Roomful of Teeth
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There is no stillness
About Roomful of Teeth
Roomful of Teeth is a GRAMMY-winning vocal project dedicated to reimagining the expressive potential of the human voice. Through study with masters from vocal traditions the world over,
the eight-voice ensemble continually expands its vocabulary of singing techniques and, through an ongoing commissioning process, forges a new repertoire without borders. Founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, Roomful of Teeth gathers annually at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, Massachusetts, where they’ve studied with some of the world’s top performers and teachers in Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, Broadway belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music, Persian classical singing and Death Metal singing. Commissioned composers include Rinde Eckert, Fred Hersch, Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs), William Brittelle, Toby Twining, Missy Mazzoli, Julia Wolfe, Ted Hearne and Ambrose Akinmusire, among many others.
Soprano Estelí Gomez Soprano Martha Cluver Alto Caroline Shaw Alto Virginia Warnken Kelsey Tenor Eric Dudley Baritone Thann Scoggin Bass-baritone Dashon Burton Bass Cameron Beauchamp Artistic Director Brad Wells
Vesper Sparrow (2012)
Vesper Sparrow was written for Roomful of Teeth at their 2012 residency at Mass MoCA. The text comes from Farnoosh Fathi’s poem Home State, from her recent book Great Guns. The piece is an eclectic amalgamation of imaginary birdsong and my own interpretation of Sardinian overtone singing. In this piece I tried to capture the exuberance and energy of these individual singers as well as a bit of the magic that is created when this group comes together.
What will come so soon
To my golden door
When asleep from all sides
Asleep in the glass pajamas of man
there is no stillness (2017)
there is no stillness is the first composed element of what I hope will be be a relatively large scale interdisciplinary work called Wild Boy, a myth of a man raised by wolves who becomes cultured and powerful, and who, toward the end of his life, wishes to recover the “wolf-ness” of his days in the wilderness.
Here the voices are both elemental and poetic, in the world and above it. The first two sections are evocative of the natural world and are looser in structure, composed, but giving the singers a certain rhythmic discretion.
The last section is, by contrast, rhythmically precise, a polytonal counterpoint with a singular narrator speaking the text while a trio of high voices intones it in block chords. The piece ends with a section of spoken text, the singers, again with control over the delivery of their phrases. A final haiku recapitulates the journey of the piece.
The development of Wild Boy will involve improvisation, written music, spoken text, instruments, movement, puppetry, projections, masks, and scenic design. Certain members of Roomful of Teeth will also compose some of the elements of this larger work.
The Old wild boy went back in his mind
To the forest where he had been a child among wolves
He could remember the smell of moss, the peaty forest floor, deer scat,
The sound of wind in the trees, how it would seize the leaves, change the skin,
Speak of the coming rain
The old wild boy went back in his mind to the first smell of men
And the sounds of their coming: chainsaws, laughter, and the smell of gasoline
Panic, death, and strangely, promise
Men Are Coming Now
The old wild boy, thinking back over his life, said to himself: There is no stillness, never was
No stillness, no solitude, never was,
No I, no us, no thing at all, not even a collection of things
We are a situation, rather, a place (if we are at all)
an event, rather, an event
Just this, all of it, just this
Dumas’ Riposte (2016)
Aka Pygmy-influenced melody and jazz harmony intersect with three musico-poetic layers: the inner narrative of an immigrant or slave aboard a vessel at sea, the refrain “ultramarine and sienna,” and Dumas’ famous response to a racial slur.
ultramarine and sienna
the calm the calm before
ultramarine and sienna my
sizzling white skies
ultramarine and sienna my mother
white of the eyes
pierced by the light
ultramarine and sienna my mother was
black and white outlines
ultramarine and sienna a mulatto
black silhouettes and white
ultramarine and sienna my grandmother
drift and linger
ultramarine and sienna my grandmother was
at night bright
ultramarine and sienna a Negro
ultramarine and sienna my great-grandmother was
to our mind
ultramarine and sienna a monkey
eyes and heels released
sink deep in the heat
ultramarine and sienna my family starts, you see,
black and white
the calm the calm before
ultramarine and sienna where yours ends
the calm before the storm
– zsuzsanna ardó
Run Away (2009)
Run Away was written at Mass MoCA in the summer of 2009, during the first-ever assemblage of Roomful of Teeth. I came up for the second week of their 2-week residency, not knowing what the group was capable of doing — a forgivable sin since the group itself was just beginning to learn their own abilities and capacities. With me, I brought some sketches that I felt could be adapted to whatever sounds I heard the singers produce; these were études of sorts, studies in rhythm and harmony that left a lot of room for different sounds in different places. Once I heard what the group was able to do, I adapted some of these with their varied techniques in mind, creating fully-formed pieces that combined my sketches with the sounds of the ensemble. Run Away is a simple song that I wrote to feature the voice of Virginia Warnken. She sings over a “pad” that the men lay down, a blend of vocal sounds that approximates Tuvan singing but is mellowed considerably. The other women join Virginia at the end of the song, carrying the story on into the future.
into the forest
pick the flowers that you find
make a bouquet
cut the stems
place them in clear water
to throw away all the roots
and the thorns
of the thing
that once as born
from the dirt
and through the soil
coming to rise up
among the trees
in the forest
not a noble thing
but the whole thing
finds a way
to find the daylight
on a May night
you run away
– Judd Greenstein
Ansa Ya (2011)
Written during Roomful of Teeth’s 2011 summer residency, Ansa Ya is inspired in particular by the folk traditions Bulgaria and Eastern Europe. The piece relies heavily on Merrill Garbus’s signature looping style, layering cascading belted lines in the soprano with a driving pulse in the bass voices.
Psychedelics is, in part, an effort to integrate the many vocal techniques and effects mastered by Roomful of Teeth into one (semi-)coherent whole. The term psychedelic here is meant to evoke a plethora of bright and vivid (almost surreal) colors blended and twisted in strange, otherworldly ways. My aim was to create a piece that aggressively challenged the notion of what a long-form choral piece can be – both in terms of its delivery and subject matter. I think the human voice is a magically flexible tool – so much more so than an instrument you hold or blow into. The possibilities are in a sense limitless, especially when working with performers like Roomful of Teeth with sense of adventure and an exceedingly high level of technique. In terms of actual subject matter, the piece is an attempt, albeit an abstract one, to reckon with a psychological breakdown that I experienced as a young adult, and to parallel that with the seemingly apocalyptic strains of our current collective state – my objective being to humanize and somehow come to terms with the inevitability and, ultimately, healing nature of destruction. In this sense, the term “psychedelic” refers more to the ability to observe startling and strange occurrences with a fluid, dreamlike sense of attachment. I have begun to believe the human apocalypse will happen slowly, incrementally, both in our shared physical world and our individual spiritual worlds, and that apocalypses, similarly to wildfires in the west, are part of a natural process, a shedding of skin, and house within them beauty in the guise of elegy. By fully taking notice of our fate as our culture sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss and we continue to pollute and destroy our world, I think we can take possession of the resulting sadness and heartbreak, we can own the process, and come to accept and embrace our role in it. As I’ve heard said, “Things only reveal themselves in passing.” Lyrically, my aim was collage rather than traditional narrative – a fabric of text that reflects the growing chaos of stimuli in our society interrupted by moments of clarity and longing. There are a number of cultural reference points, but they are meant to form a swarm of images, not a literal, linear narrative.
I. Deep Blue (You Beat Me)
Beneath the pandamonium twighlight
lay pink poison thoughts with the hashtag #odeath.
Carried in on a white horse, shown on the zoom cam, rain on the dome.
And in the corodor: bastions of light.
Deep Blue, you beat me.
All the things I’ve gathered are stuck outside the door.
Nothing is a dream in this world, nothing is a dream.
There’s a crack in the dome where the light comes in.
We don’t stand a chance…
II. I am the Watchtower
I am the watchtower I watch for dogs…
I am the Yeti speaking in tones.
Xochietl just ate 13 blue popsicles. She is just a runaway.
Oh Labyrinth, she’s the pride of the Aztecs!
The Yeti is a poltergeist.
I am the watchtower I watch for dogs…
III. My Apothecary Light
I drive into the blackness like in Philip K Dick
and dream the dreams of Mark Sandman
and wear the jeans of Jean Valjean…
Death is a strange bird and I am a pontiac.
I’ve been branded by seagulls and now you’ve been warned.
There was snow on the beach but it wasn’t love.
Endless desire is the only cure for pain.
In my apothecary light…
A single star casts blame on the earth, its light begs karmic reprimand.
The final Fear is psychedelic like a bird in a plane stray from the flock
Sugarbits, transmogrify me!
So everything is quiet, everything is clean.
The carnage has clear intentions
To all who have been blinded in one eye,
I present to you: the Desert!
The Isle (2016)
The Isle begins with a cloud of murmuring voices — a musical imagining of something hinted at in Shakespeare’s stage directions in The Tempest. The calls for “a burden, dispersedly” and “solemn music” suggest an off-stage refrain and/or perhaps something even more otherworldly. In Shakespearean Metaphysics, Michael Witmore writes: “Like the island itself, which seems to be the ultimate environment in which the play’s action takes place, music is a medium that flows from, within, and around that imaginary place into the ambient space of performance proper. If some of the courtiers from Naples and Milan are lulled to sleep by the island’s ‘solemn music’, the audience can hear this music in a way that it cannot feel the hardness of the boards that the sleeping players lie on.” In taking cues from this reading of the play, I’ve constructed my own musical reading of the island of The Tempest. Three monologues, by Ariel, Caliban, and Prospero, are set in three distinct ways. Ariel’s initial song of welcome appears, for the most part, homophonically, although its break from the quasi-robotic delivery (into the “burden, dispersedly”) points to the character’s vaporous & ethereal nature. Caliban’s famous description of the island as “full of noises” finds its home in a distraught and lonely monodic song, ornamented and driven by extraneous sounds. Prospero’s evocation of the various features and inhabitants of the island (from the final act) breaks apart into spoken voices that eventually dissolve into the wordless voices of the beginning, mirroring his pledge to throw his book of spells into the sea (and possibly to return to the island’s pre-lingual state). The harmonic material of the beginning and the end of the piece (the murmuring voices) is a 24-chord progression that includes all major and minor triads of the Western 12-note system (for fun). As Prospero says: “But this rough magic I here abjure, and when I have required some heavenly music, which even now I do, to work mine end upon their senses that this airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, bury it certain fathoms in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book. (Solemn music)”
Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Courtsied when you have, and kissed
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here, and there, and sweet sprites bear
[Burden dispersedly, within] Hark, hark, bow wow: the watchdogs bark, bow wow.
[Burden dispersedly, within] Hark, hark, I hear, the strain of strutting Chanticleer
Cry cock-a- diddle-dow.
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange:
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell.
[Burden: ding dong.] Hark now I hear them, ding dong bell.
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
You elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,
And you that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrumps, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though you be, I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And ’twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar; graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
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