Roomful of Teeth
Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, Durham
Saturday, April 30,

It’s always exciting to see Baldwin Auditorium full, especially when it’s full for a group playing two works written in the past decade. It helps, of course, that the New York-based vocal octet Roomful of Teeth counts the multitalented Greenville native Caroline Shaw as a member. And that they were singing her Partita, the piece that won her the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in music. Shaw was also quick to point out that her parents met not far from Baldwin and that her mother would often come in at night to sing in its cavernous space before renovation. But there was more to the show than just hometown buzz. They sang two major works, filling the space with a unique approach to the voice.

Partita remains Roomful of Teeth’s manifesto. Each of the four movements is a playful riff on baroque dance suite forms: Allemande, Sarabande, Courante, Passacaglia. More than any other piece for the group, it seems to encapsulate fully an exploratory spirit. Shaw uses the vast corpus of Roomful of Teeth sounds such that every one of them feels inevitable, none drawing attention to itself. (OK, the moment in the last movement where the group swoops out of a vocal growl into a massive open harmony totally draws attention to itself because it demonstrates how much sonic space is left unused in so much other vocal music…) This is clear, too, in the third movement’s exploding chorale, where Inuit and Tuvan throat singing intersect with an open-toned sound that evolves into a full-throated belt. Every little detail—every inhale and exhale, every chord that melts and reforms—has meaning. It is quite simply about the joy of having a voice.

In my conversation with Roomful of Teeth director Brad Wells, he mentioned that Shaw has continued to tinker with Partita as time has gone by in order to “keep the piece alive in a way that doesn’t sanctify the print over the sound, over the live performance.” I noticed little flashes of that here and there, where she seemed to dwell on an idea a little longer or flesh out a sound a more than on the recording. It added an extra spark. My only small problem was with the mix (the group is all amplified), occasionally overpowered by certain sounds. This was particularly true of the insane, booming low notes sung by Cameron Beauchamp and Dashon Burton; they often obscured the rest of the group. But that barely detracted from an otherwise stunning performance. Somehow this piece keeps revealing more and more every time I hear it.

After intermission, the group returned, joined by drummer Matthew McCaughan for Wally Gunn’s The Ascendant, a six-movement work of poems by Maria Zajkowski. Though the cycle ponders death and loss, a mix of the fall from Eden and the apocalypse, its music is vivid and alive, occasionally grim but never dreary. In contrast with Partita, The Ascendant makes only occasional use of extended techniques. He’s content with pure, ringing tones and bright, close harmonies. McCaughan’s drumming formed the backbone of the piece, framing and propelling each song in a subtle and inevitable way. His part was minimal but expressive.

The piece was written in two chunks a few years apart, and the difference between the sections is pretty clear. The three older songs, recorded on Roomful of Teeth’s Render, are more spare and stark in their arrangements, laser-focused on a particular mood or sound. The first song, “The Beginning And,” for instance, is built almost entirely around a sparse drum beat, a pinging Meredith Monk-esque hocket, and close harmonies that could be off of an album by the Free Design. The later songs take a more expansive approach. The fourth song, “What We Began,” is a full-out rocker with power chords in the chorus and an active drum part. The cycle ends with a perfectly matched diptych of songs, “Are We Death” and “Surviving Death,” the former new and the latter old. The former rages, and the latter is resigned. It’s a beautiful, devastating work, and I hope they record the full set soon.