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Since its founding, Roomful of Teeth's members annually clear space on their schedules to gather at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to study various kinds of singing under the tutelage of masters. The range of compositions they draw upon, much of it by members of the group, embraces throat singing from the Inuit and Tuvan traditions and a host of other influences.
The program at DePauw, which inaugurated this seasons Green Guest Artist concert series, opened with William Brittelle's "Amid the Minotaurs." In its eight-minute course, overlaid with a nearly impenetrable text by the composer, the singers cover a dizzying spectrum of styles and techniques. Tone quality sweeps smoothly over pure and impure areas alike, settling for a while on a pop "belting" style as one of the altos crescendos with her colleagues on the words "there is no subtlety in death like a hurricane."
Brittelle's music is known in Indianapolis through his leadership of New Amsterdam Records, which last year formed a two-year alliance with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra that promises to bring composers of the "new classical" sort to local audiences.
In "Amid the Minotaurs," Brittelle's nonchalant appropriation of this and that may remind you of groups from the folk music revival, and perhaps also of any polished small vocal ensemble — from the Swingle Singers through the Hi-Los to the King's Singers. Brittelle's point is not to trumpet any particular influence, but to allow performers as adept as Roomful of Teeth to embody his expanded, integrated concept of writing for voices, expressed through a highly personal style.
Roomful of Teeth member Caroline Shaw uses Baroque forms to structure her freewheeling vocal aesthetic. With "Partita for Eight Voices," she became the youngest person ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. That honor boosted the profile of Roomful of Teeth, which at DePauw devoted the program's second half to Shaw's "Ritornello," a 28-minute work accompanied by an original film.
The film visually grounded the "ritornello" idea — a compact group of musical ideas to which an ensemble returns after episodes that lead away from the ritornello and then back to it — in images of a piece of paper seeming to fold and unfold, curl and uncurl itself. On a screen above the stage and the singers, images of New York City bridges — including closeups of cables and girders — accompanied the intervening episodes. There were also scribbles and Mondrian-like patterns that came together and dispersed.
The most exciting part of the work was when the ensemble shifted into microtonality as the imagery focused on steel cables crossed and turning. Then, with Shaw conducting as well as singing, Roomful of Teeth neatly launched into a series of rising phrases, getting louder and steadier before a concluding reminder of the beginning — a soft rhythmic pattern of chest-tapping by two of the men before a note had been sounded.
Other highlights of the concert included a new work by theater composer Rindi Eckert featuring the women only, characterized by a soprano's yodeling solo, and "Otherwise," a powerful piece for all eight of the tightly miked voices featuring a brilliant solo by bass-baritone Dashon Burton riding on top of the vocal splendor.