Posts Tagged ‘Roomful of Teeth’

Great World of Sound: Unpacking Roomful of Teeth’s Vocal Repertoire

Posted February 12th, 2016

“How do you capture the tragic loneliness of existence and the complete, ecstatic joy of existence?” Roomful of Teeth ensemble member Caroline Shaw mused in a recent profile. It’s a question that sits at the core of so much, if not all, works of art, whether conceived in those terms or not. How does one go about tackling the impossibly daunting notion of “existence” and the inconceivable wealth of influences and experiences that embody it in a way that is accessible to any audience? Shaw’s answer is simple, personal, and broad: for her, it’s music. “It’s such a powerful way of touching this part of ourselves that is impossible to describe but as humans we’re trying to describe it all the time.”

While it’s no secret that the ensemble’s music draws on vocal styles and traditions from all corners of the globe—everything from Tuvan throat singing to Persian classical singing, Korean p’ansori to Saridinian cantu a tenore, Georgian singing to yodeling, and much more—knowing this is not imperative to embracing the group’s brilliant, Grammy Award-winning work. It stands confidently even when removed from its various contexts, buoyed by a strong undercurrent of palpable, infectious joy. What Roomful of Teeth have achieved with their first two albums—and will surely continue to as their profile and influence keeps rising—is something very rare in music. Theirs is a sound without borders, one that places itself at an intersection of the musical histories of so many cultures, but still manages to be accessible, and undeniable, to all.

In anticipation of Roomful of Teeth’s performance at FringeArts this Sunday, February 14, below you will find brief introductions to and examples of just a few of the many vocal traditions that go into creating Roomful of Teeth’s sound: Tuvan throat singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, and yodeling. To hear these and more techniques coalesce into what The Thoroughfare has called “both beautiful and groovy as hell,” you will simply have to come on down to the waterfront for a one of a kind Valentine’s date.

Tuvan throat singing

In throat singing the performer produces a fundamental pitch—a low drone—and proceeds to amplify one or more overtones. By changing the shape of the resonant cavities of their mouth, larynx, and pharynx, these overtones are perceived as additional pitches all while the low drone continues. The ancient example of overtone singing developed among the nomadic herdsmen of Central Asia and is traditionally performed outdoors. Singers aimed to use their voices to interact with the mellifluous sounds of the natural world, which, ethnomusicologists point out, links the practice to the animistic worldview of the region. Thus, throat singing is, traditionally, a kind of aural reflection of or prayer to the natural world. Here’s an example, from one of the great modern masters of the art form, Kongar-ol Ondar, funnily enough on the David Letterman Show in 1999:

Throat singing is not strictly a tool for traditional music though, and one of my favorite examples of this comes from a relatively obscure practitioner of the art. While biographical details on Oudupaa Vladimir Oiun are spotty at best, what is clear is that he spent some large portion of his life in Russian work camps where he recorded his first album Divine Music from a Jail. Over the course of an hour, Oiun exhibits the throat singing style of kargyraa—characterized by a deep, growling sound with connections to Tibetan Buddhist chant—accompanied only by his accordion. The recording is stark and mournful, but works well to showcase the versatility of throat singing. Though it is often heard as otherworldly and awe inspiring to western ears, throat singing is just as capable at mining the pain of existence as its beauty. A choice cut:

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Winter at FringeArts lights up the waterfront

Posted January 13th, 2016

Communications Intern Hugh Wilikofsky shares his comprehensive guide to the FringeArts Winter season.


As we gear up for our first show of 2016, we at FringeArts simply cannot contain our excitement over our entire upcoming winter season. Literally. It is tearing us all apart. We’ve been screaming about it at the top of our lungs for some time now and the neighbors hate us. This excitement needs an outlet. So, I am going to do my professional duty and alleviate at least a little bit of that need by clueing you all in to the future goings-on here by the waterfront.


Photograph: Moon So Young

First up, showing January 21-23 is Toshiki Okada’s latest play God Bless Baseball. A collaboration between Japanese and South Korean actors, the play follows two girls as they attempt to comprehend their countries’ favorite pastime with the help of a man who understands the game but despises it, and another who thinks he’s Japanese baseball star Ichiro Suzuki. However, despite the men’s best efforts, the girls continually frustrate their explanations, slowly teasing out just how deeply rooted the game is in the everyday life of Japanese and South Korean people.

Though most contemporary Japanese theater rarely makes it outside of the country (as far as I know, though I’d be happy to be wrong on that one), since 2009 Okada’s work has received regular productions here in the US. His oeuvre is said to represent Japan’s “lost generation,” the group most affected by the Japanese recession of the 1990s and this is perhaps part of why he has found an audience here, in the wake of our own Great Recession. Characterized by the idiosyncratic vernacular of Japanese twentysomethings, his vérité writing style is in some ways akin to that of renowned American playwright Annie Baker, but his use of disjointed and abstract choreography based on exaggerations of everyday gestures imbues his works with a quirk all his own. On top of the Philadelphia premiere of God Bless Baseball, FringeArts will also be hosting a reading of Okada’s The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise directed by Pig Iron Theater Company artistic director Dan Rothenberg on January 18.

Escuela, La Dirección y dramaturgia está a cargo de Miguel Calderón, se presentará en la sala N° 2 del teatro de la Universidad Católica a las 22 horas, en el marco del Festival Internacional Santiago a Mil. En Santiago; 20/01/2013 FOTÓGRAFO: * VALENTINO SALDIVAR*

Photograph:  Valentino Saldivar

Next up, showing January 28-30 is Chilean playwright/director Guillermo Calderón’s latest play Escuela. Set in Chile in the late 1980s, amid the tumultuous transition between the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and the dubiously regarded democracy that followed, a group of left-wing university students receive secret paramilitary training in the living room of a fellow dissident. Hiding their identities with hoods to ensure none of them can betray their revolutionary comrades, these intellectuals awkwardly learn skills essential to guerilla warfare, such as proper crawling and rifle cleaning methods, in the hopes of overturning a corrupt regime, all while grappling with the chilling realities of staging a violent insurgency.Calderón has made a name for himself with plays grounded in times of violent turmoil and political upheaval, using dangerous and unstable settings as a jumping off point for larger universal themes, and Escuela sits well within this established style while taking it somewhere new. Instead of the surrounding violence haunting the onstage proceedings, as it did in Calderón’s first play Neva, it is brought to the forefront in Escuela as we watch its characters preparing to engage with it. In an interview with FringeArts, regarding the political implications of his new work Calderón asserted, “Politics is a combination of emotions and rationality, and that is what Escuela tries to convey and push to its limit.”

Kicking off February is a multimedia performance from composer Daniel Wohl, who previously graced the FringeArts stage last year with a multi media performance of his album Corps Exquis. This time around the Paris-born composer will be presenting his latest full-length album, Holographic, accompanied by an excellent line up of musicians and video art projections from LA-based artist Daniel Schwarz.

Wohl has garnered acclaim for works in which the acoustic and electronic blend into each other: a resonating snare drum becomes a low unnerving drone, percussion and electronic noise crash into a joyous cacophony, and synthetic pulsations elevate the steady bowing of strings to a higher plane. The result is immersive, slyly disorienting music that seeks to close the gap between the chamber groups of concert halls and academia , and electronic experimentalists pushing sonic boundaries in basements and warehouses. This is a one night only event, so mark your calendar for February 5.

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