Eight voices sing in a way that’s exciting and new

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This unlikely named ensemble of eight singers provided an hour or so of music [that’s] uniquely their own. Photo: Peter Hislop.

Music / “Roomful of Teeth”, Street Theatre, March 4. Reviewed by GRAHAM McDONALD

ONE of the joys of reviewing live music is that every now and again I get to hear something excitingly new that makes me rethink the possibilities of music making. This unlikely named ensemble of eight singers provided an hour or so of music, which combines influences from both folk, jazz and classical singing, into something uniquely their own.

The eight singers are based in the USA and all classically trained. They sing without the artificiality of opera or art song performance, though I imagine they could if they wanted to. According to their biography, they get together for an annual residency working with singers from various traditions as well as composers. On stage they work with microphones, which allows control of dynamics and for quiet vocal effects to be heard. It is sound reinforcement rather than fully amplified.

The first half of the concert was four pieces by young American composer Caroline Shaw written for this ensemble. Her best known work is “Partita for 8 Voices”, which received the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2013. Three of the four movements were performed. This is complex, dense music that constantly changes in unexpected and marvellous ways. Equally as interesting was a newer work “Isle”, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and incorporates some of the text from the play into the music.

The second half of the concert was four different works. The first was a jazz and vocal inspired piece, which sounded a bit like Manhattan Transfer on steroids and was perhaps the least successful work of the evening. This was followed by a lengthy work by another young American composer Caleb Burhans, which mixed harmonic singing with repetitive vocal patterns in a lengthy piece inspired by an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The next piece was a shorter work for the four female singers based around yodelling, with soprano Estelli Gomez leading the way.

The penultimate work in the concert was by the group’s founder and musical director Brad Wells. Like much of the rest of their music, this had no words, just sounds. It was entrancing. In contrast the final piece was a song, sung quietly by the other soprano Martha Cluver. The melody hinted strongly at English or Irish folk song encompassing soaring and swirling vocal chords.

Roomful of Teeth are primarily in the country for the Adelaide Festival next week, but the Canberra International Music Festival grabbed them for this concert on the way through. Perhaps they will be back for next year’s CIMF. If they do return, they should not be missed. It would be fascinating to hear them acoustically in the Fitters Workshop. This music is hard to describe in words, but there are several videos on YouTube which will give some idea of what they do.

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