Roomful of Teeth is a US a cappella band founded in 2009 by the composer and conductor Brad Wells. Last night they were at the Fox Cabaret beginning a two-night run in Vancouver as part of a special co-presentation by Music on Main and the PuSh Festival. The eight-member ensemble, though clearly classically trained, employ vocal techniques that span the globe, from barber shop to yodelling to throat singing. Their range--stylistically and melodically--is astonishing, and hearing their harmonizations last night over the course of what amounted to an extended motet that was as polyglot as it was polyphonic was to submit to the sheer transportive pleasure of the human voice raised in song.
The group includes among its members Music on Main composer-in-residence Caroline Shaw, and her Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices was the first piece on the program. The 25-minute piece is divided into four sections that combine wordless melodies with spoken text (including traditional square dance calls) and various vocal effects, including rhythmic inhalations and exhalations of breath, whispers, and sighs. It is a work that makes one want to move, so infectious and novel is its orchestration of sounds. The performance by the group was absolutely thrilling.
After a short intermission, the group returned for a second program half that included works by a range of composers. All were stunning, but especially captivating to me were the last three pieces. On Judd Greenstein's Run Away alto Virginia Warnken sang the lead refrain in a way that sent chills down my body. Rinde Eckert's Cesca's View allowed soprano Estelí Gomez to cut loose with some powerhouse yodelling. And Wells's own Otherwise ends with a pure crystalline note held by the bass-baritone Dashon Burton for what seems like eternity. After rapturous applause, the group returned for an encore composed by the group's lone tenor, Eric Dudley. It was a quietly moving finale.