Dallas — Whatever you might have expected from an a cappella octet—perhaps muchos madrigales—Roomful of Teeth, presented by Dallas Chamber Music Society, defied all expectations Monday night at SMU's Caruth Auditorium.
Roomful is founded on some musical and non-musical traditions from 1160 AD through the experientialists in the 1960s to today’s modernist composers.
Unlike most singing groups, they were dressed with no attempt to look like a uniformly dressed group. Everyone wore something from a different situation: from business dress to a dotted sundress. A fine singer, who was sitting with me, said: “It looks like a rehearsal.” But, unrelated and eclectic dress, along with experimental music, appears to be part of their shtick.
That is soon forgotten when they begin singing, because the performance was quite amazing. They sang music that was highly dissonant, yet tonal in places. In place of a text made of understandable words, they used aspirations without a pitch and various clicks, clucks and sighs, counting numbers out loud that seemed to be architectural measurement and words spoken so quickly and compressed that it sounded like a crowded lobby.
The program notes offer some other unusual vocal techniques they use: Inuit and Korean throat singing, Korean p'ansori singing, yodeling, whispering, Persian classical singing and many other “Vocable effects and Death Metal growls.”
The first half contained an extended work, Caroline Shaw’s Partita. (Here is a link to a performance of Partita on YouTube. Experience it for yourself.)
Partita won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music. It is based on Baroque suites of dances, the movement had familiar names: Allemande, Sarabande, Courante and Passacaglia. But that is where the similarity ends. All f the techniques mentioned above appeared in this wonderfully strange composition. The Allemande starts off with increasingly fast counting and some Sacred Harp singing. Singing. The passacaglia has the expected repeated chord progression typical of this form, over which we heard a series of what appeared to be variations. Even in the more tonal sections, there are sung wailings and glissandi surrounding the chords. A huge D major chord near the end felt like a blazing musical sunburst.
Each of the pieces on the second half explored different musical effects.
High Done No Why To (2010) by William Brittelle explores the same range of vocal technique and adds a pop or jazz feeling.
Render, by the musical director of the group, Brad Wells, presents a quiet, repeated pattern in the men, sung continuously on “noo.” Over this the women, and occasionally a solo voice, sing a passage that appears, progresses contrapuntally, and then fades out. Anchoring the widespread tonal chords, a basso profundo voice descended to notes in the vicinity of two octaves below middle C. The program notes by the composer states that it is a vision of the afterlife, but it reminded me of the mythical Sirens, luring sailors to their death with mysterious singing.
Cesca's View by Rinde Eckert (2009) is just for the female voices and is filed with Old West style-yodeling for a soloist and then for the full woman’s ensemble.
Suonare/To Sound by Eric Dudley (2010) sounds like what they are singing is out of phase. This is the first time we heard some lovely operatic style singing out of one of the sopranos.
Quizassa by Merrill Garbus (2011) is like folk song that is close to Sacred Harp singing, with the voice driven beyond its natural sound. The fast dance-like beat comes from the ending syllables of the title, and fades into some heavy breathing and pseudo-sexual overlay from the women. It is full of odd meter changes and an upbeat pulse runs through the work.
It, and the entire concert, ended with a scream release that brought the audience to its feet and cheering.
Post Script: Here are some of the musical influences on the music of Room Full of Teeth.