ROOMFUL of TEETH Program Notes

The following notes accompany the August 4, 2019 performance: Roomful of Teeth In Concert

Partita for 8 Voices (2009-11) 
Caroline Shaw (b. 1982)

Composed over three summers from 2009-2011, in collaboration with Roomful of Teeth during their residencies at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices was nominated for a GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music. It is the only Pulitzer awarded to an a cappella vocal work, and Shaw, a singer in the ensemble, is the youngest composer ever to have received the prize.

The score’s inscription reads: Partita is a simple piece. Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another.

Each movement takes a cue from the traditional baroque suite in initial meter and tone, but the familiar historic framework is soon stretched and broken, through “speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects” (Pulitzer jury citation). Roomful of Teeth’s utterly unique approach to singing and vocal timbre originally helped to inspire and shape the work during its creation, and the ensemble continues to refine and reconsider the colors and small details with every performance. Allemande opens with the organized chaos of square dance calls overlapping with technical wall drawing directions of the artist Sol LeWitt, suddenly congealing into a bright, angular tune that never keeps its feet on the ground for very long. There are allusions to the movement’s intended simulation of motion and of space in the short phrases of text throughout, which are sometimes sung and sometimes embedded as spoken texture. Sarabande’s quiet restraint in the beginning is punctured in the middle by an ecstatic, belted melody that resolves quietly at the end, followed soon after by the Inuit-inspired hocketed breaths of Courante. A wordless quotation of the American folk hymn “Shining Shore” appears at first as a musical non sequitur but later recombines with the rhythmic breaths as this longest movement is propelled to its final gasp. Passacaglia is a set of variations on a repeated chord progression, first experimenting simply with vowel timbre, then expanding into a fuller texture with the return of the Sol LeWitt text. At Passacaglia’s premiere in 2009, there was spontaneous applause and cheering at the explosive return of the D-major chord near the end—so just letting you know, feel free to holler or clap any time if you feel like it.

Coloring Book (2015)
Ted Hearne (b. 1982)

“They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate.”

—James Baldwin, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis” (1970)

Ted Hearne’s piece Coloring Book sets the words of three Black American writers of different generations—Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and Claudia Rankine. Hearne sets these texts, each addressing the idea of identity, in surprising and personal ways, using stylistic juxtaposition to explore the boundaries separating the authors’ conception of cultural identity from his own, and to better understand the differences between them.

Coloring Book was commissioned with generous support from The Barlow Endowment for Music Composition.

Tonight, two of the five movements shall be performed.


IV. Letter to my father

Him. He
He has only heard what I
I felt. He
He is far away but I
I see him.
Him but dimly across the ocean and the continent that have fallen between us.
Us. He
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.
Music. The great blobs of purple and red emotion have not touched him.
He is so pale with his whiteness then and I
I am so colored.

Zora Neale Hurston
from “How it feels to be colored me” (1928)

V. Your people

Your self and your people are indistinguishable from each other,
really, in spite of the quarrels you may have,
and your people are all people.

James Baldwin
from an interview with James Elgrably in
The Paris Review (1984)

Psychedelics (2017)
William Britelle (b. 1976)

 Psychedelics is, in part, an effort to integrate the many vocal techniques and effects mastered by Roomful of Teeth into one (semi-)coherent whole. The term psychedelic here is meant to evoke a plethora of bright and vivid (almost surreal) colors blended and twisted in strange, otherworldly ways. My aim was to create a piece that aggressively challenged the notion of what a long-form choral piece can be––both in terms of its delivery and subject matter. I think the human voice is a magically flexible tool––so much more so than an instrument you hold or blow into. The possibilities are in a sense limitless, especially when working with performers like Roomful of Teeth with sense of adventure and an exceedingly high level of technique.

In terms of actual subject matter, the piece is an attempt, albeit an abstract one, to reckon with a psychological breakdown that I experienced as a young adult, and to parallel that with the seemingly apocalyptic strains of our current collective state––my objective being to humanize and somehow come to terms with the inevitability and, ultimately, healing nature of destruction. In this sense, the term “psychedelic” refers more to the ability to observe startling and strange occurrences with a fluid, dreamlike sense of attachment. I have begun to believe the human apocalypse will happen slowly, incrementally, both in our shared physical world and our individual spiritual worlds, and that apocalypses, similarly to wildfires in the west, are part of a natural process, a shedding of skin, and house within them beauty in the guise of elegy. By fully taking notice of our fate as our culture sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss and we continue to pollute and destroy our world, I think we can take possession of the resulting sadness and heartbreak, we can own the process, and come to accept and embrace our role in it. As I’ve heard said, “Things only reveal themselves in passing.”

Lyrically, my aim was collage rather than traditional narrative––a fabric of text that reflects the growing chaos of stimuli in our society interrupted by moments of clarity and longing. There are a number of cultural reference points, but they are meant to form a swarm of images, not a literal, linear narrative.

William Britelle


I. Deep Blue (You Beat Me)

Beneath the pandemonium twilight
lay pink poison thoughts with the hashtag #odeath.

Carried in on a white horse, shown on the zoom cam, rain on the dome.
And in the corridor: bastions of light.

Deep Blue, you beat me.
All the things I’ve gathered are stuck outside the door.

Nothing is a dream in this world, nothing is a dream.

There’s a crack in the dome where the light comes in.

We don’t stand a chance…

II. I am the Watchtower

I am the watchtower I watch for dogs…

I am the Yeti speaking in tones.
Xochietl just ate 13 blue popsicles. She is just a runaway.
Oh Labyrinth, she’s the pride of the Aztecs!

The Yeti is a poltergeist.

I am the watchtower I watch for dogs…

III. My Apothecary Light

I drive into the blackness like in Philip K Dick
and dream the dreams of Mark Sandman
and wear the jeans of Jean Valjean…

Death is a strange bird and I am a Pontiac.
I’ve been branded by seagulls and now you’ve been warned.

There was snow on the beach but it wasn’t love.
Endless desire is the only cure for pain.

Crush Reebok!

In my apothecary light…

A single star casts blame on the earth, its light begs karmic reprimand.
The final Fear is psychedelic like a bird in a plane stray from the flock

Sugarbits, transmogrify me!

So everything is quiet, everything is clean.

The carnage has clear intentions

To all who have been blinded in one eye,

I present to you: the Desert!

Otherwise (2012)
Brad Wells (b. 1961)
Otherwise features Sardinian cantu a tenore––inspired singing, belting, and some yodeling all in a melange to highlight a baritone in full bel canto glory. The title comes from one of my favorite Jane Kenyon poems but uses no text, only non-sense syllables as lyrics. It’s a celebratory little vocalise for Roomful of Teeth.

—Brad Wells

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