As Vocalists Sink Teeth, Words And Genres Get Pushed, Pulled, Chewed

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The vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth gave a genre-ignoring, playfully provocative program at the Caramooor Festival. (Photos by ©Gabe Palacio)


KATONAH, N.Y. — The titles of the pieces alone were intriguing enough to warrant a visit to the Caramoor Festival: The eight-member vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth gave a genre-ignoring, playfully provocative program June 28 with titles such as Psychedelics, On Stochastic Wave Behavior, and “GaNaDaRaMaBaSa AJaChaKaTaPaHa.” All of the pieces — which were consistently inviting, several of them drawn from the group’s Grammy Award-winning album Rough Magic — were introduced to the audience by artistic director Cameron Beauchamp as “songs” and the singers as “the band.” The Caramoor lawn was a deceptively casual venue as languages were taken on wild alternative excursions, none of them dramatizing the text in anything close to traditional ways.

Example: Caroline Shaw’s excellent The Aisle (the tamest title on the program) excerpted Shakespeare’s The Tempest in three distinct sections of text corresponding with the characters Ariel, Caliban, and Prospero, with music that brought out the latent sense of music in the play’s “rich and strange” words. The piece began and ended with wordless vocalizing — sort of like warming up and warming down. In between, Ariel had the most straightforward word settings (something like David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion with irregular rhythm dictated by the text), Caliban began with a rumbling bass foundation and quieter voices seeming to speak to you from a dream, and then Prospero resorted to strongly articulated spoken pronouncements (“Have I made shake…graves at my command”) while out-of-left-field high-treble harmonies hung in the background. The perspective reflected back at the original play was how much it presaged the “magical realism” literature of the 20th century.

From there, the program went into less-precedented terrains, some pieces augmenting the vocal textures with atmospheric, all-purpose synthesized sound. Angelica Negrón’s math, the one which is sweet — a celebration of newly discovered love — made up for its oblique words (lots of sea imagery plus references to math in general and a crashed satellite in particular) with a billowing, enveloping electronic track that tried to balance the cerebral with the visceral. How successfully? We’ll see in future hearings.

All of the pieces on the Caramoor program were consistently inviting, several of them drawn from the group’s Grammy Award-winning album ‘Rough Magic.’

Leilehua Lanzilotti’s On Stochastic Wave Behavior has a lot on its mind, dealing with reclamation of an indigenous Hawaiian language, using music to examine key words, sometimes with genial lyricism suggesting Meredith Monk but also having bass lines that suggest the tectonic shifts that are part of Pacific Island life. The piece felt rather remote, perhaps too contemplative and amorphous to convince this listener of its social and artistic goal.

Peter Shin’s four-minute “GaNaDaRaMaBaSa AJaChaKaTaPaHa,” from a larger work titled Bits torn from words, had vocal lines sung in syllables drawn from consonants in the Korean alphabet — in an expression of what the composer describes as catastrophic reactions to inconsequential circumstances. It’s a wonderful piece, starting with singers sounding as if they’re vocalizing into a cave that has a very long echo time and evolving into vocal lines that simultaneously undulated and ricocheted in a mixture unlike anything I’ve heard.

The main event was William Brittelle’s three-movement Psychedelics, which more than lived up to its title. As an aesthetic, psychedelia is about the entire universe seeming to open up at once, ready or not, flooding in with all of its random non sequiturs. Objects take on the opposite qualities from what they have in reality (melting watches, for one) as the mind grabs at everyday sights and sounds indiscriminately.

What composer Brittelle has to tell us is not that different from the aesthetic of Elliott Carter in the 1980s: Embrace natural states of confusion and chaos. In Brittelle’s piece, words seemed to come from formerly complete sentences. Long-held notes acted like organ pedal points, anchoring the mad collages of music. Gospel singing popped up here and there, as well as tightly harmonized hymns amid the fragmented textures. While music influenced by psychedelic drugs tends to lack communicative urgency, this piece exclaims and shouts while in a constant state of morphing.

The group allows the music to find its own kind of logic.

Such a wide-ranging program could come off as the group showing off its cultural competency. But there’s something about music written purely for voice that leaves little space for posturing or any form of insincerity, especially under the closely microphoned circumstances of the super-duper sound system utilized in the outdoor Caramoor space. The sound system also enables vocal blends that couldn’t be tighter. However, Roomful of Teeth’s more important hallmark is cognitive: The group allows the music to find its own kind of logic.

Singers of generations past have feared that any vocal writing beyond Richard Strauss may ruin their voices. But even the most exclamatory high notes of Roomful of Teeth soprano Estelí Gomez sounded perfectly healthy. Tenor Steven Bradshaw, whom I’ve been hearing with The Crossing choir for at least a decade, has evolved from a laser-beam focus to a fuller sound that blends seamlessly with what is around him. It’s truly a new vocal world, and it has been happening for some time.