Roomful of Teeth: Render
Roomful of Teeth's star has certainly risen since the audacious vocal ensemble issued its self-titled debut album in late 2012. Not only was the release the recipient of numerous well-deserved accolades (it was selected as the number two album in textura's 2012 year-end list, for example), the recording won the 2014 Grammy Award for ‘Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.' Adding to the group's success, ensemble member Caroline Shaw was awarded in 2013 the Pulitzer Prize in Music for Partita, one of the pieces featured on the release.
So how does one follow up such an accomplished debut? By delivering another set of superb vocal performances featuring works by esteemed figures such as Missy Mazzoli, William Brittelle, Wally Gunn, Brad Wells, Caleb Burhans, and Roomful of Teeth member Eric Dudley, many of whose names will be familiar to followers of adventurous modern composition. Render includes some of the same composers on the second album that appeared on the first and once again includes a multi-part work (Partita on the first, The Ascendant on the second), moves that suggest the group is continuing along the path laid out by the debut. But change for the sake of change makes little sense when a particular approach has not only reaped fulsome rewards but also still offers ample room for growth and exploration. Ultimately, no more compelling argument for Render is required than its content.
The fifty-six-minute collection shows that the virtuosic abilities of the nine-member outfit (artistic director Brad Wells, sopranos Esteli Gomez and Martha Cluver, altos Shaw and Virginia Warnken, tenor Dudley, baritone Avery Griffin, bass baritone Dashon Burton, and bass Cameron Beauchamp) have suffered no diminishment since the debut. In fact, some of the composers purposefully designed their pieces to be vehicles by which the incredible vocal range and techniques of the ensemble might be showcased.
The swoops with which Mazzoli's Vesper Sparrow begins reflects the composer's attempt to integrate birdsong into the group's wide range of expression. But in also working Mazzoli's personalized interpretation of Sardinian overtone singing into the composition, the piece extends far beyond one-dimensionality. Like the album in its entirety, the opener casts a wide net, with multiple vocal styles woven seamlessly into a ravishing fabric. The Ascendant, a three-part composition by Australian composer Gunn (and featuring words drawn from poetry by Maria Zajkowski), stands apart from the others in adding percussion playing by So Percussion member Jason Treuting to the ensemble's dense matrix of lead harmonies and background hocketing.
In contrast to Gunn's lyrics-based setting, Brittelle's High Done No Why To uses words for purely sound-related purposes in order to sidestep narrative-related issues. In doing so, Brittelle directs his focus towards synthesizing the group's varied vocal techniques into a single coherent whole, resulting in an astonishingly polyphonic vocal performance. Though Wells's Otherwise provides Burton with a fabulous solo spot, the setting is as much memorable for the performance of the group, especially when it adds belting and yodeling to its repertoire of vocal techniques.
As is often the case, some of the album's best pieces are the relatively quieter ones. Though brief, Dudley's ethereal Suonare, for instance, proves haunting, especially during those moments when the soprano's voice takes flight, while Wells's title track stirringly transcribes into musical form the metaphysical ideas of David Eagleman's story “Search,” which concerns the way in which one's physical body disperses itself into nature during the afterlife. The album's longest setting, the twelve-minute Beneath, comes from Burhans, whose superb Evensong release nabbed the number four slot in textura's 2013 year-end list. After opening in throat-singing mode, his haunting contribution to Render builds patiently in intensity and drama until its wordless phrases, hypnotically presented in a rhythmic lilt, culminate in fortissimo declamations before the intensity lessens for a particularly beautiful coda.
The individual pieces aside, this special album is notable for the way it showcases the incredible four-octaves-plus range of the group and the seeming ease with which Roomful of Teeth meets every vocal challenge thrown its way. In short, Render presents a veritable embarrassment of vocal riches that more than lives up to the promise of the group's stellar debut.