Review: Roomful of Teeth at the Cleveland Museum of Art

By Timothy Robson

The a cappella vocal group Roomful of Teeth made a big roomful of noise at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium on Friday, March 20 before a large, enthusiastic audience. This remarkable group, founded in 2009, has won a Grammy for their 2012 eponymous first album, and one of the major works on the program, Partita for 8 voices by member Caroline Shaw, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Roomful of Teeth carries the human voice to its limits, combining Western classical singing with world music (for example, both Tuvan and Inuit throat singing and yodeling). Aspirates and breathing rhythmically on musical pitches become expressive. Precise molding and morphing of vowel sounds, separately or as masses of sound, create surreal musical images. All of these techniques are directed toward a strong artistic goal. Nothing seems gimmicky, and the performers all appeared to be having a good time. Roomful of Teeth can trace musical forebears as diverse as the works composed by Luciano Berio in the 1960s and ‘70s for mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian; those anonymous 1950s vocal ensembles who backed up popular singers; and the Swingle Singers.

The first half of the program consisted of a single work: Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 voices, its four movements titled as for a Baroque instrumental partita. The relationship of Shaw’s music to its Baroque counterparts is unclear, but was largely irrelevant anyway, given the arresting music that formed each very different movement.

The “Allemande” begins with spoken square dance calls tossed from singer to singer. A characteristic of all of the group’s performances was the instantaneous transition from one method of vocal production to another. Speech becomes song, then vocalizations, vowel sounds, and humming. Later in the movement, text from artist Sol LeWitt’s wall drawing directions is interspersed with the seeming chaos.

“Sarabande” is grounded in a repeated humming pattern in the women’s voices. It then opens to a vowel, then suddenly descends in pitch and becomes a brief, purposeful, audible sigh. Eventually the men belt a fortissimo melody very high in their range. “Courante” is the longest movement, based on an American folk hymn which Shaw uses both whole and dissected into its component phonemes. At times, rhythmic breathing creates the sound of a steam train starting from a dead stop to full steam ahead. Over the “train,” the folk hymn returns ecstatically. “Passacaglia” contrasts sweet and harsh vowel sounds, and a cacophony of speech textures in a series of variations, again with text by Sol LeWitt.

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