Various Artists, Wendy Mae Chambers: 12 Squared

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 02.06.14 in Reviews

Numbers are important to composer Wendy Mae Chambers. Early recordings of her work simply used the name Wendy Chambers, but that name has 13 letters, so she added in her middle name. (Don’t scoff — Arnold Schoenberg did the same thing with his opera Moses Und Aron, deleting an “A” from Aaron’s name to avoid a 13-letter title.) Twelve is a good number; 12 squared is even better. This suite of wildly colorful percussion works is for an ensemble of 12 percussionists. (And a conductor who — ack! — make 13…oh well.) Oddly, though, the suite stops at 11 parts. Perhaps a silent 12th part is implied — such a thing would be in keeping with one of the work’s dual inspirations, namely, the late composer John Cage. The other source of inspiration here is a deck of voodoo-themed tarot cards, which lend their names to the individual movements.

A musical tribute to the late John Cage

Numerology aside, Twelve Squared shows off Chambers’s highly developed sense of tone-color; while she has been associated with the toy piano as a serious instrument, she has also written a number of pieces for large ensembles of like instruments, culminating in her Mass for Massed Trombones, which features no fewer than 77 of the titular instrument. (That’s the “76 Trombones” of the old Music Man song title, plus one.) In Twelve Squared, each movement has a signature sound, from the pounding toms of the opener, “Snake Dancer,” to the glittering metal of “Shango.” And the moods vary widely too; yes, there are explosive outbursts of drums and gongs, as in the finale, “Fire Breathing Serpent”; but there are also moments of clarity and serenity, as in “A Priest.” The sounds of Indonesian gamelan are never far from the surface in “The Sun” or “The Barons,” and Chambers uses the term “percussion” loosely enough to include simple horns and “whirlies” — plastic tubes swung overhead to produce an eerie whistling sound. The ensemble includes some of New York’s finest percussionists, including members of the Bang On A Can All-Stars, Newband, and more. Howard Hyning has his hands full, but does a fine job as the (gulp) 13th man in the room.