Contemporary ensemble Roomful of Teeth wows with their vocal prowess

Anybody who thought that the contemporary music audience consisted of roughly five people was not in Memorial Chapel on Wednesday, March 5 night when the cutting-edge vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth blew listeners away with their extended vocal techniques, mastery of the voice and modern repertoire.

Roomful of Teeth was founded in 2009 as a vocal project focused on the utilization of non-classical singing techniques such as Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori and Georgian singing. This group also goes through an ongoing commissioning project, asking contemporary composers to “create a repertoire without borders” for the group.

In addition to their concert, the ensemble worked with Lawrence University choirs, spoke to students in lectures and question-and-answer sessions, and gave demonstrations in the days prior, talking about the formation of the group and their individual careers as singers, composers, conductors or administrators.

The group is made up of eight singers and they meet once a year at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to work with composers on the commissioned pieces and have master classes with teachers of non-classical techniques, organized by artistic director Brad Wells.

The concert opened with a piece by one of the ensemble’s singers, composer Caroline Shaw. The work performed was the “Allemande” from Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices,” a work for which Shaw recently received a Pulitzer Prize in Music and is included on the Roomful of Teeth album that received a Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.

The performance featured works by composers such as Judd Greenstein in “Montmartre,” a piece that uses different textures with a minimalist approach; Sarach Kirkland Snider in “The Orchard,” which featured one of the bass voices; and William Brittelle with his “High Done No Why To,” which was a fun and rhythmic tune that made use of the somewhat incoherent title to create a dialogue between the voices.

One of the highlights of this first half was artistic director Brad Wells’ “Render,” which was a hauntingly beautiful work that moved slowly through intricate harmonies with a sense of purity in their masterful control, intonation and delicacy of this work.

The second half of the program included another movement from Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices,” a piece by Roomful of Teeth singer Eric Dudley entitled “Suonare,” and a work by Rinde Eckert called “Cesca’s View,” which highlighted soprano voice Estelí Gomez, particularly in her use of yodeling above the other more rhythmically stable voices.

The last few pieces included another work by Wells entitled “Otherwise,” which featured the deep bass-baritone voice of Dashon Burton, and Merrill Garbus’ “Quizassa,” which was an upbeat, textured tune that had each of the voices rhythmically interacting individually with one another.

After the final piece, the audience was immediately on their feet, whooping and cheering as if it were a rock concert, forcing the ensemble to take the stage for an encore performance of another movement of Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work.

To sum up the musical and emotional moments experienced by the audience would be daunting. It would also not be close to a justification of the work done by the singers, directors, master singers and composers who have made this experience possible.

Knowing that, Roomful of Teeth revealed to us that contemporary music is not for the select few, but can lead us to asking questions about the definition of art, the voice as an instrument and in which directions we can move art.