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Roomful of teeth performs student compositions

Roomful of Teeth, the vocal ensemble performing this Sunday. Photo contributed.

This year’s winner of the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance Grammy award, Roomful of Teeth, an eight-voice vocal ensemble, will perform the original compositions of students from the multimedia arts seminar on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Sebring-Lewis Hall.

The seminar students have been working on this project with Roomful of Teeth since February. The vocalists privately provided short videos demonstrating the range and unique abilities of each of their voices, and additionally sent scores of the group’s own original music for the students to study notation of special techniques. On their website, the group describes themselves as “a vocal project dedicated to mining the expressive potential of the human voice.” According to John Rommereim, Music, their abilities span an impressive range of styles such as opera, jazz and pop, but they also have the unique skills to produce a nasal-tone sound that originates in the Baltics, as well as Tuvan and Innuit throat singing and overtone singing.

“It was so remarkable to see how versatile they are,” Rommereim said. “It’s a really spectacular array of techniques they are able to display.”

As with the seminar’s last project—a site-specific installation tour across campus mentored by visiting artist Scott Hocking—students were put into groups of three or more with fiction writing, visual art and composition all represented. When creating his group’s composition, “Blurred Drums,” Dan Ehrlich ’14 found Roomful of Teeth’s abilities almost daunting. However, composing for a distinctly talented group provided him with valuable tools, as well as confidence in the execution of his work.

“This ensemble we’re working with is a supergroup, and the possibility to do anything with them was sort of overwhelming.” Ehrlich said. “They have very clear and distinct vowel sounds, and they use the International Phonetic Alphabet to notate those, so you know that when you write ‘ah,’ it is going to be an ‘ah’ that sounds uniform across the group.”

The prompt given for this project was to produce a piece centered around the theme of the body, although it was not mandated that students commit to this idea.

“As it evolves, that aspect wasn’t always brought to the fore, but it was natural with this project to talk about the body because these performers have nothing but their bodies,” Rommereim said.

Ananda Guneratne ’14 and his collaborators created a piece called “Stare Back,” which works with the idea of palindromes and reflections. The text of the song is a palindromic poem, with the first line the same as the last line and so forth, and the structure of the music, as well as the associated art object, similarly works with mirroring forms.

The artists of the seminar contributed to their projects an object associated with their group’s composition. There will be 150 boxes of these 15 objects given to audience members on a first-to-arrive, first-to-receive basis. Doors for the performance open at 1:30 p.m.

The writers whose group’s composition does not include text have written pieces of related micro-fiction, which will be published in the performance’s program. However, there was often collaborative work between group members on all aspects of the project. Ehrlich’s composition first started with artist Chainky Reindorf ’14 listening to drum music from Ghana and writing phonetic sounds to represent the sounds of different drums.

“The piece is exploring ideas of rhythm and drumming … and how [like drumming] singing is an act of coming together,” Ehrlich said. “But more so it is reflective of this experience of when you hear a drum from far away and it loses its clarity but you can tell there is rhythm happening.”

The creative process eventually led to very innovative uses of vocal sound.

“I made up this technique called blurring, where the singers use their voices to create that effect of losing distinction,” Ehrlich said. “I have [also] asked them to do this synchronized pitch bend like on a keyboard with a pitch bend wheel.”

Rommereim expressed his gratitude toward Roomful of Teeth for the opportunity that they are providing to Grinnell students of the arts.

“They are helping to bring about a sort of revolution in vocal performance—taking the a capella ensemble and opening it up to world influences and providing this opportunity to young people across the country to write music for them,” Rommereim said. “I can’t think of anything more generous and wonderful.”

This project is the second of three major projects for the seminar. The third, a video-based creation, will be displayed on Monday, May 5. According to Rommereim, this semester has provided growth and learning for everyone involved.

Roomful of Teeth, the vocal ensemble performing this Sunday. Photo contributed.
Roomful of Teeth, the vocal ensemble performing this Sunday. Photo contributed.

“It has been an intense experience. We have learned some things about how best to organize this kind of thing—it’s pretty complicated to manage the three courses and make sure they are interwoven successfully,” Rommereim said. “One of the best parts about it is how we learn the way in which the other disciplines think. It can really enrich your practice of your own art.”

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