“The reading of the phad should begin not long after sunset. We have a long night ahead of us, and the flame of my voice only really starts to glow around midnight.”
In one of his latest studies on understanding ancient religious practices in modern India, William Dalrymple discusses the practical essence of Rajasthani epic poems. The resonance of this particular quotation ensues not only as a consequence of the delicious metaphor used by the speaker, but also because of the challenge it instigates: The Epic of Pabuji is performed in front of an extended colorful scroll, otherwise known as the phad, and is one of many poems that can take a member of the wandering bhopa caste hours, days, even weeks to sing in its entirety, often under the cover of a kejri tree after a light evening sag as the sun slowly disappears behind enraptured onlookers. There is something about oral tradition and expression — the intertwining of memory and physical capacities for release combined with a desire to tell the most fantastical tales — that is not only integral to spiritual celebration, but that typifies the promise of aptness in drawing huge crowds of people. Very little doubt is to be had in the capability of the human voice in these sacred sequences; vocal expressions are so mesmerizing that divine presence is said to run through the veins of bhopa in the throes of song. When a performer, or a pooled unit, is able to captivate the attention of its audience so tenaciously through the use of vocalization alone, it is truly a wonder to be told.
Brad Wells launched Roomful of Teeth in 2009. His objective was to provide further assurance that the mortal voice is not only the oldest instrument in human history, but that it also one of the most powerful and diverse. As a reputable composer, Wells has explored the contrasts that exist in traditional singing, which he believes to be a reflection of divergences in culture that permeate around the world. Through embracing an age where Bengali baul, Anishinaabe drum dance and Slovakian chamber pop can be accessed on a touchscreen device in rapid succession, Wells’ role as musical director included reflecting on audience participation shifts while building an ensemble that would cooperate in singing a daunting range of styles and compositions that draw on a panoply of global influences. This involved seeking the advice of musicians, composers, and artists from an assortment of backgrounds in addition to casting a classically trained and fully comprehensive octet capable of accomplishing such a thespian undertaking.
The consequential output is not so much a complete body of work, but an insight into concept progress thus far. Though it might appear an expansive canon on approach, this 75-minute masterpiece is merely a glimpse into what the group have been working on since their inception, from Kickstarter funding pitches to the various residencies and installations that ensued after 2009. The magnitude of this beast reads so rapturous on paper, it is difficult to fathom without bearing witness to the intensity of what lies within: Tuvan throat singing is meshed with gospel music and African pygmy yodeling, technocratic spoken word is compressed alongside periodic choral burst, while Eastern European belting is thrust into compositions by Missy Mazzoli, Caleb Burhans, and the unlikely Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. The ensuing maestros are as adventurous in the compositional escapades they embark upon as they are in projecting their voices, and what they have succeeded in achieving on their debut encapsulates the very nature of a cappella performance - from the heroic memory recall of Indian bhopas to obscure 1950s Korean folk tunes, their output is swept up in a menagerie of latitudes, approaches, and frequencies.
The enterprising character of this project is only exceeded by allied faculties in singing so unthinkably well. Creative direction is greatly shaped by an individual who does not sing with the group, which underlines artistic perseverance; each singer is willing to venture into territory uncharted for the sake of utilizing their vocal adroitness in creating something downright exceptional. This not only refers to how aesthetically pleasing the album is — though Jesse Lewis’ production measures are terrific — but the level of experimentation and unconventionality embodied here is tantamount to overpowering. When the bhopa indicates a glowing in his voice and the flame within, he alludes not only to the sunrise bringing an end to his recital, but also to a fire that dies out naturally with wear and exhaustion. In this instance, the leverage and vivacity that pour from such a young American ensemble is sincerely irrepressible, and despite the presence of an artistic director, their output remains completely untamed.
Listening to the album in its entirety is a test of endurance. Not because Roomful of Teeth are unable to hit notes, maintain stamina, or show signs of development outside of their inventive direction, but quite the opposite. The music is opulent and enthralling, incessant and forceful. It has the potential to seize and to completely overwhelm with its richness in influence and resolve; there is so much to take in that this release needs to be absorbed in fragments and sections as opposed to the elephantine chunk it substantiates. This imaginative congregation exceeds the severity of the most exasperating noise record one might care to think of, and yet it is achieved through organic instrumentation, through the use of vocalization and its natural capacities spread across a format, compelling to the hilt and totally worth exploring.
That intertwining of Alpine yodeling and Tuvan throat singing is one of the most invigorating tactics employed here. Akinisie Sivuarapik, a spectacular throat singer from Nunavik, was one of eight experts brought in by Wells to assist the group in achieving stylistic heights akin to native renditions of the traditions borrowed from. Sivuarapik’s contribution to development is outstanding; the oral techniques deployed here are as though they stem straight from the Inuit heartland. The sound is gruff and rugged, like a trapped bellow that bursts out of lungs wrapped in sandpaper, an immediate contrast to the soaring yelp of the Alpine yodel, which is such an acquired taste and one of the central reasons Roomful of Teeth is difficult to digest in a single sitting. “Cesca’s View” sees the yodel completely exorcised in a brilliant exemplification of pitch blending: the high-ended, powerful solos and the soft, contralto accompaniments that swim covertly underneath. Another astounding example of overtone singing comes on Garbus’ “Quizassa,” which commences with a twirling and rapturous chant à la Kapela ze Wsi Warszawa before the tone drops and deep resonances ensue, devastating pitbull snarls that curl and twist their way across the track, giving rise to some of the most eccentric vocal gymnastics on the album.
Despite so many cultural inspirations being drawn on through production, there is not a single piece here that compromises the groups’ ability in working together solidly as an outfit. The most superb example lies on “Sarabande,” which stands out as being a particular highlight; silken, wily gasps and hums are brilliantly executed and layered on top of one another before a virile choral burst ruptures the beautifully thin harmonies that set the piece in motion. The effect is utterly captivating, a mesmerizing insight into vocal chord capacity; if Wells was looking to exemplify the power of the voice as an ancient instrument, then this track surely embodies affirmative results from that hypothesis better than any other, for it sounds unequivocally spellbinding.
What Roomful of Teeth have achieved here constitutes a significant landmark in the director’s concept realization. It is a document that brings about all of the things he hoped to achieve in projecting these unique and distant styles through a collective unit. The creative aspirations of wonderfully diverse performers are put through their paces and set loose through a wild obstacle course featuring compositions from a most unlikely assortment of musicians and artists. What remains is an impulsive desire to find out which direction the singers would take if left to their own devices, or even if they were to experiment further in improvisational and chance techniques employed by the likes of Rajasthani bhopas. There is so much more to be heard from this group, after all; the octet are due to launch their upcoming tour in 2013 before starting their Wellsley residency in April of that year. Whatever reactions Roomful of Teeth invoke, these extraordinarily talented voices embody soaring flares, bonfires of potential in vocalization that are certain to ignite a lasting glow in experimental a cappella music that shows absolutely no sign of burning out.