Roomful of Teeth: Flexible excellence

Roomful of Teeth performed at Lewis & Clark College on Saturday.

Roomful of Teeth performed at Lewis & Clark College last weekend.

by JEFF WINSLOW

“Breaking news!” “Up to the minute!” “Hot off the press!” When is that talk ever about a classical music concert? Even “new music” groups, including the one I serve as a board member, typically mix many ten- or 20-year old works into their offerings. When the choral ensemble Roomful of Teeth blew through Portland last Friday, it brought a program that included only one piece more than four years old; half the pieces were written in the last two years. Included, of course, was a generous portion of member Caroline Shaw’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner “Partita.” Not only that, nary a stereotype of new music or choral music concerts could be heard. The saccharine and the ear-stabbing were both intriguingly absent. How can all this be possible?

It starts with the singers. As artistic director Brad Wells explained in a fascinating Q & A (moderated by Portland’s favorite contemporary classical DJ Robert McBride), RoT auditions seek just two qualifications: excellence and flexibility – a willingness to learn new vocal techniques, mostly from traditional cultures all around the world. This excellence and flexibility, along with an attitude perhaps best summed up by alto Virginia Warnken – “humility” – have combined to create an eight-voice group which can deliver the most intricate and unusual soundscapes as a single being. (The program was performed without Wells conducting.) Throw that performing resource into the midst of hungry young composers, composers for whom battles about tonal vs. atonal and pop vs. art are largely things they read about in history books, and magic can happen.

It happened even in what was probably the most conventional work of the night, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “The Guest,” when a high soprano cut loose over the prevailing texture of overlapping repeats of a short riff, sending chills up my spine. That kind of texture is becoming somewhat of a standard operating procedure in certain quarters, but it fit, evoking the internal demons chasing a sleepwalker out into a snowscape. Less conventional in this context was Warnken’s pop-inflected diction in a line carrying the lyrics. She ripped it out like nobody’s business, it’s not her fault, but it just didn’t fit – a misjudgment on Snider’s part. It’s tough for a composer who grew up in Princeton and got a degree at Yale to be from the wrong side of the tracks. It’s better not to try.

A more integrated and absorbing soundscape was provided by Judd Greenstein’s “Montmartre,” an homage to a time and place – fin de siècle Paris – when European composers first began to treat musical color as something just as fundamental as the traditional disciplines of harmony and counterpoint. Though the contributions of the latter felt repetitive in places, there was no denying the dizzying variety of vocal color expertly traversed by the group, a variety that made the ordinary vowels of language seem but shades of gray. Just when I was beginning to think I’d heard it all, a full-fledged tune redolent of Parisian cabaret sang out over the top. Rainbow sprinkles of throat-singing harmonics topped off the confection.

But the smorgasbord was just beginning – RoT sang ten works plus an encore. It was a joy to hear all the different things this extremely versatile group can do, and the surprising and beautiful ways they have fired composers’ imaginations. Rinde Eckert, in his work “Cesca’s View,” explores yodeling, setting it off against yearning harmony and leaving its last question poignantly unanswered. Caleb Burhans, in “No,” refracts this simple, loaded syllable into a tenderly pulsing accompaniment to a rhapsodic melody (poured out straight from the heart by alto Warnken), with the intent of giving the word a positive spin. At the very least it conveys infinite regret. No reply seems possible, so for once, the fade-out conclusion borrowed from pop music works perfectly. If Merrill Garbus’s “Quizassa” didn’t reach these depths, at least it finished the program off with infectious, exuberant, body-swaying rhythm.

Among the works that explore a more complex emotional landscape are Wells’s “Otherwise,” and Missy Mazzoli’s “Vesper Sparrow” on words by Farnoosh Fathi. As might be expected from the group’s director, “Otherwise” celebrates pretty much the whole range of the group’s abilities in one short work. It’s flashy and attractive, but it feels a bit crammed, especially when the bel canto baritone is running a gantlet of less refined styles in the other voices. Mazzoli’s work develops more gradually, and though it offers nearly as much contrast, each element seems to sit amongst its neighbors more naturally, building through a welcome variety of harmonic progression to a forceful conclusion. Like Wells, she also juxtaposes bel canto singing with other styles, but it soars out over the top in another spine-tingling magical moment.

The star of the show, of course, was Shaw’s “Partita.” The “Courante” and “Passacaglia” movements anchored the program, and we were treated to “Sarabande” for an encore. A question which is hard to avoid thinking about is – just what is it that makes this, and not the other highly creative works on the program, worthy of a Pulitzer? One point, of course, is that “Partita” is a major work, running nearly a half an hour, where the others last about five minutes or less. But there’s always a pile of long works to choose from, and there has been criticism over the years that undeserving ones have been chosen. This time around though, my ears tell me the prize committee acquitted itself well.

For as good a justification as any, take a look at the “Courante.” Starting with a rhythmic groove made only from sharp inhales and exhales, the simplest of pitch elements are added as momentum builds. In a different context, one might be forgiven for imagining a steam locomotive starting to roll, then whistling, but the detail is too rich, the purpose clearly more serious. The first alto pitches grow out of the groove, and they are in turn colored by a men’s duet. Each element seems to be inextricably linked to the next, and to the next. After an engrossing build through the first third of the work, there’s a welcome breather as we hear a pure harmonization of the early American revivalist hymn, “Shining Shore.” Its refrain inspires a renewed rhythmic energy, as the opening groove returns, with much of the breath work now replaced by a filigree of women’s voices. There’s a pause, as if a hand were being extended back to the hymn, which soon seems to catch up and be propelled forward by the re-energized groove. But it’s too much for it, and the hymn refracts into harmonic colors, extensions of the men’s duet in the opening build. The rhythm cuts out, leaving the women’s colors drifting like leaves blown out over a void. Their energy refuses to dissipate, however, and from nowhere the rhythm and the men rejoin them, driving everything towards the brink of a precipice. Suddenly the whole creature stops and vanishes in a few last gasps. After all, this is not the grand finale yet; the Passacaglia is still to come.

There is a level of inevitability and interconnectedness to all this – a unity in variety, prized in the classic repertory – which largely rises above the rest of the program. At the same time, the bits and pieces are all out where they can be heard, not hidden behind a fog of pre-compositional considerations. It would be vain to try to predict how well “Partita” will wear, but there’s no question it has all the right stuff.

And what of Shaw herself? We chatted only a few minutes after the show, but I got an impression of someone unassuming yet confident, a slight young woman, yet with a strong alto voice. Now the world knows she has an equally strong compositional voice.

This has been a good year to reflect on choral music in Portland. As Bruce Browne, Brett Campbell , and I have detailed in Oregon Arts Watch recently, several new groups interested in performing new music have sprung up in the last few years, and many established groups are applying themselves to it with renewed energy. And now on top of it all, Roomful of Teeth comes through and raises the bar, both in their range of technique and in their commitment to partnership in the creation of new compositions. How will Portland’s groups respond? Katherine FitzGibbon, director of the Resonance Ensemble, was in attendance Friday night and was obviously thrilled to be there. Indeed, her organization co-sponsored RoT’s visit, along with Portland new music fixture Fear No Music. Between them, on short notice, they got the word out and Agnes Flanagan chapel was well filled. It all leaves me full of hope for the future.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and a board member of Cascadia Composers.

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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    i had to miss this concert with great regret & will be a bit quicker on the inhale next time this sterling group comes to town.

    yes, caroline shaw is the real deal. even though one can easily trace the sources of her magpied configuration, the result is unique & entirely hers. i look forward to more music from this big talent & hope the pulitzer crown doesn’t weigh too self-consciously on her inspiration.

    btw, i bet gyorgy ligeti would have enjoyed hearing “partita.” after all, ligeti was another “mutt” that sniffed the globe for pieces of what became his own particular musical goulash.

    thanx, jeff, for a fun read – i “almost” felt like i was there!

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