“Teeth” chews into norms

An eight-member ensemble recently founded by the College’s Choral Director Brad Wells, Roomful of Teeth is dedicated to uniting non-classical vocal styles from around the world into new compositions. The group’s concert in Brooks-Rogers on Friday, their debut at the College, featured such disparate techniques as belting, whistling, various forms of pop singing, Tuvan and Inuit throat singing, Pansori singing (native to Korea) and yes, yodeling.
On paper, this may look like a pursuit of scholarly interest. Yet on Friday night the house was packed to capacity with students, professors and listeners of all kinds, a testament to the group’s thrilling and accessible performances and the superb work of its composers. The three composers featured on the program – William Brittelle, Caleb Burhans and Merrill Garbus – presented distinctive musical personalities through this extraordinarily flexible group. They had the incredible opportunity to get to know the strengths and capabilities of each individual singer – a rare opportunity for composers – and each performance reflected this.
Brittelle, whose piece “High Done No Why To” opened the program, is a crazy-haired rocker of a composer whose pop roots are displayed with pride in his music. His harmonic language borrows liberally from rock and jazz, and several moments in his pieces featured full-out grooves. In this first piece he even transformed Inuit singing into an imitation of beat-boxing. Most of his melodies would be equally at home on any pop CD. However, his pieces also had an exploratory quality, changing frequently in tempo and feel and at times pushing the ensemble’s formidable skills. In “Amid the Minotaurs” he provided a soaring Broadway-style belt solo to second alto Virginia Warnken, whose sheer force and emotion made this stunning moment a standout performance of the night.
While also displaying a certain pop sensibility, singer and multi-instrumentalist Burhans’ music contrasted sharply with Brittelle’s. His was more slow-moving, remaining in one texture for several minutes before shifting away. Overall he tended towards a meditative minimalism that took cues from electronic music, particularly in his first piece on the program, “No” (so titled because this is the only syllable uttered, not for any overtly negative reason). As demonstrated particularly in “Beneath,” he does not shy away from dramatic and even sudden shifts of mood. A technique that stood out in the opening of this piece was sygyt, a type of Tuvan throat singing in which the singer sustains a single pitch and manipulates its overtones to create a second, flutelike tone high above, which he can control to create a melody.
In his final composition of the night, “Why must you leave me now, when you’re so far away,” Burhans added an actual electronic accompaniment into whose texture the singers were unobtrusively inserted. Burhans himself sang a riff-heavy lead line and also soloed on the electric violin. Wells dedicated this performance to recently deceased Visiting Artist-in-Residence Steve Bodner, friend and colleague to him and many of the audience members. He and many others were visibly moved by the end.
Garbus, the third composer featured, has perhaps an even more directly pop-centric origin, and her style was heavy in both folk and R&B influences. Her pieces worked extensively with looped figures, and those she wrote for the full ensemble (“Ansa Ya” and “Quizassa”) had a remarkable quality of controlled chaos. She also sang lead on two pieces, in which she used an electronic looping pedal and a floor tom to make a drum track. Only the women of the ensemble sang on these pieces, and to a large extent they were relegated to backup positions, which came off as somewhat degrading. However, her use of central African yodeling in “Hatari” as well as other pieces was eye-opening – a far cry from the caricatured alpine styles that may be called to mind. Yodeling is in some sense a controlled voice crack; the singer flips rapidly back and forth across her upper vocal ‘break,’ oscillating between vocal colors. When all four women of Roomful of Teeth used this technique at once, the effect was mesmerizing.
The program closed with Brittelle’s “Color of Rain,” and all three composers joined the full ensemble – Brittelle played piano, Garbus created a drum loop and Burhans sang lead. This closer was more straightforward and song-like in form than Brittelle’s other music, and though Burhans’ performance was underwhelming, the background singing was often interesting. By the end of the piece the voices were electronically looped, which led to an eerie effect after a full concert in which individuals’ vocal characteristics were of equal importance to the unified sound.

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