Mix a bit of yodeling with Tuvan throat singing, add in a pinch of Sardinian cantu a tenore, fold in compositions from cutting-edge composers and you have the vocal group Roomful of Teeth. This eight-voice ensemble, which includes the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, is gleefully dismantling the traditional definition of ensemble singing right before our ears (and teeth!).
Musical descendants of the innovative extended vocal techniques of Meredith Monk, the Teeth tend to make sounds — some sweet, others alarming — that you probably haven't heard from a group of humans.
In Australian composer Wally Gunn's "The Fence is Gone," verses emerge from an infrastructure of "oh-ha" syllables and a simple drum pulse, ending with women's voices, tight in harmony, like a chord from a Casio keyboard. In Rinde Eckert's "Cesca's View," imagine a lonely cowgirl on some windswept plain. Estelí Gomez gets her yodel on, beautifully, while the three other women vocalize in close, barbershop-style harmony. It literally ends on a high note.
To finish, Teeth founder and director Brad Wells contributes "Otherwise." Warm, rounded tones in male voices contrast with a steely sheen from the women and a high drone like a Tibetan singing bowl. The harmonies take a tangy, almost Bulgarian turn, then we get something truly otherworldly. A pulsing, slightly creepy Sardinian "bim-bom" vocalise buzzes like a gigantic cicada. Dashon Burton's operatic baritone soars above it all. The agility of the voices and multicolored blend they achieve are extraordinary.
As the applause faded away, one of the Teeth said, "Thanks for letting us yell at you." No, I think it's we who are grateful — and perhaps a little stunned.
- Wally Gunn: "The Fence Is Gone"
- Rinde Eckert: "Cesca's View"
- Brad Wells: "Otherwise"
Roomful of Teeth:
Martha Cluver, soprano
Estelí Gomez, soprano
Virginia Warnken, mezzo-soprano
Caroline Shaw, alto
Eric Dudley, tenor
Avery Griffin, baritone
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone
Cameron Beauchamp, bass
Brad Wells, director
Producers: Bob Boilen, Tom Huizenga, Maggie Starbard; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Colin Marshall, Maggie Starbard, Susan Hale Thomas; Assistant Producer: Susannah Whittle