Roomful of Teeth and ACF | connect Converge at MASS MoCA

“In this past year, I have made a promise to myself to really get to know the performers I collaborate with—not just as extraordinary musicians, but also as extraordinary human beings,” said composer Mary Kouyoumdjian. On Friday August 23, 2019 at MASS MoCA, this spirit of intimate collaboration served as the nexus of the entire evening as Roomful of Teeth’s 10th birthday celebration brilliantly collided with the American Composers Forum’s ACF | connect program. Over the past 10 years, Roomful of Teeth has redefined the landscape of contemporary vocal techniques by working closely with composers, fearlessly experimenting with new ideas, and maintaining a healthy sense of curiosity—making Roomful of Teeth and ACF | connect a natural pairing.

Established in 2017, ACF | connect facilitates relationships between composers, ensembles, and audiences by hosting an annual call for scores, awarding a $7,500 commissioning fee to the selected composers, and providing composer housing, transportation, and meals for all workshops, rehearsals, and performances associated with the program. By alleviating the financial and logistical burdens that often hamper these types of collaborations—especially for underrepresented composers facing systemic barriers to entry—ACF | connect successfully provides the framework for an environment conducive to unhindered creativity.

Mingjia Chen--Photo by Tiffany Wu

Mingjia Chen–Photo by Tiffany Wu

The August 23rd program was simultaneously retrospective and forward-looking, featuring significant works written for Roomful of Teeth over the past 10 years by Missy Mazzoli, Judd Greenstein, Eve Beglarian, and Caroline Shaw in addition to three world premieres by ACF | connect participants Mary Kouyoumdjian, Mingjia Chen, and Peter Shin.

Mazzoli’s Vesper Sparrow (2012) attempts to capture the unique qualities of Roomful of Teeth’s individual singers as well as “the magic that is created when this group comes together.” True to this intention, additive textures of swooping birdsong-like motives drew the audience in one voice at a time before culminating in an epic bass drop that snapped the ensemble into glorious alignment. Greenstein’s AEIOU (2009) offered a sonic look back at the seeds that would become the hallmarks of Roomful of Teeth’s sound: rattling bass drones, effortlessly floating soprano lines, kaleidoscopic ostinatos, mastery of extended vocal techniques, and the ability to instantaneously land on a perfectly tuned and balanced chord.

A new version of Eve Beglarian’s None More Than You (2018-2019) saw members of the Dessoff Choirs and community choir singers from the northern Berkshires join Roomful of Teeth live. (The original Dessoff Choir commission featured Roomful of Teeth on a pre-recorded electronic track.) Drawing from a Kierkegaard metaphor that paints consonants as necessities and vowels as possibilities, Roomful of Teeth attempted to speak with no vowels, resulting in guttural, strained, and choked utterances. Eventually, the choristers laid a sonorous open vowel foundation, infusing possibility into a sea of buzzing and percussive consonants.

Mary Kouyoumdjian--Photo by Dominica Eriksen

Mary Kouyoumdjian–Photo by Dominica Eriksen

Mary Kouyoumdjian’s output is largely documentary-based, and the world premiere of Mustard Sweatshirts are Forever evoked the same deeply-felt stories at the heart of many of her works. Constructing the libretto entirely from interviews with Roomful of Teeth, we learned what the voice means to them and what they would say to each other if they knew they would not meet again for a long time (delivering the eponymous quotation, “Oh, sweet Martha—don’t you know that mustard sweatshirts are forever?”). Beginning with individual declarations of the word “I,” Artistic Director Brad Wells narrated a list of hometowns over increasingly chaotic and overlapping textures. Coming together on the phrase “my voice,” Kouyoumdjian’s powerful text setting underscored the common thread uniting this group of people with whispers, falsetto tones, and internalized hums. Particularly striking was the concluding passage with solo melodies accompanied in spoken rhythmic unison by the rest of the ensemble as they exchanged theoretical parting words (“Because you are worthy / Because ‘I love you’: that’s why”). Highly impactful moments like this made passages with purely spoken text not as effective by comparison. This small detail aside, Mustard Sweatshirts are Forever is an intensely personal portrait that dives beneath surface musicality to find humanity.

Mingjia Chen’s a little bit, all the time showed flashes of brilliance, but struggled to find a unifying element. The disjunct libretto accompanied by a stylistically segmented score in need of more substantive transitions ultimately left listeners without a solid through-line. However, a little bit, all the time demonstrated Chen’s strong command of timbral combinations, such as the monolithic sound block created by fusing bel canto singing, belting, and nasal tones simultaneously. While this was perhaps not the most cohesive work on the program, Chen’s output is one to watch as she continues to find her voice and develop novel approaches to tone colors and textures.

Peter Shin--Photo by Brianna Park

Peter Shin–Photo by Brianna Park

Peter Shin’s Bits Torn From Words grapples with his loss of the Korean language and the anxiety that comes from his dual Korean American identity through an emphatic, pulsating, wide vibrato motif. When applied to the 14 single consonants of the Korean alphabet, this oscillation created an echo chamber effect, like language fading from memory. Eventually, the wavering motif slowed to distinct pitches that formed a cohesive melody rather than quivering on a single pitch as the text asked, “If ____ did happen, how bad would it be?” Bits Torn From Words displayed Shin’s exceptional ability to develop a simple musical idea through a conceptual yet personal narrative.

I cannot think of a more appropriate way for Roomful of Teeth to have celebrated 10 years of collaboration and discovery than partnering with ACF | connect, a program that not only encourages the creation of new work, but also tangibly supports composers and ensembles through the process. Similarly, I cannot think of a better way for Roomful of Teeth to have concluded their 10th birthday celebration than excerpts from Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices. The ensemble delivered the opening chorale of the “Passacaglia” with deliberate care and attention, relishing one of the early moments that set this group on an incredible journey, while the brisk “Allemande” encore captured Roomful of Teeth’s unbridled joy of making music together.