Review: ROOMFUL OF TEETH at Ukaria, Williams Rd, Mount Barker Adelaide

Review By Lisa Lanzi


Composer & Citizen: Chamber Landscapes 2020, part of the Adelaide Festival this year, is curated by Marshall McGuire who desires that this “weekend of music provokes not just thought, but some joy, and a connection to beauty, shared between us all”. I was privileged to attend this performance of American vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, comprised of eight remarkably talented artists and founded by Brad Wells in 2009. So much beauty and joy in the room, and certainly I felt deeply connected to this astonishing sound.


Roomful of Teeth is a is a GRAMMY-winning vocal project with the goal of “reimagining the expressive potential of the human voice”. Like any great artists, the members continue to seek training in a wide variety of vocal forms (Tuvan throat singing, yodelling, Broadway belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music, Persian classical singing and Death Metal singing) and source leading teachers when they gather annually at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The group performed six works, all by living composers, plus an emotionally charged encore. To be present at this performance was akin to being at a masterclass demonstration of every vocal quality imaginable, at the most professional level possible.


The first haunting work on the program, with drum accompaniment by Adelaide’s Sami Butler, was written for the a cappella octet by Australian composer Wally Gunn (Victorian College of the Arts and NY trained) based on poetry by contemporary Australian poet Maria Zajkowski, who was in the audience. The Ascendant (2012 and 2016) unfolds in six parts and was particularly poignant for being its first Australian performance in the stunning, semi-rural setting of Ukaria Cultural Centre. Gunn’s composing style is emotionally direct, sometimes utilizing physical gesture and speech to heighten the theatricality of musical performance. In The Ascendant the complexity and layering is profound, the leads are shared between female and male voices with some very close harmonies and drone-like accompaniments. One of the characteristics of RoT is the extraordinary range of notes covered by eight voices, from bell-like soprano highs to earth-shaking baritone lows - five octaves I have read. The vocal power and control is also extraordinary, as shown in some of the crescendo passages and the gradual decrescendos into silence. A detailed description of this work would take the entire review but I still have a visceral reaction when recalling the impact of the live performance; there are some videos of the work if you desire to look them up.


Two works by Caroline Shaw (a founding member of RoT) took second and fifth place on the programme, respectively Allemande and Passacaglia from her Partita for 8 Voices. It was composed from 2009 through 2012 for the ensemble and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, making Shaw the youngest recipient of the award. The opening of Allemande has spoken lines layered counterpoint and canon form until the cacophony is almost indecipherable and song takes over. The text is taken from the geometrical, instruction-based art of Sol LeWitt with phrases like “to the side” and “the detail of the pattern is in the movement” and a few sprinkles of the quintessential dancers’ intro “… 2, 3, 4” and “… 5, 6, 7, 8”. In Passacaglia the superb vocal range and control of the group is such that there seems to be many more than eight on stage. Dynamic range is also a feature of this piece at one moment showcasing a phenomenal, fortissimo chord descending very slowly to a creaking vocal fry.


Ultramarine and Sienna: Dumas’ Riposte by Toby Twining was inspired by essayist, author and playwright Alexandre Dumas’ famous reply to a slight on his African ancestry: "My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends." Rich melodies and jazz harmony intersect with textual layers sung from a poem by Zsuzsanna Ardó, The Calm Before the Storm.


RoT’s founder, composer and conductor Brad Wells wrote Otherwise, the final work, featuring the operatic brilliance of Dashon Burton. The title comes from a Jane Kenyon poem but uses no text and the Sardinian sound of cantu a tenore’ singing in the syllabic chanting sections. Each of the members on tour this season are successful, talented and sometimes multi-skilled solo artists with their own projects on the go: Estelí Gomez, soprano; Martha Cluver, soprano; Eliza Bagg, alto; Virginia Kelsey, alto; Steven Bradshaw, tenor; Thann Scoggin, baritone-bass; Dashon Burton, baritone-bass; Cameron Beauchamp, bass.


It was Martha Cluver who led the encore piece, Fall Into Me which reduced me to tears of wonder, joy and recalled grief. Written by German/Turkish singer/songwriter Alev Lenz, this song featured in an episode of Black Mirror. In the original version there is a grating electronic drone background which is replicated more kindly by the seven voices of RoT underneath the warm, soulful melody from Cluver. There was an almost Celtic lilt to the melody as interpreted here and a stunned hush from the audience followed by a standing ovation.


Encountering this group, their music and the work of contemporary choral composers breaking ‘rules’ to deliver an evolution in vocal music has been a Festival highlight for me. If you get the opportunity to hear them live, just go, and experience for yourself the wonder and power of voice with Roomful of Teeth.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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