. There is quite a bright feel to this movement, and the pace is slightly faster than the other movements. This movement is much more homophonic in texture. This movement is incredibly resonant both in sound and message.

V. Dies Irae – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t5.mp3

The Dies Irae movement begins with a proclamation from the ensemble. This leads in a solo trombone playing the first theme. There is more active dissonance heard already within this movement. Chambers writes pulsating chords, using sharp dynamics, which creates a very interesting effect. The movement ends quietly after a short outburst, and it slowly dies away.

VI. Offertory – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t6.mp3

The sixth section of this work begins with quiet chords which are littered with suspensions. This creates the beautiful dissonant sound and the overtones that carry over throughout the Cathedral. The dynamic grows into fruition and a wonderful theme is heard between at least three sections of the ensemble. This initial theme is taken and subsequently passed around the ensemble to create a really interesting atmosphere.

VII. Sanctus – http://www.wendymae.com/mp3/t7.mp3

This is the seventh movement of the requiem (and also the last I will be looking into due to recording restrictions). It begins with the lower end of the trombones playing quite a tumultuous motif, which is layered on top of one another. This quickly dissolves and resolves into this beautiful solo, which is accompanied by a warm sound. There is a lot of fluctuating from major and minor tonalities, which creates a lot of colour within this movement. This movement concludes with the last (presumably tonic) chord dies away.

Final Thoughts

Wendy Mae Chambers’ unconventional orchestration for this work has led it to become a truly intriguing work. Each trombone plays a part in the overall effect of the work, from being a soloist to adding luscious harmonic colour. Chambers’ works are unique and eccentric, making her a must-hear composer!


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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