Estelí Gomez & Roomful of Teeth in Oregon

Award-winning vocal artists mentor young Oregon composers and sing new music in Portland and Eugene

by GARY FERRINGTON

Last year, University of Oregon graduate student Daniel Daly submitted a vocal composition he had written for soprano Estelí Gomez, a visiting performer in the school’s innovative Vanguard Concert series for new and emerging artists. To his pleasant surprise, he found her earnest commitment to his work as a young composer an unexpected and rewarding experience.

“Estelí studied and interpreted my student work as conscientiously as she did the music of her high-profile engagements,” remembers Daly. “She embodied the text and performed every notated detail. Witnessing this commitment to my piece made me realize that if I am not attending rigorously to every feature of my music and shaping it to the utmost of my ability, I’m not working has hard as she is — and I’m the composer!”

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Estelí Gomez performs Asian Birds by Rebecca Larkin​ (conducting) Beall Hall (2014). Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Gomez, a star in the new music world by virtue of her work with the award winning Roomful of Teeth vocal ensemble and her solo career, has become well known for mentoring and collaborating with young composers and public performances of their work. She returns to the series early this month, and later with Roomful of Teeth, in a program of individual mentoring sessions and seminars on campus, and concludes her visit with concerts in Eugene and Portland. Featured artists in this series, which composer/educator Dr. Robert Kyr has directed since 1992, perform music created for them by students of the Oregon Composers Forum (OCF), either in readings or in public performances. “This unique feature of the University’s composition program offers young composers the opportunity to develop their art through creative interaction with performers of the highest caliber as an essential part of their education,” Kyr explains.

Gomez is returning for her fifth residency with the OCF. Kyr and his composition students consider her truly a member of the school’s artistic community, both as a performer and as a remarkable teacher and mentor who has inspired students to create, according to Kyr, “an entire repertoire of vocal chamber music — over 30 pieces for her as of 2016!” Gomez’s Eugene and Portland Vocal Music Today: Eight Premieres by UO Composers concerts will conclude her eight-day residency with the performance of work by students she has mentored, including Izabel Austin, Daniel Daly, Emily Korzeniewski, Rebecca Larkin, Tao Li, Martin Quiroga, Aidan Ramsay, and Ramsey Sadaka. Gomez will spend two one-hour sessions with each composer and musicians rehearsing and mentoring a work that she will then perform once in Eugene and again in Portland. Such intense student-artist experience is rare in music composition programs.

Roomful of Teeth

The young composers will also have a chance to work with Roomful of Teeth, of which Gomez is a member, during its visit to Eugene. The group’s one-day UO residency features a seminar reading/performance of six pieces composed for the ensemble by University students Alex Bean, Mark Cooney, Nathan Engelmann, Cara Haxo, Benjamin Penwell, and  Justin Ralls. The group will then end their day with a Vocal Soundscapes, New Journeys concert for the entire community. The ensemble comes to Eugene after a residency with performances at Portland’s Marylhurst University.

Founded in 2009, Roomful of Teeth explores the expressiveness of the human voice and vocal techniques not normally associated with classical music, including Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music and Persian classical singing. The a cappella octet performs with amplification, producing a robust tone that enhances their experimental use of sound.

Roomful of Teeth performs at Marylhurst University and the University of Oregon. Photo: Mark Shelby Perry.

Roomful of Teeth performs at Marylhurst University and the University of Oregon. Photo: Mark Shelby Perry.

Its debut album, Roomful of Teeth (2012) won the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, and its second full-length recording, Render, has been nominated for a Grammy in the same category for 2016. (See also: Brett Campbell’s 2013 ArtsWatch interview with Brad Wells and Caroline Shaw, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her  Partita for 8 Voices, and Jeff Winslow’s ArtsWatch review of the octet’s successful Portland performance that year.)

Students working first with Gomez and later Roomful of Teeth have the opportunity to learn from some of the very finest award wining vocal artists in the world. “For a composer, nothing can compare with the actual first-person experience of collaborating directly with artists for whom one has created a new work,” Kyr notes, “especially when they are as accomplished as these amazing singers.” Gomez’s visit also gives Oregon listeners the chance to hear one of the country’s most exciting new music groups, as well as music by the next generation of Oregon composers.

ArtsWatch recently interviewed Esteli Gomez about her advocacy of new work by emerging composers and her residency at the University of Oregon.

AW: You have become known for your work with student composers as a mentor, collaborator and performer. When did this begin?

EG: My first work with composition students was actually quite dovetailed into my undergraduate experience at Yale, performing works of undergrad and grad students. Soon thereafter I taught and performed in a brief solo residency at Yale in fall 2008 (which I hardly might call “mentorship,” considering I had just graduated!). But it was then that I began to make sincere attempts at exploring and articulating certain principles of idiomatic writing for voice, which now factor into my life almost daily as a performer of new music and collaborator with talented young composers.

Dr. Kyr invited me out to Oregon in fall 2011, which resulted in our first residency in early February 2012. I still pinch myself when I think about the time I have gotten to spend, and still get to spend, calling Oregon home for brief portions of each year.

The U of O remains the only consistent residency to which I’ve returned, but the past two years particularly have seen a huge increase in composition department residencies for my band, Roomful of Teeth, and additional residencies for me alone in composition, choral, and/or voice departments. Recent favorites have been teaching in the choral and voice departments at University of Missouri, Kansas City; giving a master class on music business and alternative performing careers to young composer-performers at CalArts; and teaching lessons at two schools outside of Washington D.C. (Episcopal High School, and James Madison University) directly following my Kennedy Center debut. I’m happy to be adding more teaching to my schedule — I feel strongly that teaching positively informs my performances, and vice versa.

Gomez rehearsing a score with its composer Matt Zavortink (flute). Photo: Gary Ferrington

Gomez rehearsing a score with its composer Matt Zavortink (flute) in 2014. Photo: Gary Ferrington.

AW: What do you enjoy about working with young composers?

EG: It’s been especially a joy to work with OCF students as that trust relationship has been palpably present from the start, in each of my student interactions. Dr. Kyr encourages his composers to write imaginative, varied, risk-taking music, which I always relish bringing off the page; I am especially grateful that he also makes clear to his students before I arrive, that I will be ready and willing to try just about anything, yet will also have something to say about its sustainability or performability outside our performance setting. Such an environment of collaboration and exploration, rooted in a great mutual respect, is something I hope all composers and performers can discover, in school or otherwise. It’s a wonderful thing.

AW: What challenges have you found in performing today’s music that singers of a more traditional classical repertoire might not have?

EG: It’s possible that composers today ask more of vocalists, technically and stylistically — but that depends on the flexibility of the singer. Ideally we’ve entered into a new era of flexible, capable, absolutely up-to-the-challenge singers! To be clear, I absolutely cherish my classical training, but do not use it as an excuse to stop studying all kinds of vocal repertoire and styles, and would strongly hope that composers interested in writing vocal music will do the same.

I’ve found that working in new music asks a lot of both performer and composer (in the best way possible). It’s a vulnerable state, for a composer to present a performer with from-the-heart material, and attempt to describe exactly how he or she hopes it may be performed past what is on the page; it is equally challenging for a performer to not only embody the intended story, but tastefully comment upon what works well or less well for his or her instrument. Especially for vocal works, in which one’s instrument is not visible, the vocalist must be very clear and articulate about idiomatic choices for his or her range, fach (voice types), or stylistic training. In turn, the composer has to trust his or her collaborator, and sometimes adjust the original imagined concept of a piece — human voices are very different than audio MIDI files!

Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Photo: Gary Ferrington.

AW: Do you have a process that you like to follow in helping students realize the best performance of their compositions? Are there common problems that student composers have related to composing for voice?

EG: I’m especially looking forward to the longer residency this year! My process is different each residency, and sometimes different with each student. I enjoy discussing each student’s piece in the Oregon Composers Forum, as that time in class together provides an opportunity to celebrate what worked well in each piece, to give more of a narrative of my experience learning and performing each work, and to continue a conversation in which feedback is shared in a safe, constructive environment. There are sometimes common problems to be addressed, where writing for voice is concerned (vocal range and tessitura, breathing, balance with instrumentation, text setting), and I appreciate the chance to discuss such topics together in a group setting. I always come away from such experiences having learned something new about how to articulate an issue, how criticism might be received, or how to even slightly alter tricky, seemingly unchangeable passages of music.

Esteli Gomez performs in Eugene at Beall Concert Hall, 8:00 PM Wednesday, January 20, 2016. Admission: $10 general; $8 students and seniors. This concert will be live streamed. She performs in Portland at 7:30PM Thursday, January 21, at the Old Church 1422 SW 11th Ave. Admission: $10 general; $8 students and seniors.

Roomful of Teeth performs at Portland’s Marylhust University on January 29 and 30. The octet will give a public performance in Eugene on Sunday, January 31st at 7:30PM in Room 190 (Aasen-Hull Hall) of the School of Music and Dance. Admission: $10 general; $8 students and seniors.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch! 
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch

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