Friday, November 1, 2013

Composer Wendy Mae Chambers: Dreams, Death, Music & Marie Laveau

Christal Cooper – 1,511 Words
Facebook @ Christal Ann Rice Cooper

“She’s the 20th Century Berlioz, with a huge sonic imagination
no average concert hall can contain . . . acoustically unprecedented.”
Kyle Gann, the Village Voice, June of 1994.

World known composer Wendy Chambers’ first bond with art was when she was eight years old and her mother had her take painting lessons.  Now Chambers is an avid painter and each of her paintings sell a minimum of $1000. 

When composer Wendy Mae Chambers was sixteen years old she knew her calling was to be a musician.
     “My brother who is eight years older than me played the piano and I guess I heard from him and that’s how I got started.”
Now she is known as the “20th Century Berlioz”

After graduating from high school in New Jersey, Chambers made the decision to leave New Jersey for New York City so she could study classical music at Barnard College.  She received full support from her father.

     “My father was always there to help me begin something and finish it.  He let me do whatever I was interested in.  He was interested in my dreams coming true.”
While at Barnard College she studied the piano with musician Kenneth Cooper and received her Bachelor’s Degree in classical music in 1975.  In 1977 she received her Master’s Degree in Composition from SUNY at Stony Brook.

Her first claim to fame was Music For Choreographed Rowboats, performed in 1979 in which 16 musicians are in rowboats oared by the Columbia University crew team at New York City’s Central Park Lake.    
     “The idea first came to me in a dream about tubas as passengers in pedal boats playing music.  I wanted to do the tubas on pedal boats but Central Park only had rowboats so we used rowboats.”

The inspiration for Chamber’s piece The Car Horn Organ also came to her in a dream.

         “I was hearing an incredible symphony with these massive beautiful chords, totally sustained and gradually shifting into other chords.  As I woke up I realized I was hearing a huge traffic jam on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.”

         The dream inspired Chambers to build a 25-note organ out of car horns, and featured its first debut at a parking lot by an orchestra of cars performing versions of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “New York, New York”.
         Chamber’s wonderful instrument invention was featured in The Smithsonian Magazine.
When Chambers turned 21, her father not only brought her her first legal cocktail but also introduced her to his family roots and his home state of Louisiana.   

     “I was immediately seduced by the French Quarter.  I fantasized about living there.  My father’s first cousin was Lyle Saxon, Cousin Lyle, is mentioned at the French Quarter walking tours.  He was dubbed Mr. New Orleans for his efforts with the revitalization of the French Quarter and his enthusiastic support for Mardi Gras.”

         Saxon was also the state director of the Louisiana Writers’ Project of the WPA.  He hired good friend and writer Robert Tallant as a writer for the project.  

     “Lyle Saxon’s obituary was found among Robert Tallant’s papers.  Tallant wrote a book called Voodoo In New Orleans and a novel about Marie Laveau.  He did extensive research, collected interviews, and press clippings about voodoo and Marie Laveau.”

I first heard the name Marie Laveau when I visited the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum as a tourist.   When I turned 41, I bought a house in the French Quarter at 922 St. Ann St., just one block from where the famous voodoo queen once lived.  Marie Laveau had lived at what is now 1020 St. Ann Street. I would sit at my window that opened out into St. Ann Street and hear tour guides talk about her as they headed down the street.  One day I realized that this would be a great subject for a musical.  You can’t make up stuff like this.”

Chambers then began her quest for putting Voodoo and the life of Marie Laveau to music.   Chambers knew she’d have to do some research, but then realized that most of her research had already been completed by Saxon and Tallant.  

       “I struck a gold vein.  Finally I did my own historical research and included the more dramatic happenings of the day.”

Chambers then wrote her yet-to-be published and yet-to-be-performed musical, Voodoo in the Bayou, based on the life and death of Marie Laveau, and New Orleans Voodoo, which is a blend of West African religion and Catholicism.

         “The music is poetry set to music.  It’s still not complete. I’ve been writing it for the past twelve years.”

Voodoo On The Bayou is the true story of Maria Laveau the Voodoo Queen of the 19th century New Orleans told from stories, interviews and newspaper articles about her and her Voodoo practices.  The musical brings Laveau, Voodoo life, and Voodoo deities (called Loahs and closely paired with Catholic Saints) to life through vignettes punctuated with voodoo dancing and drumming.  It is the story of a magical person with a spirit that refused to die. 

     “Researching Marie Laveau brought me to the Voodoo Spiritual Temple where I met Priestess Miriam.  I had a reading with her to tap into the spirit of Marie Laveau.  I attended Voodoo Symposiums in New Orleans.”

The musical moves back and fourth between present day and the time of Marie Laveau and it switches between the spiritual realm and the real world through the incorporation of voodoo deities as characters and traditional voodoo ceremonies.  In two acts we see Maria evolving into a nurse during the Yellow Fever Epidemic where her skills are put to the test.  We see her praying for those in church who are sick.  We see her experiencing pain and suffering for those who come to her for help.  We experience her life as a half African American and half Creole working as a hairstylist, and finally a voodoo practitioner.  Then comes the cemetery tour where the audience encounters her gravesite and the voodoo deities who reside there.  

         “What is true and what is not?  You can just imagine the true stories told about a voodoo queen.  When I realized that it was not up to me to decide this, I got the idea of how to truly tell her story and that was through the eyes of others.  Now you can decide the truth for yourself.  All of the stories in “Voodoo on the Bayou” are, of course, purported to be true.”

Chambers, during her research for Voodoo On The Bayou also consulted with Sallie Ann Glassman, the creator of The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot Cards.  

When Chambers learned of her mentor and musician John Cage’s death in August of 1992, she wrote a memorial for him inspired by Glassman’s New Orleans Voodoo Tarot Cards.  12 Squared is a tone poem for 12 percussionists in eleven movements.

Chambers was featured on CNN, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and Performance Today.  She produced a PBS and Learning Channel television series titled VIDEOVILLE for five years.  She’s been awarded Two National Endowment for the Arts grants, an American Composer Forum Commission Grant, a CAPS grant, and is the founder of Artmusic Inc.

     “Being a composer is much like being storyteller.  You have to have a beginning, middle and an end.  Being a composer does not require knowing how to play every single instrument; but rather requires understanding of the various instruments and the language of music.”

     Chambers’ other music creations include Real Music, 1978, for 9 cars; Street Music, 1978, for 30 musicians and coordinated radio broadcast based on the theme from Close EncountersThe Kitchen, 1978, for nine performers on pots and pans and three performers preparing food; Busy Box Quartet, 1980, for four crib toys; Clean Sweep, 1980, for nine vacuum cleaners;  Prime Time, 1980, for nine televisions; The Village Green, 1980, for three marching bands, twon siren, and guns; One World Percussion, 1981, in which 50 percussionists performed at the World Trade Center Foundation Plaza; Ten Grand, 1983, with ten grand painos and laser lights at the Lincoln Cneter Fountain Plaza; The Grand Harp Event, 1984, fearting 30 harps at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; Solar Diptych, 1985, for 30 trumpets; Summer Solstice Event ,1985, commissioned by the New Wilderness Foundation with 30 trumpets; Marimbas, 1985, 26 marimbas performed at the Kennedy Center;  Liberty Overture, 1986, performed on the Brooklyn V, a 100-foot vessel in the New York Harbor for the Statue of Liberty Centennial; Quill ,1987, six harpsichords and surround-sound bird tapes at Symphony Space;  Symphony Of The Universe, 1989, 100 timpani, metal percussion, horn soloist, jazz band, choir, organ, and tape at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine;  A Mass For Mass Trombones (A requiem in memory of her father), 1993, 77 trombones at the Cathedra of St. John the Divine.;  Antarctica Suite, 1999,  45-minute piano solo about the composer’s trip to the great white continentNight of the Shooting Stars 2001, one poem for 16 percussionists commemorating the Leonid Meteor ShowerMandalas – Mandala in Funk for Percussion Quartet, Mandala for toy piano, Mandala for solo clarinet  Series of 3 musical mandalas inspired by a trip to Tibet;  Endangered Species Song Cycle Parts 1 & 2, 2000Orbit for 16 percussionists; and Kun, 2012, 64 toy pianos at South Street Seaport, New York City.

Photo Description and Copyright Information

Photo 1
Wendy Mae Chambers.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 2.
Painting by Wendy Mae Chambers.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 3.
Wendy Mae Chambers playing the toy piano.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 4.
Barnard College on July 24, 2009.  Attributed to Billy Hathorn.  Copyright Billy Hathorn at en Wikipedia.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Photo 5.
The Charles Wang Center near the main entrance of Stony Brook University.  Attributed to Edwin Casado Baez.  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unported and GNU Free Documentaiton License 1.2.

Photo 6.
Music For Choreographed Rowboats.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 7. and 8.
Wendy Mae Chambers at her Car Horn Organ.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambrs.

Photo 11.
Lyle Saxton.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 12.
Jacket cover of The Friends of Joe Gilmore by Lyle Saxon.

Photo 13.
Jacket cover of The Lafitte Pirate by Lyle Saxon.

Photo 14.
Jacket cover of Old Louisiana by Lyle Saxon.

Photo 15.
Jacket cover of Father Mississippi The Story of The Great Flood of 1927 by Lyle Saxon.

Photo 16.
Jacket cover of Fabulous New Orleans by Lyle Saxon.

Photo 17.
Jacket cover of Children of Strangers by Lyle Saxon.

Photo 18.
Robert Tallant.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 19.
Jacket cover of Voodoo In New Orleans by Robert Tallant. 

Photo 20.
Jacket cover of The Voodoo Queen by Robert Tallant.

Photo 21.
Jacket cover of Mardi Gras As It Was by Robert Tallant.

Photo 22.
Jacket cover of Evangeline and the Acadians by Robert Tallant.

Photo 23.
Jacket cover of Mrs. Candy and Saturday Night by Robert Tallant.

Photo 24.
Jacket cover of Ready To Hang Seven Famous New Orleans Murders by Robert Tallant.

Photo 25.
Jacket cover of The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans by Robert Tallant.

Photo 26.
Wendy Mae Chambers at Marie Laveau’s tomb.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 27.
Marie Laveau.  1920 Painting by Frank Schneider based on a lost 1835 painting of Marie Laveau by George Catlin.  Public Domain.

Photo 28.
Drawing of Marie Laveau.  Pubic Domain.

Photo 29.
Painting of Marie Laveau.   Public Domian.

Photo 30.
Marie Laveau.  Public Domain.

Photo 31.
Black and white painting of Marie Laveau.  Public Domain.

Photo 32.
Congo Square.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 33.
Congo dancers.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 34.
Woman with umbrella.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 35.
Sketch.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 36.
Sallie Ann Glassman.  Attributed to Charlotte.  Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

Photo 37.

Photo 38.
John Cage.  Fair Use Under the United States Copyright law.

Photo 39.
Album jacket cover of 12 Squared.

Photo 40. and 41.
Wendy Mae Chambers, her Car Horn Organ, and Jay Leno on The Tonight Show.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 42.
Real Music.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 43.
One World Percussion Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 44.
Album cover of Ten Grand.

Photo 45.
The Grand Harp Event.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 46.
Album cover of Symphony of the Universe.

Photo 47.
Album cover of A Mass for Mass Trombones.

Photo 48.
Antarctica Suite.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 49.
Night of the Shooting Stars.  Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.

Photo 50.
Wendy Mae Chambers participating in Kun. Copyright by Wendy Mae Chambers.


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  2. Dear Voodoo,
    THanks so much for reading. And it's horrible that people would take advantage of someone else's vulnerability and pain.
    I am not Voodoo but I can guarantee that Voodoo is not the only religion that has rotten apples. I believe there are rotten apples in every religion.
    I hope things continue to work for the best of you and your wife and your son.
    Thanks for commenting.
    Take Care