Roomful of Teeth: A highly unusual name for a highly unusual group of eight classically trained young singers, who in 2009 formed this group to commission and perform works which explore the outer ranges of possible vocal technique. They came to Town Hall Thursday night under the auspices of Town Music, the series curated by cellist Joshua Roman, himself always interested in expanding the possibilities available to a classical musician.
The singers stood in a shallow arc, two sopranos, two altos, a tenor, two baritones and a bass. Their concert was a short one, perhaps necessary given the extreme energy, concentration and technical wizardry required, using just their own human instruments. They performed — it’s not quite right to say sang, as often they were making other sounds — 10 pieces and an encore, using voices as pure as English choirboys, or as earthy as any singer belting out lyrics today, in styles from Sardinia’s cantu a tenore to Inuit throat singing, Bulgarian-style singing, even yodeling. They used microphones, not for loudness, I would think, but to protect their voices yet still project while singing quietly.
Imagine a gallery of abstract art, not easy to comprehend at first sight, but arresting, drawing the viewer back to discover more and more within each work. These musical works are like that. There was harmony here, plus rhythm and counterpoint, but in unusual guises.
None of the composers performed are household names — yet. One, singer Caroline Shaw, won the Pulitzer Prize for music last April for “Partita,” two sections of which ROT sang Thursday, with one more as encore.
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Rinde Eckert’s colorful “Cesca’s View” had soprano Esteli Gomez yodeling like a vocal acrobat, all over the range, weaving in and out of the style with fast changes, secure and pitch-accurate, while the other singers sang in close harmony or smooth tone waves underneath. Calen Burhans’ “No,” with alto soloist Virginia Warnken, stood out as Warnken, whose ability to belt out or sing nasally or like a choirboy had already been shown, transformed into an opera singer with a rich warm voice shaded with vibrato, something not used at any other time by anyone in this concert.
The puffs and underlying growls of Inuit throat singing in Shaw’s “Courante,” from “Partita,” overlying a wandering melody, could have been rhythmically a train whispering on the track, with a hymn tune threaded in.
The whole concert was an extraordinary experience.