In the beginning, there was the Voice - the human voice. No, this column is not about the Book of Genesis. Bear with me and you’ll see where I’m headed.
The genesis of classical music in Western Europe began almost 1500 years ago, when Pope Gregory I ordered monks to prayerfully intone "Gregorian" chant eight times daily. Using a primitive form of written musical sign language, and studiously learned within the "Schola Cantorum" in monasteries, music in the early medieval Church was used primarily to celebrate the Mass. It embellished and heightened the spirituality of the holy text by adding its unique aural mysteries to worship.
Religious solo vocal and choral music, allied with pre-Common Era religious texts is even older, going back to cantorial singing in the ancient synagogue. Followers of King David composed the Psalms in his name to be sung; the same holds true for King Solomon’s "Song of Songs."
In essence, the human voice is the most basic and direct conduit to tracking the history of classical music - much more so than instrumental music. The voice is universal: everybody has one, and we all sing, don’t we?
A millennium and a half of gradual change brought about a trajectory from solo chant to the development of harmony; from monastic singing to the extended vocal range and expressivity of men and women singing together in mixed choruses; from the chorales and cantatas of Bach to the oratorios of Handel ("Messiah") and the masses, passions and requiems of Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt, Brahms, Verdi, Janacek and Faure - all the way to Krzysztof Penderecki, John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov and David Lang in our time.
The zigzag move away from the Church had already begun with the development of opera, around 1600, and continued, with the almost complete secularization of vocal music into new areas of expression and interpretation outside the religious and art music canon of Western Europe.
Fast forward to today, where we live in an exploding universe of vocally produced sounds and styles: folk and ethnic singing, pop, jazz, rock, Broadway, rap/hip-hop and everything else.
As an example of the trend towards ubiquity, in the innovative vocal ensemble "Roomful of Teeth," directed by conductor Brad Wells, the talents of eight gifted singers and a stable of young composers have come together to learn many new and exotic modes of vocal performance, and to dedicate their superlative talents to champion them in performances for their growing corps of adventurous audiences.
In an informal interview last week at Tunnel City Coffee on Spring Street in Williamstown, Wells shared his thoughts with me about "Roomful of Teeth."
S.D. "How did you begin to explore the possibility of founding a new choral group, with the conception of exploring alternative methods of singing, and what are some of the sources of these new vocal techniques you’ve absorbed?"
B.W. "I posted a video four years ago describing the project in detail to see who was interested in new music for the voice. In preparation, I explored the repertoire for extended vocal techniques and found lots of sources for creating emotional music using new colors of sound. For example, Bulgarian women’s choruses singing folk music that uses sound effects within the melodies. These effects are deeper than vocalized folk music, as composed, say, by Bela Bartok.
For generations, Eastern European singers use the ‘gears’ within their voice to create non-Western sounds, such as yodeling, belting, Tuvan and Inuit-throat singing, where the voice can actually access a second overtone note, Korean p’ansori and Georgian (the former Soviet Union) singing and others. We’re simultaneously connected to the classical tradition because all our singers are classically trained; but we’re focused on learning and performing music that is outside the classical tradition. I’d call what we do ‘pan-poly-stylistic.’"
S.D. "All the 13 pieces on your just-released compact disc were commissioned and composed by young composers. Can you tell me something about that?"
B.W. "Most of the composers we’ve attracted and cultivated are in their 20s to 30s. All of them write variants of tonal music, so their music is accessible on its surface. I wanted it to draw listeners in - to be engaging from the first, rather than to be purely experimental. Over the past several summers, we’ve conducted non-traditional singing workshops at our residencies at Mass MoCA. We do this for the benefit of both the singers who want to learn these techniques, as well as for composers who want to learn how to write for them. You can’t learn these skills from a book - you have to listen to the singers, ask them questions and hear them rehearse. The composers pick up on these ideas quickly and turn them into compositions that incorporate what they’ve learned and heard. It’s really a true collaboration, and it’s amazing to see."
S.D. "Where are you performing these days and online, and what response has the group met with?"
B.W. "We have lots of ‘gigs,’ and we’re very popular with audiences.
This year, we’re performing at eight venues. Close at home, we’ll be at Wellesley College, Princeton University and others. And of course, we look forward to our upcoming residency again at MoCA. For a listing of our performances, check out our website at www.peristylium.org/roomfulofteeth. Plus, we have lots of YouTube videos up, so listeners can check us out. We’ve been fortunate to get great reviews for our music, and now, from our just-released CD, which is on the composer-run New Amsterdam CD label. Every one of the pieces on this CD has been a fruit of the residencies at MoCA."
Here’s a quickie review by New York City radio station WQXR’s:
Daniel Stephen Johnson: "Šthe arrival of their self-titled debut on New Amsterdam Records surpasses all hopes. This is an ensemble that can do anything: One second they sing with the smooth, flawless blend of a top-notch vocal jazz group, the next they happily exploit every "extended technique" their voice teachers ever warned them against.
They could sound equally at home in Renaissance motets, on American Idol or on an ethnomusicological field recording from Northern Asia."
S.D. "Clearly, in a very brief time you’ve made a tremendous impact in the vocal world and have garnered much success with audiences and critics. Where do you see "Roomful of Teeth" headed?"
B.W. "We hope that our audiences will be enthusiastic as we continue to grow and develop as an ensemble, and that people will remain open to the music on the CD and at our concerts. I feel they’ll be rewarded by the range of beauty and power of which the human voice is capable of achieving."
Hearing their new CD, I believe the hope he expressed is a modest understatement. I know I’ll be returning to listen again and again. The CD can be found at the group’s website and be purchased electronically via iTunes, or on Amazon or Arkiv music as a hard copy.
Johnson ends his review this way: "Let’s be clear: Roomful of Teeth, thanks to their peerless combination of virtuosity and versatility, are the future of vocal music. If there’s a composer alive who wouldn’t kill to write for them, play him or her this disc."
S.D. " What would Pope Gregory say? Sign me up!"