From light-hearted pop songs to atonal music, from crystal clear close harmony to yodelling – Roomful of Teeth has an immense range. This young American ensemble (which can also be seen and heard at this festival’s Mapplethorpe performance Triptych) consists of eight singers, known for their genre-defying experiments, versatility and humour. It is understandable that young American composers like to write especially for them. In this concert they sing work by Missy Mazzoli (who studied with Louis Andriessen and David Lang), Ted Hearne and Caroline Shaw, a member of the ensemble. Her overwhelming Partita for 8 Voices, this concert’s main piece, earned Shaw the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. Aged thirty, she was the youngest composer ever to win this prize.
Vesper Sparrow (2012)
Ansa Ya (2011)
High Done No Why To (2010)
Letter to my father
(from Coloring Book) (2015)
There Will Be (2011)
Partita for 8 Voices (2012)
Roomful of Teeth is a kind of laboratory for the human voice. The eight singers that make up the American vocal ensemble – four women, four men – together span five octaves, and accordingly
their range runs the full gamut from deep growl to high-pitched shriek. Three of them have perfect pitch; all eight of them are classically trained. Singer and conductor Brad Wells established the group in 2009 and since then has flown in a host of different experts to teach his singers the most wide-ranging and obscure vocal techniques in an effort to broaden their palette. From yodelling, Bulgarian belting and Persian Tahrir to death metal grunting and the rasping throat singing of the Inuit and Mongolian peoples – there’s nothing that’s too out there for the ensemble. The bulk of their repertoire has been written especially for them, and so they are able to incorporate all of these disparate techniques into their concerts, resulting in a truly unique sound.
In 2014 Roomful of Teeth won a Grammy Award for their self-titled debut album. The previous year, ensemble member and mezzo-soprano Caroline Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for her Partita for 8 Voices. At the time she was just thirty years old, making her the youngest ever recipient of this award.
Brad Wells considers it his mission to break with the centuries-old traditions that have come to be rules set in stone in the world of Western vocal music. By combining the resonant depth of Swiss yodelling with the emotional depth and range of Korean pansori, he and the predominantly young, progressive composers he works with manage to make music that sounds classical and modern at the same time – as much simple folk music as it is high art. Wells likes to cite Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, who once declared that he saw it as his mission to free the instruments of the classical orchestra from their prescribed sound. According to Wells, it’s high time now to free the voice too. When he founded Roomful of Teeth, he told the singers that he didn’t want the group to sing the standard choral repertoire, nor songs from other cultures. The goal was nothing less than to build a completely new instrument – not copying, but creating from scratch.
Partita for 8 Voices is an excellent example of the ensemble’s lofty ambitions and the way that they result in stunning music. The piece consists of four movements, which were written separately and named after Baroque dance forms: ‘Allemande’, ‘Sarabande’, ‘Courtante’ and ‘Passacaglia’. The piece opens with spoken instructions that seem to come from one of the many ballet rehearsals that Shaw accompanied as a violinist before she joined Roomful of Teeth. ‘To the side. To the side. To the side and around. Two-three-four.’ Then the voices erupt into a soaring harmony that suggests weightlessness. ‘The detail of the pattern is movement,’ a voice finally says. Partita for 8 Voices is a showcase of Roomful of Teeth’s many talents: from spoken language, yodelling and percussive breathing to pansori, Appalachian traditional music (from the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern US) and many other techniques – all find a place in this piece.
After winning the Pulitzer, Shaw was able to move in the highest echelons of the musical world, working with artists including The National and Kanye West. Roomful of Teeth were suddenly playing huge venues, such as the Lincoln Center and Disney Hall. The British newspaper The Guardian did a profile of Shaw under the headline ‘Is Caroline Shaw really the future of music?’ The article did not attempt to answer that question, but everyone can make up their own minds at their performance in the Muziekgebouw on June 15.
The vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth was established in 2009 by singer and conductor Brad Wells with the goal of
exploring the expressive potential of the human voice. The group meets every year at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) to study non-Western vocal techniques with teachers from all over the world. The singing traditions they have delved into include Tuvan throat singing, death metal grunting, Hindustani music, yodelling, Korean pansori, Broadway belting, Persian classical singing, Georgian music and Sardinian cantu a tenore. Roomful of Teeth has worked with composers such as Rinde Eckert, Fred Hersch, Toby Twining, Missy Mazzoli, Julia Wolfe and Ted Hearne, and performed at venues such as the Lincoln Center, Merkin Hall, (Le) Poisson Rouge, the Carlsbad Music Festival in California and the MIT Sounding festival. The group also regularly gives workshops and masterclasses at schools across the US. Their self-titled debut album, released in 2012, won a Grammy in the category Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. In 2013, ensemble member Caroline Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for Musicfor Partita for 8 Voices, which was featured on Roomful of Teeth’s debut album.
- Missy Mazzoli, Merrill Garbus, William Brittelle, Ted Hearne, Caroline Shaw
- performed by
- Roomful of Teeth