Roomful of Teeth Closes Trinity Wall Street Festival With Bite

Zoe Madonna on January 13, 2015
Roomful of Teeth at the Grammys in January 2014


With its name alone, Roomful of Teeth sets the mind on edge. The notion of a roomful of teeth is unsettling; no matter how you wash the blood off or put the teeth in jars or pretend they’re dinosaur teeth, it’s an undeniably visceral image, perhaps a name more suited to a metal band than a vocal ensemble.

And though the solo voice repertoire has Sprechstimmed, screeched, and swooped all the way through the 20th Century, the common mode of music for voices in harmony is still overwhelmingly pretty, excluding most other interesting ways to compose and perform. The vocal octet delivered none of that monotony: It finished up Trinity Wall Street’s Twelfth Night Festival on January 5 with a program of new works, embracing the dissonances with a grin.

Partita explores folk and traditional styles from all over the world: American shape notes and Appalachian hymns, Mongolian overtones, and the guttural, sensual gasps of Inuit throat-singing ...

Trinity Director of Music Julian Wachner introduced the program as “mostly wordless,” but Partita for 8 Voices, the first piece, began with a flurry of spoken English words. Line drawing instructions by artist Sol Lewitt combined with square dancing calls into a jumble of syllables that finally transformed into a joyfully belted American vowel that would make most choir directors’ hair stand on end. (Most choir directors are not directing Roomful of Teeth, and everyone is better off for it.)

The Pulitzer-winning piece by Caroline Shaw, a member of the group, explores folk and traditional styles from all over the world. American shape notes and Appalachian hymns, Mongolian overtones, and the guttural, sensual gasps of Inuit throat-singing duets all appeared. The singers were amplified but even so blended together perfectly, sometimes sounding more like a single organ than eight humans in the opening Allemande movement, and repeatedly diving together into their lowest reaches in the slow Sarabande. The floating progression of the final Passacaglia slowly but surely glided forward until erupting into text that melted back into vowels, refusing to resolve predictably but ending on a new chord with overtones that arced high into the vaulted ceilings.

The second half of the program was a potpourri of new works, beginning with a quietly lovely rendition of a shimmering piece called Render, by Roomful of Teeth’s artistic director Brad Wells. Solid, straight cluster chords divided and spread out like fibers of multicolored yarn, coming back together and separating again and again. During Rinde Eckert’s Cesca’s View, soprano Esteli Gomez proved that even yodeling, that most maligned of vocalisms, is not necessarily out of place in a church. The percussive Otherwise had the ensemble chanting in a rolling rhythm, while bass-baritone Dashon Burton cut through the texture in a seamless bel canto voice that wouldn’t have been out of place 100 or so blocks uptown at the Met. Only Eric Dudley’s Suonare lagged; in a program of purposeful pieces, the murky work didn't move as easily.

Birdcall-esque whoops in the high voices sounded over the lower end’s rich pedal tones for the finale, Judd Greenstein’s exuberant AEIOU. Whether singing raw and low or soaring through the stratosphere, the ensemble never produced a sour chord, tore a hole in their sonic tapestry, or showed any sign of tiredness. And then suddenly they were back on earth, alighting on the ground just as easily as a leaf dropped off by the wind.