Thompson Memorial Chapel, with its soaring vaulted ceilings crafted opulently in wood and its resplendent Gothic ornamentation, is a big space for only eight voices to fill.
However, the award-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth had no trouble delivering a mind-blowing, full-sounding performance in Thompson Chapel last Friday, especially impressive considering one member was missing.
Roomful of Teeth is an experimental vocal ensemble founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, the College’s Lydell B. Clay artist in residence, director of choral/vocal activities and professor of music.
The ensemble’s concert in Thompson was the culmination of their residency at the College this past fall. The College’s concert choir, also directed by Wells, had the opportunity to learn from Roomful of Teeth and even to sing with them in the performance on Friday.
The concert started off with “Partita for 8 Voices,” performed magnificently with just seven. The piece contains four movements and was composed by ensemble member Caroline Shaw, who received a Pulitzer Prize in Music for the piece in 2013. Shaw wrote a majority of the piece in both the basement of Thompson Chapel and in Mass MoCA, where she drew inspiration from the colorful and geometric wall drawings of the artist Sol LeWitt.
Though Roomful of Teeth’s style is labeled as contemporary classical, the group is known for pushing the boundaries of what the human voice can do, often incorporating distinct vocal styles from around the world into its work.
While each movement in this piece, according to Shaw, “takes a cue from the traditional baroque suite in initial meter and tone,” the piece was anything but predictable.
“Partita for 8 Voices” wasn’t just a contained repetition of verses and refrains; it grew and developed as if it were a living being. There were surprises, abrupt changes in direction and cathartic explosions of sound that no meter could contain. There were many tense, dissonant chords as well as harmonies so smooth and subtle that you hardly realized they were being sung.
The first movement, “Allemande,” begins with a tangle of spoken voices, reading out technical directions LeWitt wrote for those who executed his drawings and a set of square dance calls – “to the left, to the right, to the side” – that made up some of the only lyrics in the show. These spoken directions were soon punctuated by an effervescent eruption of joyful sound that then alternated with more solemn, choral segments reminiscent of a monastic chant. The piece also included a diverse range of vocal effects such as Tuvan throat singing in the second movement, “Sarabande,” on the part of baritone Thomas McCargar, and guttural sighs in “Courante.”
In “Passacaglia,” the final movement, smooth choral harmonies quickly switched to abrupt, bursting belts that made up the finale.
While it was a bold move to start off with what was doubtless the most compositionally impressive piece, the rest of the show certainly did not disappoint.
Second was the world premiere of “Psychedelics: Tales from the Snow Dream,” which was composed by Brooklyn composer William Brittelle.
Brittelle developed the piece specifically for Roomful of Teeth, using a range of vocal sounds to explore the concept of a post-apocalyptic world. The concert choir joined Roomful of Teeth on the stage and contributed to the almost overwhelming intensity of the piece.
There was definitely an apocalyptic sense of growing entropy and decay in “Psychedelics,” as chords trended towards dissonance as the piece progressed. It ended with a subsection titled “Snow in Metuchen.” There were some spoken lyrics, such as “Snow – you can touch it!” and “Violence?!” all spoken simultaneously in a cacophonous jumble.
There was a chaotic variety of vocal sounds and vowels mixed into the melody, from operatic notes to shrill shouts, shushes and howls to test the full range of pitch for each singer.
Next up was “Render,” composed by Wells. “Render” was unmistakably soft and gentle and was perfectly suited for Thompson Chapel. While the first two pieces were electrifying and stormy, “Render” was like the ocean on a calm day – ebbing and flowing, culminating steadily in loudness as if cresting a wave, then flowing gently away.
“Render” was followed by “Cesca’s View,” a short and sweet piece composed by Rinde Eckert, featured a stunning yodeling performance deftly sung by soprano Estelí Gomez. It was both haunting and fun, as the singers couldn’t help but smile at the sound of their own yodeling during the more lighthearted moments.
Then came Judd Greenstein’s “A E I O U,” which was tied together by the repetition of the vowel sounds rattle off in quick succession, prominently featuring the powerful belts of Gomez and alto Virginia Warnken.
The second half of the show consisted of a few somewhat shorter pieces. “I Have Stopped the Clocks,” also by Eckert, was another gentle, ponderous tune that seemed to make time slow down.
Greenstein’s “Montmartre” opened with a jazzed intensity that reminded one of an a cappella arrangement, if the group’s members were classically-trained masters of vocal techniques from around the world. The yodeling, overtones, belting and operatic trilling removed the need for lyrics.
The show ended with Wells’s piece “Otherwise.” The stunning, operatic bel canto of bass-baritone Dashon Burton reverberated throughout the entire chapel and drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
And so rather than being overwhelmed by the scale of Thompson Chapel, the members of Roomful of Teeth instead filled the space with their joyful noise and truly lived up to their name.