“To the side. To the side. To the side, and around, through the middle and…” These simple words, spoken in a quick rhythmic canon bursting into jaunty, homophonic vocals, opened an illuminating evening of music by the virtuosic, genre-bending vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth at Berklee College of Music’s gleaming, glass-encased ‘cafetorium.” The fourth concert in the Celebrity Series of Boston’s essential new festival, Stave Sessions aims to “close the gap between performer and observer,” bringing “entirely unique and emerging musical experiences to the city of Boston.” On Wednesday it did just that, offering two sets (7 PM and 9:30 PM) by this wonderful group that seeks, according to ROT artistic director and composer Brad Wells, to mine the expressive potential of the human voice. A member of the voice faculty at Williams College, Wells founded the group in 2009, and through immersive retreats with masters of vocal traditions from the far reaches of the world, Roomful has amassed an impressive collection of non-Western vocal techniques that includes Tuvan and Inuit throat singing, belting, yodeling, and vocal traditions from Sardinia and Korea, as well as various pop styles, from which they weave a tapestry of sound that is eclectic and multifaceted, yet unified, characterful, personal, and fresh.
The show featured Caroline Shaw who, in 2013 at age 30, became the youngest composer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize in music (for the very piece that opened these concerts). “Partita” is a playful, contemporary take on the Baroque suite of the same name, but this play on genre is deceptively simple and masks a conceptually nuanced blurring of stylistic boundaries that reflects a contemporary musical eclecticism without sacrificing a deeply personal and unique sound. Take the words stated above, for instance, that start the first movement, Allemande–do they describe the steps of the courtly dance? Are they shouts from a square dance? Geometric shapes? It turns out they are culled from instructions included in Sol LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing 305,” one in a series of works in which the artist details textual instructions with which anyone can set up the installation in any number of possible locations. 305 is one of dozens on display in the massive “Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective” exhibit on view at MASS MoCA through 2033, an exhibit that surely inspired Shaw during one of the ensemble’s fruitful summer retreats at the museum. Shaw also incorporates TS Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” with the words, “the detail of the pattern is movement,” his musings rubbing elbows with dance steps and drawing instructions. However, the bright, playful late works of Sol LeWitt might have more in common with Shaw’s musical language, as this text fugato quickly gives way to bright triadic harmonies in simple progressions, at times richly adorned with 7ths and textural filigree. Ornaments that seem textural at first, like the oozing, bended pitches at the beginning of the Allemande foreshadow climactic cathartic moments that follow. Before repeating the phrase “far and near is all around,” the tenors and basses drop out, the sopranos and altos slide up a halfstep, and the men come thundering back in with a major triad in the new sharper key, suddenly clarifying the meaning of these strangely foreign earlier bending pitches.
Similar audibly perceptible details, fraught with musical meaning litter the later movements as well. The Sarabande that follows starts with dipping hums that open into triads, later accompanying a plaintiff counterpoint from the tenors and basses before a climactic section of belting, extreme in its contrast. Gentle gasps of breath, in and out, begin the third movement, Courante, with a sexual intimacy that gives way first to a sort of pulsing figuration around a single pitch, then to a melancholy chorale, crescendoing into an ecstatic climax before receding back into the breath. A repeated series of chords replaces the traditional ground bass of the final movement Passacaglia. Here LeWitt’s words return in force, raising to an omnipresent din obscuring all pitch before bits of the original chord progression peek through in tempo, eventually regaining the foreground.
Those lucky enough to have spent time with ROT’s Grammy award-winning eponymous debut on New Amsterdam Records will recognize all the movements of “Partita,” though combined in a different order with single movement works by other composers. After a short break, the ensemble returned perform a collection of these shorter pieces, starting with High Done No Why To (2010) by William Brittelle, packed with the group’s vivid techniques and highlighting its virtuosity before ending in delicate whistling birdcalls. Brad Wells, the informal MC for the evening, explained the motivation behind the title of Judd Greenstein’s heavy, groove-oriented, Montmartre (2009), named after a neighborhood in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, a stomping ground of early 20th-century composers like Debussy and Ravel. Greenstein aptly recognized a kinship between these composers and Roomful of Teeth–the former raised texture, timbre, and color to the level of melody, harmony, and counterpoint for the first time in instrumental music and the latter opens up comparable territory for the voice. Next came Brad Wells own Render, inspired by eschatological musings explored in the neuroscientist David Eagleman’s book Sum. Rich chordal textures waxed and waned like tides in this delicate example that will be featured in Roomful’s next album, released on New Amsterdam Records on April 28th. Rinde Eckert’s Cesca’s View followed, featuring the wonderful soprano Estelí Gomez in harmonically piquant yodeling, and Ansa Ya by Merrill Garbus, the force behind easily one of the most exciting contemporary bands, tUnE-yArDs, rounded out the set with its rhythmic complexity and huge cascading vocals for sopranos and altos. Another Rinde Eckert song, this time the strangely serene I Have Stopped the Clocks, followed as an encore, a quiet end to a raucous evening of music.
Roomful performed the same set for both their 7PM and 9:30PM shows, however both the crowd and energy shifted throughout the night. The earlier outing felt a little more like a concert—the later a little more like a club; the first leaning towards precision, the second towards power and energy. Brad Wells rightly congratulated the Celebrity Series for bringing this vital new series to a city that has desperately needed some sort of successful equivalent experience to New York City’s Le Poisson Rouge, Issue Project Room, Roulette, Cornelia Street Cafe and the like. He also offered the groups services for a hypothetical 2016 Stave Sessions: Celebrity Series should immediately accept. I would only hope that Roomful might consider bringing two different sets, enticing both crowds in attendance to snap up tickets for both next season.
Prominent critics have noted that it’s hard to imagine another ensemble performing these pieces the way Roomful of Teeth does as if that is a concession or a drawback, but this assessment overlooks precisely one of the most compelling qualities of this group. They are not a vocal ensemble, generic and interchangeable, any more than The Beatles is just a rock ensemble. They are a band. If other performances of this repertoire amount merely to covers, that only makes ROT’s existence more vital. Shaw tacitly acknowledges that fact with comments from the front matter for “Partita,” noting that “the 2012 recording by Roomful of Teeth can be considered an essential part of the score” encouraging future ensembles to consult the recording as well as the score for their own performances. By creating such a distinctive and unique sound, this group has found a way to solve one problem of drawing from diverse sources. Instead of dividing listeners into camp’s defined by taste and ossified by tradition, they unify them by producing a distinctive and characterful sound, and through maintaining a strong ensemble identity, they influence the composers that write music for them, sharing authorship as co-creators. If you like the group’s sound, you’ll be interested in how composers bring their languages to the band they are writing for. Concert music traditionalists may be uncomfortable with this shift in artistic agency, but there is a sense of fresh air and excitement about Roomful of Teeth. The simplicity of their musical language only strengthens its force; joyful, physical, sensual, emotional, and direct, Shaw’s writing and Roomful’s performing is as uncomfortable in its honesty as it is life-affirming in its energy. After all, in closing her front matter notes, Shaw encourages musicians encountering her work to “be free, and live life fully.”
The friend I brought to this concert turned to me after final encore and said, “…such an amazing band.” He is absolutely right. Be free and live life fully, indeed.