Layers of sound
Vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth
IF there is one thing Santa Fe has plenty of, it is opportunities to hear live classical music. It would be fair to say that you could spend months, or even years, doing almost nothing but going to concerts here, succumbing to the music and actively improving your quality of life. Many would point out, however, that the audience for classical music tends to be “graying,” which is to say that the crowds flocking to see string quartets and violin virtuosos are old and getting older. Perhaps that is who goes to hear classical music, at least in Santa Fe, but the music is being performed by people of all ages, which means that as younger Santa Feans’ tastes develop and mature, the music will be waiting for them.
“There’s a pretty broad community of young and vibrant classical musicians keeping the traditions alive while also seeing how far we can push the envelope of making new sounds,” said Dashon Burton, a member of the Grammy Award-winning vocal octet, Roomful of Teeth. “The tradition within classical music is to make new music alive. How can I play this instrument in a way that sounds like no one else has ever played it before?” As classically trained musicians, the members of Roomful of Teeth pursue that experimentation and rigor within the structure of a vocal ensemble. The group was founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, who serves as artistic director. “He had this idea for his whole life,” Burton told Pasatiempo. “He wanted to combine different styles of music and singing from around the world and put it all under one umbrella and try to create something new from that. Since the very beginning, even at the auditions, he was looking for singers who were vocally flexible but also emotionally and sort of spiritually openhearted.”
Roomful of Teeth performs at St. Francis Auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 21. The four men and four women have advanced degrees in various areas of performance, composition, and music history from Yale, Oberlin College Conservatory, and Princeton, among other institutions. As a group and as individuals they have performed and collaborated with NOW Ensemble, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, the Seattle Symphony, and Kanye West. It should be noted that member Caroline Shaw composed Partita for 8 Voices explicitly for the group, and won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for it in 2013 — making her the youngest recipient of that award. Partita was also nominated for a 2014 Grammy for Best Classical Composition after the piece was recorded by the group for an album of the same name, released by New Amsterdam Records. The group’s self-titled debut album in 2012 received a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.
Roomful of Teeth veers between classical and experimental music, incorporating influences and techniques as diverse as Tuvan and Inuit throat singing, yodeling, Korean p’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a
tenòre, Hindustani music, and Persian classical singing. The stunningly energetic compositions, which are created in collaboration with the octet, often combine multiple styles in the same piece and even in the same moment. The movements ebb and flow, sometimes in a meditative way but even more often as an active challenge to the mind.
The members, who work on side projects throughout the year as they continue to perform and tour with Roomful of Teeth, gather annually at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams for two weeks of regrouping and creative generation. They bring in top teachers of all the musical and vocal styles they want to explore and spend the time “digging deep and getting our hands dirty,” Burton said. “We live in an amazing time of exploration, where in any genre of music you can find people who are asking what their genre means. What does it mean to be a country artist, or a classical artist, or a hip-hop artist? There is so much broadening of these terms and of what’s ‘expected.’ On the
WE WANT TO ABANDON THE LABELS AND JUST SAY THAT WE’RE MUSICIANS AND THIS IS OUR BAND, THAT THIS IS MUSIC WE CHERISH AND WANT TO SHARE. BUT WE ALSO REALLY WANT TO HONOR THE TRADITIONS WE CAME FROM. — Roomful of Teeth member Dashon Burton
one hand, we want to abandon the labels and just say that we’re musicians and this is our band, that this is music we cherish and want to share. But we also really want to honor the traditions we came from. We like to blur the lines as much as possible.” For a recent project, Roomful of Teeth contributed to the score — and performed live at the premiere screening in New York City — for The Colorado, a multimedia feature documentary about the Colorado River Basin that takes a holistic perspective and provides social and historical context for the region’s ecological predicaments. The main portion of the Santa Fe concert is Coloring
Book by Ted Hearne, a 30-minute composition
consisting of five movements: “The Game of Keeping,” “You Are Not the Guy,” “What Feels,” “Letter to My Father (in three parts),” and “Your People.” The Coloring Book is based on writings by Zora Neale Hurston, Claudia Rankine, and James Baldwin, in which the authors reflect on black identity. “Hearne took these texts from black American writers of the 20th century. They moved him so much he wanted to see what it would be like for him, as a white man, to set these texts as if he were speaking them,” Burton said. “What is the difference between one person and another person’s experience? How do you transmit that experience through these words and through these songs?”
Among the other pieces that the group will perform are Partita for 8 Voices, Beneath by Caleb Burhans, and Otherwise by Brad Wells, the last of which Burton described as “a little like you’re being electrocuted for two-and-a-half minutes.” He said the group ultimately hopes the audience feels everything that it might be possible to feel about music during one of their concerts. They want people who have never heard a Tuvan throat singer or a master Swiss yodeler to be just as jaw-droppingly awed as they were the first time they heard it.
“We want to pass forward that original sense of wonder and joy. We want everyone to be thrilled and exuberant and relaxed all at the same time while they explore all these different tonalities and ask what it means to actively listen to music. Is it a challenge to the ears? Or is it the act of opening the ears and letting the music wash over you? It can be all of those things at any given moment.”
Roomful of Teeth, presented by Performance Santa Fe 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21 St. Francis Auditorium, New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave. $30-$50; 505-988-1234, www.ticketssantafe.org