Great World of Sound: Unpacking Roomful of Teeth’s Vocal Repertoire
“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:
Sardinian cantu a tenore
A polyphonic folk singing style from the second largest island in the Mediterranean, listeners may notice a slight resemblance to Tuvan throat singing in this traditional art as a result of its use of overtone singing. A tenore, or chorus, is traditionally group of four male singers each with a distinct role. The oche or boche (“voice”) is the lead while the mesu oche/boche (“half voice”), contra (“counter”), and bassu (“bass”) function as the oche’s chorus. While the two oches sing in their normal singing voices, the contra and bassu employ overtone singing in a high and low pitch, respectively. The lead sings a poetic text and the chorus rounds out the sound with nonsense syllables. Here’s a video of one of the most well known tenores, Tenores di Bitti, breaking down their roles in the group and giving a brief example of the full sound (sorry, no subtitles, but keep annotations on to see who is who):
In performance, the solo voice begins with a monodic (just melody, no harmony) line before being joined by the rest of the group. When each member joins changes from version to version. The structure of the style varies to some degree for each Sardinian village to the point where a group’s origin can be gauged by its sound. Here are the Tenores de Orosei bringing their own regional flavor:
Though it may be one of the better known techniques within Roomful of Teeth’s repertoire, yodeling has a history that reaches beyond cheesy representations of cowboy music. It’s a relatively simple vocal technique that has been used by many cultures worldwide, though most experts agree the earliest instances of yodeling were performed by herders in the Central Alps calling their stock. The sound is marked by repeated and rapid changes between low and high pitches, from the lower “chest register” to the higher “head register,” at a high volume. It’s appeared in some form or another in Persian classical music, Georgian traditional music, the music of Central African Pygmy singers, and more. Of course, it has never been as commercially successful as when Jimmie Rodgers, or the Singing Brakeman as he was popularly known, released “Blue Yodel No. 1” in 1928. Though not the first instance of recorded yodeling in the US, Rodgers’ take on everyday trials and tribulations of working class Americans struck a chord with the country and became a hit, helping popularize the technique for the next couple decades. Here’s Rodgers performing his signature tune:
Yodeling had appeal beyond American and even Western audiences. Kishore Kumar, a wildly esteemed Indian actor, lyricist, composer, producer, director, screenwriter, and playback singer (pre-recorded soundtracks for actors to lip-sync) developed a singing style that incorporated yodeling and brought it to the world of Hindi film music. Here’s an example, from the opening of the film Jhumroo:
Though yodeling never managed to permeate popular music far beyond the 1950s (for the most part…), its potential for illustrating powerful emotions is hard to deny. Rodgers’ plaintive wail carries all the hurt of a rough-lived life, while Kumar’s high-energy yelps carry an energy and exuberance characteristic of Bollywood. Bringing yodeling to a modern audience poses a greater challenge, but Roomful of Teeth artfully weave it into their musical mélange, slyly disarming us of any prejudices or accusations of cheesiness. If you’re not convinced, let “Montmartre” sweep you up in a whirlwind of yodels and throat singing, then come see the virtuosic group in action this Sunday evening.
Roomful of Teeth performs at FringeArts on February 14. Click here for more information and to get your tickets.