Roomful of Teeth makes a memorable Chicago debut at Logan Center

Mon Apr 03, 2017 at 1:04 pm

By Tim Sawyier

A Roomful of Teeth performed Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center.
Roomful of Teeth performed Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center.

The avant-garde vocal octet Roomful of Teeth made its Chicago debut Sunday afternoon at the Logan Center as part of University of Chicago Presents’ “Music Across Genres” series. The a cappella ensemble’s performance was an electric tour-de-force that showcased the expanding possibilities of human voice in 21st-century composition.

The afternoon opened with the Midwest premiere of Coloring Book by Chicago native Ted Hearne. Hearne is known for writing political music inspired by current events, e.g. his recent theatrical piece The Source, which was inspired by the story of private Chelsea Manning.

Coloring Book, written for Roomful of Teeth, sets texts by three African-American poets—Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Claudia Rankine—in what artistic director Brad Wells in his opening remarks called an “exploration of identity.” Wells went on to say this exploration includes that of the composer’s own “whiteness” in the context of engaging with three generations of black poets.

The work opens with “The game of keeping” (text by Hurston). What was most striking at the outset was the substantial amplification and reverb of each ensemble member singing directly into his or her own microphone, but one quickly acclimated to this unusual sonority. This opening movement featured harmonies reminiscent of barbershop quartets and made intelligent use of accents to highlight key words in the text.

The ensuing “You are not the guy” (text by Rankine) depicts an ambiguously initiated police stop. The overall feel here is of a syncopated jazzy riff, which creates a provocative juxtaposition between surface affability and genuinely troubling content. All is clearly not well though as singers hiss individual syllables (“-tion!”) and the movement closes in a foreboding stasis. The central “What feels” (text again by Rankine) is generally melismatic, with multiple lines constantly moving simultaneously in modal-esque harmonies. Hearne here makes further use of extended vocal techniques that sound like gasping and sniffing, calling cards of Roomful of Teeth.

The fourth movement “Letter to my father’ (text by Hurston) is the centerpiece of Coloring Book. The movement opens with Broadway-style belting but quickly changes to more desiccated textures, the women percussively singing “him” against the men singing “he.” When the word “pale” arises in the text the musical fabric itself becomes more wan, only to heat up again with the lines “purple and red emotion.” The word “music” is given extended treatment with shifting harmonic hues.

“Your people” (text by Baldwin) closes the work. Here more of Roomful of Teeth’s unorthodox vocal techniques were on display with various forms of throat singing, while the rhythm and tempo had an overall easy, lilting flow. Its inventive mixing and layering of sonorities are a chief merit of Coloring Book, and Wells underscored these throughout with his intelligent direction. The complex work calls for multiple hearings to take in its many intricacies.

During intermission there was a palpable buzz in the audience about the sole piece on the second half: Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices, which was also written for Roomful of Teeth (the composer herself is a part-time member). This enthusiasm was perhaps due to the work’s having garnered its author the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music, making her the youngest composer ever so honored.

Shaw’s Partita is a gritty, urban, and ultimately jubilant exploration of the infinite variety of the human voice. The four-movement, 25-minute piece takes its title and movement headings—Allemande, Sarabande, Courante, and Passacaglia—from the Baroque period, and there are many brief moments where its writing evokes period counterpoint. The outer movements’ text comes from Sol LeWitt’s technical wall drawings, which gives the work a feel of traversing times and genres. (It is difficult to convey the Partita’s endless ingenuity, and one should check out Roomful of Teeth’s Grammy-winning recording of the work.) 

Roomful of Teeth’s performance was immaculate. Performing without Wells at the helm they navigated the Partita’s innumerable transitions, starts, and stops with organic ease. In this protean, mercurial work, textures change quickly, ranging from the euphoric to the reverential and everywhere in between. Roomful of Teeth soared but also snarled, hissed, gasped, and grunted with gusto. Their extended vocal techniques sounded completely natural in this memorable display of singular ensemble virtuosity.

As something of a planned encore, Roomful of Teeth performed Alev Lenz’s Fall into Me, familiar to many from the television show Black Mirror. This dark-hued work had a Middle Eastern air, and closed the afternoon on an evocative but subdued note.

University of Chicago Presents hosts pianist Ran Dank at Mandel Hall 7:30 p.m. Friday in a program that includes Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!

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