Roomful of Teeth to premiere new work at tonight’s concert

The show will feature pianist and composer Tigran Hamasyan and the Dartmouth College Glee Club

by Savannah Miller | 1/9/18 12:14am

by Bonica Ayala / The Dartmouth

Today, Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth will bring its unique sound to the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Founded in 2009, Roomful of Teeth is a group of eight singers who explore a variety of vocal techniques in their pieces, including  Persian classical singing, Tuvan throat singing and yodeling. 

Margaret Lawrence, director of programming at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, has been following the group for several years and is especially excited for them to visit and perform on campus.

“[Members of Roomful of Teeth have] been on the scene, really making a splash and really demonstrating that they are unlike any other vocal ensemble I’ve ever heard,” Lawrence said. “They only perform contemporary music, and much of that music is written for them and the reason for that is that they deliberately push themselves outside of the box vocally.”

In addition to its inimitability, Lawrence cited the Upper Valley’s love for music and voice as part of why she thought it particularly important the group visit the College.

“Another reason to bring them for us has to do with the really rich atmosphere that’s already here in the Upper Valley and definitely on the Dartmouth campus for vocal music,” Lawrence said.

What makes this visit by Roomful of Teeth especially relevant to the College is the concert’s inclusion of a composition by one of Dartmouth’s own professors. Richard Beaudoin is a music history and theory professor on campus, and his work “Superstition” will be performed by the ensemble during the concert.

When sketching “Superstition,” Beaudoin was inspired by a poem of the same name published in 1919 by Amy Lowell, a poet who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for her work in 1926.

“I was reading [Lowell’s] poetry, which is very varied, and when I got to that one I just stopped and thought, ‘That would be an extraordinary thing to sing,’” Beaudoin said.

The poem is nine lines about the narrator’s decision to fly a kite above the heads of everyday passersby: 

I have painted a picture of a ghost

Upon my kite,

And hung it on a tree.

Later, when I loose the string

And let it fly,

The people will cower

And hide their heads,

For fear of the God

Swimming in the clouds.

After reading the poem, Beaudoin said he found the simplicity and message of the piece intriguing and inspiring.

“This is how we become afraid of things,” Beaudoin said. “People fly these icons above our heads ... Sometimes you have to ask what’s behind them.”

The collaboration between Roomful of Teeth and Beaudoin is nothing new. In December 2016, the ensemble performed Beaudoin’s composition “Another woman of another kind” in New York City. Several months after the performance, the ensemble invited Beaudoin to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, where the group was in-residence and workshopping various pieces. Beaudoin brought his early sketches of “Superstition” with him on his visit, he said.

“I brought them the piece, and they sang it right on the spot,” Beaudoin said.

Artistic director and group member Brad Wells said that the ensemble was eager to work with Beaudoin again after performing his work in New York.

“[Beaudoin] is a brilliant thinker and composer as well as a good friend,” Wells wrote in an email statement. “We love performing his music.”

Another aspect of this performance that makes the concert such an important event is the premiere of “Ser Aravote,” a composition by renowned pianist Tigran Hamasyan commissioned by Dartmouth and Carnegie Hall. While the two institutions commissioned the piece together, the ensemble is visiting Dartmouth to perform it first. Hamasyan will also be in attendance at the concert and play the piano for the piece.

“We’re immensely grateful that Dartmouth is co-commissioning Tigran’s piece,” Wells wrote. “[Hamasyan] will join us on his piece — we can’t wait.”

In addition to “Superstition” and “Ser Aravote,” Roomful of Teeth will be performing pieces by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and tUnE-yArDs creator Merrill Garbus, as well as its classic piece “Partita for 8 Voices,” a composition written by group member Caroline Shaw that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013.

Roomful of Teeth will be joined by the Dartmouth College Glee Club on the composition by Garbus titled “Quizassa.” Lawrence considers this one of the many highlights of the performance. 

“It’s really rhythmic and hardy and robust and fun,” Lawrence said. “It’ll be a great way to close the evening.”

Members and others involved with the performance believe is the New Hampshire and Dartmouth debut could be both impactful and fascinating for students to experience. 

“The group is unlike any other vocal ensemble [audiences will] see,” Wells wrote. “We have a crazy wide range of sounds — colors, techniques, vocal gestures — that result in music that’s surprisingly emotionally charged.”

Beaudoin emphasized the beauty of the human voice as an instrument and noted Roomful of Teeth’s experience as a group and role in moving the vocal art form forward as reasons to attend the show. 

“There will be a time in music history in America where it will be [referred to as] the time when Roomful of Teeth was around,” Beaudoin said.