Roomful of Teeth = Passacaglia; Amid The Minotaurs; Montmartre; No; Courante; Aeiou; The Orchard; Cesca’s View; Allemande; Quizassa; Sarabande; Run Away; Ansa Ya – Roomful of Teeth/ Brad Wells – New Amsterdam NWAM041, 75:00 [www.newamsterdamrecords.com] ****:
Roomful of Teeth is an astonishing vocal and vocal-driven ensemble of eight singers that came about in 2009 through the impulses of Brad Wells, their director. His goal: to confirm the innate belief that the human voice is not only the most common but also the most versatile of all instruments found in the world. To confirm this hypothesis he has studied the vocal techniques of many cultures, and found composers (including group member Caroline Shaw, who wrote four of the pieces here) to make use of these discoveries. The results are fascinating—an amalgamation of classical techniques, pure soulful pop melodies, extended range vocal techniques, and a blend of fire and brilliance that tops just about any other vocal a capella performance that I can think of. The singing is simply fantastic, and this has to be some of the hardest music to vocalize ever attempted.
But forget the Tuvan throat-singing and African pygmy yodeling, among a host of other equally varied and esoteric technical styles; these kinds of things are only the ingredients and will be of little interest outside of specialists who delve into these kinds of things. What matters, as always, is how the music sounds, and it is precisely here where both the attractions and difficulties of this sort of release manifest themselves. This is performance art of the purest kind; none of the pieces here will be sung by other vocal groups as the technical aspects are too difficult to duplicate. So all of the music is wedded to the members rendering it, and this aspect alone lessens, to a certain expense, the value of the music itself. We tune in not only to hear a composition, but to hear something as performed by this ensemble. The markup of Roomful of Teeth, its particular expertise in the performance of this music, and the music itself form a unified whole. So when you buy this album you are buying “into” the whole concept. You will never hear this music performed anywhere else.
Having said that, is the experience worth your time and effort? It will take effort, as the first time hearing these pieces will not affect you so much from an emotional and aesthetic point of view as one of sheer jaw-dropping wonder at how people can make such sounds with the human voice. The second time around you will begin to notice the music more, which is—I hope—the ultimate goal of the performers, otherwise we end up with a series of Lisztian pyrotechnics where the artistry is what sticks in the mind instead of the music. The music is very good in many cases, though I found myself more enamored of it in places where the technical spasms were kept to a minimum—I still want to be emotionally affected first and wowed second. At any rate, this extraordinary group should provide enough of both for most people, and their debut album leaves one wondering what could possibly come next. [And what a great name for the ensemble and their album!…Ed.]