On Sunday, March 14th I went to see a live performance at the Merkin Concert Hall, Kaufman Music Center in downtown New York. The event was a part of the ongoing Ecstatic Music Festival. The show was broadcast live through WNYC and hosted by John Schaefer. The program for the evening was filled with wonderful new compositions commissioned by the performing ensemble. The roster of composers whose work was featured included Nick Zammuto, William Brittelle, Toby Twining, Fred Hersch and Caroline Shaw.
The ensemble performing these new compositions was none other than Grammy award winning group ROOMFUL OF TEETH, an outstanding vocal octet made up of 4 female and 4 male singers that specialize in modern music utilizing extended techniques such as Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, and other techniques from non-western music. They have a rich, expressive and full sound with a wide tonal palette. Because the pieces were commissioned specifically for this group the music made good use of their capabilities.
As I walked in the beautiful theater (unfortunately a few minutes after the beginning) they were getting ready to perform a piece by Nick Zammuto while the host interviewed the composer and asked about the piece and compositional process. The title of the piece was “ToBeGinAGain” and it is written in 6 movements for 8 voices and synthesizer, played by the composer himself. Each movement featured a different soloist singer who stood next to the synth on a separate microphone and put on earphones (perhaps listening to a click track) while the rest of the vocalists provided accompaniment and Zammuto played with the rhythms and pitches that the soloist sang into the microphone. The manipulation of the sounds was purposefully done with a degree of randomness that created an interesting effect when interacting with the singers. I could hear pitch modulations, rhythmic delays and interesting harmonic effects provided by the synth and enhanced by the other singers. To me, the music was ethereal and buoyant, definitely tonal but mostly modal, with rich harmonies and interesting rhythmic devices. There were no cadences or predictably symmetrical phrases. This music reminded me of the soundtrack of a 1988 cult classic animated movie called “Akira”.
The performance was conducted by the group’s musical director, Mr Brad Wells. He was interviewed by the host briefly and talked about the collaboration with the different composers. He also pointed out that some of the pieces were being performed live for that audience for the first time in New York.
An interesting detail that I observed was that all of the performers and the conductor were using digital tablets instead of standard sheet music (which makes more sense and is cleaner and neater than shuffling through pages in the middle of a performance).
The second piece of the program, titled “Overtonework” by Toby Twining, was not performed for some reason. Apparently they cut it from the program perhaps because of time limitations. Next, they sang a piece named “Two Haiku” by composer Fred Hersch. The poem was commissioned to be written as an homage to a recently deceased renowned jazz vocalist Steve Zegree. This piece was performed a cappella, and it was interesting to hear the group singing music with lyrics: two beautiful haiku written by Mary Jo Salter.
After a brief intermission, the main dish of the evening! An outstanding work by Pulitzer-prize winner Caroline Shaw titled “The Isle”. The composer could not attend the event due to other commitments. Shaw is also an excellent vocalist who sometimes collaborates with Roomful of Teeth PLUS a renowned violinist who tours and records with her own string ensemble. Before the performance, the director talked a little bit about the composition, explaining that the inspiration behind it was Shakespeare’s The Tempest”. This piece was considerably longer than the others and used some of the dialogue from the play. I could hear musical quotes from Caroline Shaw’s previous collaboration with Roomful of Teeth titled “Partita for 8 voices”.
The evening was filled with wonderful music and an amazing display of virtuosity. After the program was performed and the group got offstage, the audience gave them a standing ovation and they returned for an encore: an interesting arrangement of the music of a popular new TV show which I cannot recall the name of.
Here is a link to a performance featuring Caroline Shaw on lead (in the first piece) as part of the Tiny Desk concert series.