Roomful of Teeth

Words Can’t Do It Justice: Roomful of Teeth / White Light Festival

Maybe it’s just because it was October, but a listing with the name “Roomful of Teeth” evoked a bit of ghoulishness. Were it a horror flick it’d feature some type of antagonistic maelstrom of distorted humanity, something dangerous, something bity. When it comes to the vocal octet of that name, now in its fifth year, those descriptors aren’t necessarily inaccurate. Roomful of Teeth boasts an uncommon ferocity when it comes to presenting the newest vocal music in the newest vocal ways. The techniques they’ve mastered like so many notches on their belts, are widely unheard and generally unheard of in the way that they are employed to create a unified whole. And that they come in a package of clearly tight-knit, spritely pals belies the fact that they persistently plumb the depths to discover new means of musical communication – and they are scary good at it.

Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, which aims to source eclectically niche music found within the blurred lines between traditional and contemporary, served as the perfect venue to highlight Roomful of Teeth. Founded by Brad Wells in 2009 and still comprised of its pioneering members, their repertoire, each work thereof written just for them, collides at crossroads familiar and curious. There can be so much blending and bending that, for a listener scratching for context or description, the program notes at their concert proved integral. When the strains of American folk hymns are sounded out over primordial Tuvan throat singing, it’s fair to wonder, why? On the other hand, an exhilarating leap into Roomful’s world isn’t half bad either.  Rinde Eckert’s I have stopped the clocks was the aptly named opener of Roomful of Teeth’s White Light show. The octet’s staggered vocal entrances splintered the text via varied tempi and improvisations on a modal scale. Those words, “I have stopped the clocks” (which refer to some psychological experiment within the libretto of another Eckert work, Slide), were soon enough embedded in sound.

That seemed to be one of the prime aspects of Roomful of Teeth’s mission – the whole of their sound is more loaded with content than any text could be. Their expressive techniques are more important, more suggestive, and contain more emotional clarity than any words they might sing. Text-less chittering here, a cough, a breathy protrusion from the chest out into the hall, these are the tools by which their point is made. In Hiram Stamper by composer Sam Amidon, a shape-note hymn –  a technique born in the earliest part of the 19th century to simplify musical notation primarily used by not-necessarily-musically literate American congregations – is set against sounds and subject matter applying to free-jazz. There was a convoluted attraction to the piece, where all the aforementioned techniques and even a comedic anecdote delivered by the composer himself within the performance all eventually tumbled into the maw of the hymn itself. Render, composed by Mr. Wells, featured no words and two streams of music, one rhythmically buoyant group paired with a melodic one. Inspired by the idea of reincarnation, transformation, and a magnetic return to the familiar, Render was both objectively and subjectively gorgeous, featuring some of the most pleasing bel canto vocal work of the concert, the classical technique almost sounding startling in the context of the non-traditional sounds that had become familiar leading up to it.

Composer Caroline Shaw

Composer Caroline Shaw

The much lauded, Pulitzer Prize nabbing Partita for 8 Voices by Roomful of Teeth alto Caroline Shaw rounded out the concert and seemed to turn the ensemble into their truest incarnation. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek homage to the dance suites of the Baroque, the four movement work featured words that seemed to indicate a point plotted in imaginary space. In that way hearing the piece as a whole felt something like watching cups being whisked around a table and wondering under which one the ball was hidden. The beauty, though, came in the movement of the cups themselves. There was a medieval air to each section, the initial soaring explosion of voices in Allemande conjured a Benedictine spirit, the staccato gasps in Courante sounded out like a wordless hocket. Most enjoyable was the enjoyment of the eight singers themselves – they sang with the enthusiasm of a band who’ll never, ever tire of their biggest hit.

More about that name though. “Roomful of Teeth” is so perfectly evocative – a roomful of teeth, the tongue, lips, vocal chords, sinuses, spit, breath, diaphragms. Those bits of anatomy that together create the most elemental human instrument and whose full palettes are so seldom unlocked. Roomful of Teeth, through every twitch and tremble, make them seem limitless in their expressive potential. That they do so through zeal and smiling faces makes them appealing champions of vocal music that seeks to bridge every last gap in the medium. Even the ones no one knew existed.