by Maggie Molloy
Classical vocal music is always nice—but if you’re looking for a contemporary vocal ensemble with a little more bite, look no further than Roomful of Teeth.
The Grammy Award-winning a cappella ensemble is dedicated to exploring the vast and limitless musical possibilities of the human voice. In fact, Roomful of Teeth’s eight vocalists have studied singing traditions from around the world, including vocal techniques as diverse as yodeling, belting, Tuvan throat singing, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music, Persian classical singing, and more.
And now, you can hear the fruit of the group’s musical travels on their sophomore album, “Render.” The record is an eclectic collection of original compositions and commissioned works which push beyond the boundaries of traditional vocal music.
Founded in 2009, Roomful of Teeth is comprised of sopranos Estelí Gomez and Martha Cluver, altos Caroline Shaw and Virginia Warnken, tenor Eric Dudley, baritone Avery Griffin, bass baritone Dashon Burton, and bass Cameron Beauchamp. Together, the eight singers create a mesmerizing vocal panorama spanning over four octaves.
Their new album begins with a performance of Missy Mazzoli’s “Vesper Sparrow,” an enchanting and otherworldly piece which features the text of Farnoosh Fathi’s poem “Home State.” The sopranos soar sweetly above a percussive a cappella backdrop, creating a fascinating range of vocal timbres and musical characters.
“The piece is an eclectic amalgamation of imaginary birdsong and my own interpretation of Sardinian overtone singing,” Mazzoli said. “I tried to capture the exuberance and energy of these individual singers as well as a bit of the magic that is created when this group comes together.”
The piece is followed by Wally Gunn’s “The Ascendant,” a dramatic three-part composition which illuminates the haunting, poignant poetry of Maria Zajkowski. Glorious vocal harmonies glide above a hypnotic hocket backdrop, creating a slow but steady groove and an unbelievably rich chordal texture—Roomful of Teeth’s voices will echo in your head long after the piece is over.
William Brittelle’s “High Done No Why” is next on the album, showcasing the vocal virtuosity of each member of the ensemble by experimenting with a colorful palette of extended vocal techniques that reach far beyond the borders of the Western classical music tradition.
Caleb Burhans’ slow and somber “Beneath” is a similarly virtuosic feat: it is a 12-minute exploration into the ensemble’s unbelievably wide vocal range. Throughout the piece, the spellbinding blend of wordless vocals creates an utterly ethereal, borderline eerie soundscape.
The ensemble switches to the other end of the musical spectrum for “Otherwise,” composed by the group’s artistic director Brad Wells. The piece is vibrant, visceral, and full of color—it features singing, belting, yodeling, and even a few elements of Sardinian polyphonic folk singing. Baritone soloist Dashon Burton cuts through the rest of ensemble’s rhythmic chanting with a beaming bel canto voice, his classical singing contrasting beautifully against a striking harmonic backdrop.
Eric Dudley’s “Suonare / To Sound” explores a different element of vocal music: words. The piece is a meditation on timbre and language, featuring the same poem sung in both English and Italian—at the same time. The eight voices overlap and intersect as they echo across a constantly shifting soundscape, with the lower voices tracing the English text through slowly changing harmonies as the sopranos echo far above them.
The last piece on the album is the title track, also composed by Brad Wells, which was inspired by David Eagleman’s short story “Search.” The ensemble’s voices ebb and flow in soft waves, gracefully gliding in and out of near-silence to create a serene and mystical sound world.
“The story describes a vision of the afterlife as the periodic unraveling of our material, molecular selves into other forms in nature, occasional re-gatherings of our disparate molecules over millennia, and the complete continuity and maintenance—in spite of the unraveling—of our consciousness and feeling,” Wells said.
Of course, Roomful of Teeth says all of this without using any lyrics—proving that the possibilities of the human voice are far beyond words.