Roomful of Teeth
Roomful of Teeth is a GRAMMY Award-winning vocal band dedicated to reimagining the expressive potential of the human voice. By engaging collaboratively with artists, thinkers, and community leaders from around the world, the group seeks to uplift and amplify voices old and new while creating and performing meaningful and adventurous music.
Founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, the band was incubated at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, Massachusetts, where members studied with some of the world’s top performers and teachers, and commissioned composers who were known for breaking molds. They have learned that the boundaries of the human voice are never what they seem, that rules can be bent, and broken, and perhaps they should be.
As the world rapidly changes, Roomful of Teeth is cultivating deeper relationships with technology, continuing to expand the capabilities of the human voice and aiming to become unburdened by physical limitations. They are excited about new collaborative projects that focus on the stories of place, home, and community in the diverse environments our planet has provided. The group explores these boundaries with passionate curiosity, contagious enthusiasm, and deep gratitude.
Roomful of Teeth made their Cabrillo Festival debut in 2019, performing in the world premiere of Kristin Kuster’s tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as a wildly popular recital and a free Community Sing event. They return in 2022 for the world premiere of Scott Ordway’s The End of Rain with the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, and a much-anticipated solo recital.
PROGRAM NOTES + TEXTS
The Ascendant (2013/2016)
Wally Gunn (b. 1971)
Texts by Maria Zaikowski
This group of songs is named after a collection of poetry by contemporary Australian poet Maria Zajkowski’s, and it is from this collection that all the text is drawn. I was attracted to Maria’s poetry because I found it so striking. Her work is spare, detached, taut with restraint, but spiked with devastating releases of feeling which can make your stomach drop, as if you are suddenly in free fall. And the poems stay with you; they have a way of getting under your skin and leaving you unsettled, haunted. With Zajkowski’s very generous permission, I have set six of her poems as songs for eight voices and percussion, especially for Roomful of Teeth.
The beginning and
by the last tree in the last summer
on the hill where the last sun falls
on the things that at last mean
we are finally unwound
from the hollow arrow
around which we have spun
our ignorant lives
we leave the first last
to wait inside the darkness
where the black snow falls
like the last bird
The fence is gone
The fence is gone,
we are starting to see
our nudity through the branches,
the pumping berries
pinned to our hearts,
I’ve forgotten if you are me
or I’m you.
We switched bags somewhere.
I have to rummage through
the palings in the yard
for the knothole that used to
show me how to see the world.
I can’t frame you in it now
or detect from these piles
of decrepit fence what was
so important that for so long
it needed to be kept in.
Through the night wave
a hand becomes every hand
a hole becomes a home
a place to forget
the ascendant has left
a face in the dark
is what it faces
the glass forest
in all of your lives
the rope around
day and night
into death I am
repeating the unsayable
What we began
when we began we began
I sent myself back but
we never did look into that cloud
there is too much desire to forget
what a waste we can and can’t be
tonight apart looks like
what won’t be itself in the light
Are we death
are we death now
can we hope at last
that this blue morning has become us
finally is there nothing to believe
coming after us
placing its steps in ours through the dew
free of the urging heart
free of the curse of hair and eyes
are we at last on the mountain
we have so long been under
the tunnel that was a song
is it over
the irritability of being ourselves
the plain fact of being dumb
are we at last over it
can we now be final
final like memory
final like stars
final like mornings
all over again
Every day, surviving death,
we send out our horses.
They don’t come back.
Here the dry river’s a place not to camp,
the night a place not to be.
An army gathers rattling its pans,
thinking of home,
an army that will turn your head
to a fire in the sand where those
who’ve survived this wait out of time
in the dust and the gold,
with the horse you thought was gone
Vesper Sparrow (2012)
Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980)
Text by Farnoosh Fathi
Vesper Sparrow was written for Roomful of Teeth at their 2012 residency at MASS MoCA. The text comes from Farnoosh Fathi’s poem “Home State,” from her recent book Great Guns. The piece is an eclectic amalgamation of imaginary birdsong and my own interpretation of Sardinian overtone singing. In this piece 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.
What will come so soon
To my golden door
When asleep from all sides
Asleep in the glass pajamas of man
bits torn from words (2019)
Peter Shin (b. 1991)
Movement IV. I’m happy (reprise)
I can spend hours overthinking the right decisions for the simplest tasks. I dread being alone in social settings. I get nervous ordering a coffee in Koreatown in fear of my limited language capacity being exposed by the barista.
The Korean language I first learned quickly dissipated with my immersion in my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri and I have been reconciling with my dual Korean American identity ever since. Meditating on the 14 single consonants of the Korean alphabet, this piece reflects my daily practice of the language I desire to speak again, and also serves as a reminder to dispute my day-to-day irrational anxieties. If it doesn’t go perfectly, if I am alone in a crowd, if my Korean gets exposed, how bad would it be?
bits torn from words was commissioned for the 2018/2019 ACF CONNECT, a program of the American Composers Forum.
The Isle (2016)
Caroline Shaw (b. 1982)
The Isle begins with a cloud of murmuring voices—a musical imagining of something hinted at in Shakespeare’s stage directions in The Tempest. The calls for “a burden, dispersedly” and “solemn music” suggest an off-stage refrain and/or perhaps something even more otherworldly. In Shakespearean Metaphysics, Michael Witmore writes: “Like the island itself, which seems to be the ultimate environment in which the play’s action takes place, music is a medium that flows from, within, and around that imaginary place into the ambient space of performance proper. If some of the courtiers from Naples and Milan are lulled to sleep by the island’s ‘solemn music,’ the audience can hear this music in a way that it cannot feel the hardness of the boards that the sleeping players lie on.” In taking cues from this reading of the play, I’ve constructed my own musical reading of the island of The Tempest. Three monologues, by Ariel, Caliban, and Prospero, are set in three distinct ways. Ariel’s initial song of welcome appears, for the most part, homophonically, although its break from the quasi-robotic delivery (into the “burden, dispersedly”) points to the character’s vaporous and ethereal nature. Caliban’s famous description of the island as “full of noises” finds its home in a distraught and lonely monodic song, ornamented and driven by extraneous sounds. Prospero’s evocation of the various features and inhabitants of the island (from the final act) breaks apart into spoken voices that eventually dissolve into the wordless voices of the beginning, mirroring his pledge to throw his book of spells into the sea (and possibly to return to the island’s pre-lingual state). The harmonic material of the beginning and the end of the piece (the murmuring voices) is a 24-chord progression that includes all major and minor triads of the Western 12-note system (for fun). As Prospero says: “But this rough magic I here abjure, and when I have required some heavenly music, which even now I do, to work mine end upon their senses that this airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, bury it certain fathoms in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book.” (Solemn music)
Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtsied when you have, and kissed
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here, and there, and
sweet sprites bear
[Burden dispersedly, within]
Hark, hark, bow wow: the watchdogs bark,
[Burden dispersedly, within]
Hark, hark, I hear, the strain of
Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange:
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell.
[Burden: ding dong.]
Hark now I hear them, ding dong bell.
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give
delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then,
The clouds methought would open,
and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
You elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes,
And you that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you
Is to make midnight mushrumps, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though you be, I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the
And ’twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs
The pine and cedar; graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and
let ’em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
Judd Greenstein (b. 1979)
AEIOU was written at MASS MoCA in the summer of 2009, during the first-ever assemblage of Roomful of Teeth. I came up for the second week of their two-week residency, not knowing what the group was capable of doing—a forgivable sin since the group itself was just beginning to learn their own abilities and capacities. With me, I brought some sketches that I felt could be adapted to whatever sounds I heard the singers produce; these were études of sorts, studies in rhythm and harmony that left a lot of room for different sounds in different places. Once I heard what the group was able to do, I adapted some of these with their varied techniques in mind, creating fully-formed pieces that combined my sketches with the sounds of the ensemble. AEIOU uses the five basic vowel sounds, in their Spanish configuration, as an ordered set, a “text” of sorts that structures the forward progress of the work, while the sonic landscape is a tapestry of interwoven yodels, throat singing, and straight-tone clarity. It’s an extremely challenging work and could only be performed by the singers of this incredible ensemble, to whom I give my deepest thanks.