sat 15/06/2024

Roomful of Teeth, Milton Court review - mellifluous minimalism with a mild manner | reviews, news & interviews

Roomful of Teeth, Milton Court review - mellifluous minimalism with a mild manner

Roomful of Teeth, Milton Court review - mellifluous minimalism with a mild manner

Skilful vocal stylings from America’s most eclectic choral band

Roomful of Teeth at Milton CourtMark Allan / Barbican

If there’s a better name for a vocal group than Roomful of Teeth I have yet to come across it. But if it conjures up images of brash, in-your-face showbiz the reality couldn’t be more different.

This hip Grammy-winning American ensemble bill themselves as a “band” and their pieces as “tunes” – although there are precious few conventional tunes in their repertoire – and present themselves in a low-key, un-histrionic manner, setting out to “mine the expressive potential of the human voice” through largely self-commissioned music.

At Milton Court on Saturday their repertoire included music by singing-member Caroline Shaw, whose Partita shot both her and the group to stardom in 2012. Other pieces were by Turkish-German producer-composer Alev Lenz, Native Hawaiian composer and sound artist Leilehua Lanzilotti and Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón. This gives a flavour of the group’s eclectic approach, but interestingly, given this diversity of background, a lot of the music sounds kind of the same. I wondered if they commission composers who already exhibit a “Roomful of Teeth sound” or whether commissioned composers just switch into “Roomful mode”?Composer and singer Caroline Shaw (second from right)Which is not a criticism: I like “Roomful mode”, and so, clearly did the sold-out audience there to hear them (who were as colourfully “alt” as the band themselves). But I could see it might annoy some people a little. The relaxed stage demeanour extends to casual clothing and standing with hands in pockets: I can hear an old teacher of mine hissing “Stand up straight!” But the standard of the singing was hard to fault, whether in the full-throated, brassy chordal style that is one of their trademarks, or the non-western singing styles the group have worked so hard to master (not without some accusations of cultural appropriation). The shout-out to the sound engineer Randall Squires was also well-earned: the singers are miked, and the sound production in the room an essential part of the experience.

Of the music itself, the first highlight was The Isle by Caroline Shaw (pictured above by Mark Allan), setting texts from The Tempest. This did a lot of Shaw-type things, in an enjoyable but not unfamiliar way. From the dispersed muttering of the start, to big consonant chords and even a Beach Boys take on “Full Fathom Five”. The best bit was probably the “Caliban” movement, its folky tune set amid growls, creaks and eructations. And at the end, the stillness of the final “Epilogue” hung in the air after the final chord.Roomful of Teeth sing 7 planets by Alev LenzStillness was also the watchword for Alev Lenz’s spacious 7 planets, which made up the entire second half (pictured above). In this, each of the planets of the solar system (like Holst, omitting Earth) had a meditation that reminded me of the drone music of LaMonte Young or the choral music of John Cage, or the rich vocal textures of Björk’s Medúlla. It was hypnotic, held together by tuning-forks, pitched to planet-related in-between notes, beaten with the insistent warmth of Buddhist temple gongs. Hocketing motifs floated here and there over unchanging bass pedal-notes, all accompanied by visual depictions of the planets on a big screen, which I found disappointingly literal. Composer Alev Lenz also sang an encore with the group, a piece she wrote for the Netflix series Black Mirror, a startlingly beautiful tapestry of overtone singing and generous reverb, with a haunting melody floated above.


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