Roomful of Teeth
Mass MoCA's Club B-10
By: Ien Nivens - Jun 22, 2010
Brad Wells and company have pulled together a thing of astounding humanness, complexity and unity in the Roomful of Teeth project. An ambitious work-in-progress with the stated intent of bringing the full range of human vocal possibility to bear upon a unique aesthetic experience was presented by a group of eight men and women trained in an ever-expanding variety of singing styles and techniques.
These include, so far, Tuvan and Inuit throat singing, yodeling, belting, Mbuti Pygmy, Sardinian, Bulgarian and Korean styles, among others. The Roomful of Teeth singers, as they train across the planetary vocal landscape, become a set of unique instruments upon which a select group of composers have been invited to base new works in collaboration with them. The results are simply astounding.
Friday’s performance at Mass MoCA's Club B-10 showcased works by Caleb Burhans, Caroline Shaw, Eric Dudley, William Brittelle, Judd Greenstein, Rinde Eckert and Avery Griffin as well as a rendition of the traditional Tuvan folk song, While I Graze My Beautiful Sheep. Shaw, Dudley and Griffin are also Roomful of Teeth vocalists, along with Cameron Beauchamp, Dashon Burton, Martha Cluver, Esteli’ Gomez and Virginia Warnken.
The a cappella play of sound waves against bone, tooth, beam and brick in a stifling high-ceilinged, sold-out room pulsed with energies that might have seemed unearthly, were they not so firmly rooted in the human. By turns mysterious and playful, mournful and celebratory, this ensemble of ululation, percussive breathing and, at times, a booming kind of bullfroggery provided an evening of sustained elevation of the commonality of the human apparatus to a universality of spirit.
While displays of textural dexterity, tonal patterning and pulsing syncopations laid a background of hypnotic repetition in Berhans’ Beneath and Shaw’s Courante, a weaving of subdued lyricism played across Dudley’s suonare/to sound and broke to the fore with Brittelle’s playful wordgaming in High Done No Why To. Throughout, Cameron Beauchamp's foghorn bass anchored the performances. Eckhart’s Cesca’s View showcased the haunting vocal swoops and dives of Esteli’ Gomez’s yodeling solo, a highlight of the evening.
Passacaglia, by Shaw, mournfully integrated several of the collective’s styles. Overlaid with a spoken set of instructions for one of Sol Lewitt's wall drawings (housed at Mass MoCA), the piece invited speculation on the similarities and contrasts between Lewitt’s and Wells’s approaches to the accumulation and dissemination of cultural “marks”.
The most riveting moment in an evening full of hypnotic dazzle came with William Brittelle’s Amid the Minotaurs, inspired by Alabama football coach Bear Bryant's response to a question about what he would do after retirement. (Bryant answered that he would probably just die, which he did, 28 days later.)
Virginia Warnken’s insistent, rising repetition of the lines, “There is no subtlety in death / like a hurricane / like Farrakhan,” through controlled angst to a near anarchic hysteria at the crescendo left a high-water mark of devastating proportions for which no one could have prepared and which will not soon be forgotten.