February 9, 2018
By Erich Burnett
Roomful of Teeth photo
Photo credit: Bonica Ayala

Artist Recital Series event includes first-of-its-kind collaboration with the Oberlin College Choir.

At 30, Caroline Shaw became the youngest person ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music when her Partita for 8 Voices earned the honor in 2013—more than half a year before the piece was performed live for the first time by Shaw’s vocal octet Roomful of Teeth.

Praised for its unimaginably inventive amalgamation of speech, whispers, murmurs, wordless melodies, and numerous other sounds, Partita for 8 Voices promises to be one highlight among many when Roomful of Teeth performs at Oberlin’s Finney Chapel on Friday, February 16.

Part of the Artist Recital Series, the program also includes a collaboration between Roomful of Teeth and the Oberlin College Choir, which will team up to perform William Brittelle’s Psychedelics and Merrill Garbus' Quizassa. (Listen to Roomful of Teeth’s recording of Quizassa, featured as the Song of the Week on ColdfrontMag.com in 2012.) Also featured will be works by acclaimed composers Missy Mazzoli (Vesper Sparrow), Judd Greenstein (Run Away), and Toby Twining (Dumas’ Riposte).

Founded in 2009, Roomful of Teeth is dedicated to mining the expressive potential of the human voice. The ensemble studies extensively with non-classical vocal masters from throughout the world, which leads to vocal creations that can veer from Tuvan throat singing to Alpine yodeling faster than a listener’s jaw can drop.

Called “fiercely beautiful and bravely, utterly exposed” by NPR, Roomful of Teeth includes founding member Dashon Burton, a 2005 graduate of Oberlin Conservatory. Their Oberlin concert marks the first time Burton will have taken the stage in Finney Chapel since he sang with Oberlin’s Musical Union ensemble as a student in May 2005.

Gregory Ristow ’01, Oberlin’s director of choral ensembles, teamed up with Roomful artistic director Brad Wells to select Brittelle’s Psychedelics for their Oberlin collaboration, and both Wells and Brittelle visited campus to work with the choir during fall semester. “The piece is written in shocking musical shards: short fragments that without warning are replaced by another totally different musical idea,” Ristow says. “When he visited in the fall, William Brittelle described it as being like a psychotic break—like watching yourself from a third-person perspective, feeling your thoughts and actions as though they were somehow disconnected from yourself.”

Brittelle’s piece, like a lot of Roomful’s music, is a somewhat distant relative of the Western classical repertoire common in conservatory settings.

“It’s like nothing our students have ever had the chance to sing,” Ristow says of Psychedelics. “In addition to the classical singing techniques they’re studying here at the conservatory, it involves three kinds of Tuvan throat singing and the wide, flat-vowel sound of traditional Bulgarian singing. We had the chance to work with Brad Wells in the fall to start to learn how to do these techniques, and we got to work with the composer to get a sense of his vision for the sound. So much of what—and how—Teeth sing just can’t be notated in our standard, Western notation system. For me and the choir, it’s been a phenomenal learning experience in just how much of the music is not on the page.”

Tickets for Roomful of Teeth at Oberlin are $35 ($30 for seniors, military, and Oberlin alumni and staff)—and just $10 for all students. They are available by calling 800-371-0178, visiting oberlin.edu/artsguide, or stopping by Oberlin’s Central Ticket Service at Hall Auditorium (67 N. Main St.) weekdays from noon to 5 p.m.

The Artist Recital Series continues March 30 with Brentano Quartet, followed by bass-baritone Gerald Finley on April 17. Learn more about signature events at Oberlin at oberlin.edu/artsguide.

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