Wendy Mae Chambers

Symphony of the Universe

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Although Wendy Mae Chambers gets much more mainstream media attention for whimsical ideas like the car-horn organ (which landed her on The Tonight Show), she's also a serious composer of modern classical music. Symphony of the Universe, an hourlong piece in four movements, premiered in 1989 and was recorded in 1993. The first movement, "Big Bang," is performed by 100 timpanis, and sounds pretty much exactly like one would expect such a massive number of deep-toned tuned percussion instruments to sound, but Chambers coaxes a surprising variety of sounds out of the kettledrums. The noisy second movement, "Organism," is a 14-minute piece performed by the Walter Thompson Big Band, and recalls some of Charles Mingus' more artsy charts, as reinterpreted by John Cage. The third movement, "Cosmos," is a haunting duet for church organ and French horn played over a prerecorded tape manipulation piece and a 12-person metal percussion ensemble. The combination recalls a co-mingling of Steve Reich's early organ pieces and his later works for large percussion ensembles, with the lyrical French horn providing a much-needed melodic element. The final movement, "Evolution," makes effective use of a full chorus, Chambers' first large-scale work for voices. With its judicious uses of timpani and organ recalling the earlier movements, this movement brings the piece to an effective and musically satisfying close.

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