LIVE REVIEW: Roomful of Teeth, Ted Hearne Sparkle at National Sawdust for ACO's SONiC Festival

By Ian Holubiak on Oct 22, 2015 04:47 AM EDT

Here in the dwindling nights of the American Composers Orchestra's aptly titled showcase SONiC: Sounds of a New Century, composers aged 40 and under are filing out of venues in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, all of which have played safe harbor to their thoroughly modern machinations. Saturday night's performance at National Sawdust, care of the unflappable vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, duly certified festival, venue and ensemble together as one hell of a discovery.

Set in the sandbox of Williamsburg's avant-garde scene, Nat'l Sawdust has a unique mission. The place caters to the talent, indeed, offering a room that's able to tune out the sounds of the street, as well as the patrons mulling about inside. And that's due, in part, to its re-designers: Bureau V Architects and Arup Theatrical Consultants. As I've pointed out a priori, the acoustics are expressly designed for performance--particularly ones unplugged.

And for a vocal band the likes of Grammy-winning RoT, there's really no better spot more conducive to their own particular, peculiar needs.

Methinks the Village Voice's Lindsey Rhoades best described the joint's mise en scène: "...a modernized version of an eighteenth century chamber hall where almost anything is possible, so long as someone is creative enough to come up with a concept befitting the space "

To wit, if it's creativity and concept you're after, in spades, one need look no further homeward than Ted Hearne's Coloring Book. An expertly curated appropriation of texts by African-American writers, as on the printed page, Zora Neale Hurston's words proved the most musical in the score. Overall, though, it's nigh on impossible for me to hear this prickly, beguiling work in reprise sans Roomful. Alas, while that may mean Hearne hears less performances of this piece proper (even if he is conducting), I mean it more as a mark on just how well, precisely how idiomatic he writes for this vocal group en masse.

Whereas Hearne's brand of democratic dissonance was sewn into the fabric of Coloring Book, actually, it was William Britelle's a bit less heady High Done No Why To that was perhaps the more polished number on the bill. The Times' Vivien Schweitzer referenced Britelle's "colorful polyphony" here, and while it can certainly sound busy, in this performance at least, Roomful channeled a sort of contrapuntal otherworldliness, with detailed enough lines, but refracted via soft-focus smear. RoT's eight voxers--who are well-versed in belting out, yodeling forth and can even conjure up convincing Inuit throat song--sung through the strident measures that, once again, made for an alarmingly rich ensemble texture.

And, no, I'm not just saying that because Classicalite premiered the music video.

Of course, there were other works worth mentioning. Caleb Burhans' Beneath played nicely with Room in the room, though more subtle dynamic contrasts would've better defined his pitch space. Anna Clyne's Pocket Book VIII and Eric Dudley's Suonare/to Sound went for curious timbres, too, with the former's whispered Shakespeare sonnet making for some piquant layering. Vesper Sparrow, a lovely work from Missy Mazzoli that I'd like to hear live at least a few more times, found RoT's higher tessituras ably rehearsed and nuanced.

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TagsRoomful of Teeth, National Sawdust, SONiC festival, William Britelle, Zora Neale Hurston, Ted Hearne, American Composers Orchestra, Anna Clyne, Missy Mazzoli, REVIEW

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