To use the word “unusual” to describe the performance February 19th, at the Merkin Concert Hall in NYC, is an understatement. As part of the Ecstatic Music Festival taking place from Jan-March 2011 in NYC, Roomful Of Teeth performed songs composed by William Brittelle, Caleb Burhans, and Merrill Garbus of tUnE-YaRdS. To try and explain the experience, one must understand Roomful Of Teeth. The 8-person group (four men, four women) are a vocal ensemble that, according to their website, “studies and incorporates non-classical vocal practices, combines them with western styles, and develops new compositions using the fullest possible range of vocal techniques.”

Merkin Concert Hall
New York, NY
2011 – 02/19

Featuring William Brittelle, Caleb Burhans, Merrill Garbus

Initially, my reaction to the vocal techniques was bizarrely negative. Everything sounded off to me; I almost got up and left after the second song, which in my mind dragged on and on. I just couldn’t get used to how it sounded, and it reminded me of college acapella groups, and not in a good way. I’m glad that I waited it out though, because it was well worth it once I caught on to what was happening.

Everything really clicked for me when Roomful Of Teeth performed their first Merrill Garbus-composed song, “Ansa Ya.” It was a bit confusing because the set list was out of order (which Brad Wells, founder and director warned us about before the show started). It seemed like Roomful Of Teeth really hit their stride with this one. Garbus told the crowd when she was brought on stage for the second set that her goal has always been to study and perfect vocal techniques from around the world, and that she “internally understands other cultures.” This really links up with what Roomful Of Teeth are all about, and the two proved that they were a match made in heaven.

The composers were all brought on stage for the second set to perform, and this was a big highlight for me. The other two composers had two very different musical styles. Caleb Burhans had a more serious tone, especially with the mournful, moving song about his grandmother “Why Must You Leave Me Now, When You’re So Far Away?.” William Brittelle is a well-known musician in his own right, who has played with numerous bands — most notably The Blondes — before a tragic vocal injury ended his singing career. His compositions were entertaining and well thought out. A particular favorite was “Done No Why Say Do.” The group also performed a poem that he composed, called “Amid the Minotaurs,” and made it into a song.

Overall, my favorite parts of the performance were the Garbus songs. Her music is so vibrant, and it was easy to see that Roomful Of Teeth were having fun with the songs. There was some dancing on stage, and Garbus herself played a few background instruments and joined them for a female only song in the beginning of the second set. There was the most group interaction with her songs too; the mood was always light, and everyone was smiling at each other. The more group interaction, I observed, the more the audience got excited. This is (obviously) an important feature of a seated venue — to draw listeners in and relate them to what the music is about — especially in this case, where all they used were voices and there wasn’t much going on visually. That’s what I found lacking in the beginning, and what I noticed overall, that it took time to get used to the performance. This is not a positive, but it is definitely something that is able to be improved and reflected upon, if Roomful Of Teeth would like to draw in a larger, wider range of listeners and fans.

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