The small a cappella ensemble brought their big guns right away, with each member speaking in rhythm, creating a wall of chatter that in an instant, gave way to raucous polyphonic vocals. After a few iterations, rhythmic spoken word became interspersed with small vocal phrases. The piece was chugging along and it was clear that Roomful of Teeth had a very important message to share with the audience that evening.
Roomful of Teeth, the Grammy-winning vocal octet, visited Bailey Hall on Friday night to kick off the Cornell Concert Series 2018-2019 season. The group was founded in 2009 with a goal to explore the expressive potential of the human voice. Their debut album, Roomful of Teeth, won the 2013 Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance and their sophomore album was nominated in 2015 for the same award. The group began by showcasing the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Partita for 8 Voices,” composed by member Caroline Shaw.
As the first movement of “Partita” progressed, it became evident to music enthusiasts, a cappella veterans and casual listeners alike that “Partita” presents a unique blend of vocal tradition not typically shown in Western music. Those who attended the “Public Conversation with Roomful of Teeth” preview event earlier that day received a rich background on the vocal aspirations of the group. They seek to construct a unique lexicon of vocal technique from a combination of Western and non-Western tradition, including, but not limited to, Broadway belting, yodeling, death metal vocals, Tuvan throat singing, Inuit throat singing and Korean P’ansori. The result is an educational vocal and cultural experience that sounds as if Bach had composed an a cappella concert and its performers sailed in from all corners of the world, performing their parts in the style of their people.
As the work progressed, the Roomful of Teeth had the complete attention of the audience. Although the concert program encouraged the audience “to holler or clap anytime,” they remained stoic in their fascination with what was happening on stage. Bass Cameron Beauchamp praised the audience for their attentiveness and reverence that evening. He also explained earlier that when Roomful of Teeth workshops with vocal technicians all over the world, they allow themselves to feel naked in the presence of these masters and once again become the learners. That feeling transferred to the audience as they learned all they could from “Partita.” “Partita” closed with a stunning reprise of the themes of spoken word, which once again melted into song. As the piece closed, the audience gave a well-deserved round of raucous applause.
After a brief intermission, the ensemble returned and performed a collection of older songs from their repertoire, composed by some of their close friends. Each song presented interesting vocal mechanisms to be explored and allowed for each member to shine through solo cameos. This contrasted the extreme reverence and restraint that the group showed during “Partita.” They served the work as humble performers. Now, during their throwback set, they were more eager to relax and show off their vocal capabilities. The sheer power in the voices of the performers was astounding; the sopranos and altos especially often blew the roof off the audience’s eardrums in the best possible way. At times you could feel the bass’ notes resonate in your chest.
“No” was my personal favorite, as it featured an extremely slow build, looping simple parts over each other and interpolating different pronunciations of the word “no” throughout each phrase. Mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken Kelsey produced an incredible five-minute operatic solo, tangling and untangling the space that the group slowly constructed. The song ended by slowing fading to silence as a group, an unbelievably difficult skill, especially to be pulled off by an eight-person group. I was floored.
After the group’s final song, “AEIOU,” the audience was quick in showing their appreciation via a well-deserved standing ovation. The group returned for a small encore, in which they sang “Fall Into Me” by Alev Lenz, originally featured on the popular TV show Black Mirror.
While Roomful of Teeth achieves their lofty ambitions, there is a definite learning curve to their music. For experienced musicians, it is a playground of musical stimuli but casual listeners are required to approach their work with a very open mind. Either way, Roomful of Teeth produced a special, memorable evening for all attendees as the first of many exciting performances sponsored by the Cornell Concert Series.
James Robertson is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.