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April 20, 2017

Dentition with Strings Arouses

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A Far Cry concluded its tour with the Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth at Sanders Theater last Thursday for the Celebrity Series with striking and stunningly executed musics—brand new and very, very old. Part of the same program ran at the Gardner (Liane Curtis’s review here) and articulate Crier Sarah Darling penned a piece (here) describing some of the pieces in the program and what sounds like the challenging process of rehearsing them.

After telling us how Ted Hearne and Caroline Shaw, who sing with Roomful of Teeth had written or arranged what we heard, crier Alex Fortas mentioned that the string orchestra compositions were written for A Far Cry, and how Hearne’s compositional approach of drawing musical samples from the likes of J.S. Bach, Gustav Mahler, György Ligeti, and Kanye West, then overlapped these samples on top of one another, sometimes in different meters and tempos. A Far Cry then played three of the four movements of Hearn’s 2015 Law of Mosaics.

Where one movement ended and another began was unclear, but the movements were titled Excerpts from the middle of something, Palindrome for Andrew Norman, and Beats. Overall it sounded palindromic, beginning and ending with a rhythmic riff played by the cellos and double basses while the violins and violas sprang up and down a series of arpeggiated octaves. In between came segments alternating between larger ensembles and individual soloists. Hearn’s piece had rhythmic syncopations, abrupt speeding up and slowing down of the musical pace, and a range of musical side effects from playing in high harmonics to dragging bows across strings and slapping instruments with hands and bows alike, making for a striking array of sounds and textures. At the heart of the great palindrome, there was a moment of musical stasis (my notes say “Ralph Vaughan Williams string orchestra on an acid trip…”), then samples that I had an easier time recognizing (such as bits of Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, and Barber’s Adagio for Strings). It was atmospheric, novel, and earned enthusiastic applause from a capacity crowd in Sanders, though musical Luddite ears, I struggled to find a cohesive narrative.

The Criers then left the stage, and the eight singers of Roomful of Teeth made their way to a ring of microphones, amps, and speakers with the first, second, and fourth of five songs that tenor Hearne’s Coloring Book comprises. Setting texts on racial identity by Zora Neale Hurston and Claudia Rankine, the songs used a similar approach of dense overlapping sampling, with fragments of melody shaping snippets of text, sometimes in something resembling a straight-up setting, but more often in a post-modern musical and word salad. With words to follow, it became clearer that the piece was more about musical atmospherics than about rendering the text intelligibly; the musical onomatopoeia on “No dark ghost thrusts its leg against mine in bed” was downright spooky, but it was hard to make out the words clearly.

Claudia Rankin’s “You are not the guy” comes from her book Citizen: An American Lyric and poetically explores the dull horrors of racial profiling (you can hear the author reading this text here). Hearne began in a high falsetto, then a dense multi-part construction followed in a sort of Louis Jordan-inspired style. “Letter to my father,” sets Hurston’s “He has only heard what I felt. He is far away and I see him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us. He is so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored.” Hearne created something like stanzas by using the words “he,” “him,” “I”, and “us” to mark line divisions. These words became the basis of extended melismas in a mix of Negro spiritual, gospel, bluegrass, postmodern pop a cappella, maybe even the Carpenters. It’s a different set of vocal sound effect imagery, but fragmenting the word “description” and using that as the rhythmic drive hardly helped illuminate “You are not the guy,” nor did the gorgeous shimmering chords on “music” in “Letter to my father” convey anything more about racial identity.

A modernist take on an Alpine yodel, sung with virtuosic skill by soprano Estelí Gomez (I could not make out the announced name of the composer) folded into a harmonization sung by the group’s other women: sopranos Gomez and Martha Cluver, and altos Caroline Shaw and Virginia Warnken Kelley, to begin the second half.

The Sarabande and Courante from Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for Eight Voices, which followed, constituted a different type of sonic sampling. A range of vocalizations inspired by humming, belting, panting and other forceful exhaling, even Tuvan throat singing permeated the work, and the musical stylings ranged from Irish lilt to bluegrass to a harmonized folk-sounding melody.

Then the Criers rejoined the Teeth for Shaw’s arrangement of Josquin des Prez’s 15th-century lament, “Nymphes des bois,” a memorial tribute on the death of the composer’s predecessor, Johannes Ockeghem. The five-part unaccompanied motet had strings doubling selected voice lines, sometimes with one string on a part, sometimes with a full section. The double basses did add a richness and depth of texture at selected moments, but I’m at a loss for how the orchestration adds to one of the great vocal works of a Renaissance master. Moreover, I wonder if the transition from smaller spaces like Calderwood Hall to larger concert halls like Sanders Theatre add technical difficulty to the amplification of the singers. But in Sanders, the text was unintelligible. Without the source French text, I could only make out the composer’s name in what was sung, and I couldn’t distinguish the Requiem aeternam plain chant that is in the midst of the texture. The group may need to rework amplification balances to render this more clearly as they move to larger and larger venues.

Roomfull of Teeth (file photo)

Shaw’s Music in Common Time, another piece written to showplace the range of techniques and timbres that are possible with the combination of Roomful of Teeth with A Far Cry closed the show. I can’t top Liane Curtis’s description of the piece (here); other than to add that the text that emerges partway through seemed to say “Years ago I forget; years to come, just let them.” Despite Curtis’s plea for a note about this, there was still no printed explanation of source or purpose of the text. Curtis was transported by the energy; I was dazzled by the phenomenal difficultly of the range of sounds (how does one even notate something like that, much less rehearse it?). But I wasn’t swept along on a sense of journey or direction. Still, the audience was very much aroused.

Roomful of Teeth tours through California in the next weeks, and A Far Cry returns to St. John’s Episcopal and Calderwood Hall in the last weekend of April with Haydn’s 6th – 8th symphonies.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Dr. Liu, thank you so much for the shout-outs to my review of 2014, and also for for fine insights on this concert — makes me I wish I had been there to hear it, although Sanders can never offer the intimacy of a venue like the Gardener.

    Comment by Liane Curtis — April 20, 2017 at 12:37 pm

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