Roomful of Teeth: A Hauntingly Spectacular Collaboration

Roomful of Teeth, a vocal ensemble founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, perform with UConn Choir, UConn Wind Ensembles and UConn Orchestra and Von Der Mehden Recital Hall on Wednesday night. (Zhelun Lang/The Daily Campus)

Choirs have an archaic sort of image in this day and age. Most mental pictures of voice ensembles conjure either a capella groups, ill-tuned school chorus recitals or Latin-chanting church sectionals. Roomful of Teeth, however, takes these perceptions and turns them on their heads.

Performing at the von der Mehden Recital Hall Wednesday night, the voice ensemble created a haunting, yet energizing vibe, using vocal ranges and chords in a way that would have both the cast of “Glee” and Mike Oldfield jealous.

The UConn Concert Choir, Wind Ensemble and Symphony performed with the group. The concert culminates nearly four months of collaborative work between UConn music students and the ensemble, as part of a Sackler Artists-in-Residency.  

Music professors, including Choral Department Head Jamie Spillane, Symphony Orchestra conductor Harvey Felder and composer Kenneth Fuchs helped organize the concert and direct the participating student groups.

“We are so grateful to all the ensembles,” said Roomful of Teeth founder Brett Wells. “We’ve never had a residency so multifaceted.”

Roomful of Teeth was founded in 2009, with the original goal being to “mine the expressive potential of the human voice.”

Using a wide variety of voice techniques from around the world, including yodeling, belting and Inuit throat singing, Roomful of Teeth commission accomplished composers to create new combinations and styles in choir performances.

The end product is both ethereal and unsettling. With military precision, the ensemble flawlessly blends the many styles of vocal expression from around the world.

Their first album, the eponymous “Roomful of Teeth” was released in 2012, and was nominated for three categories in the 2014 Grammy Awards. Their second album, “Render,” was released in April 2015.

In addition to the concert, an art display organized by art professor Kathryn Myers was open to attendees at the arena gallery, with paintings inspired by Roomful of Teeth. The artwork was projected into a screen behind the stage during the intermissions of the performance.

The concert opened Wednesday night with a captivating piece “Montmarte,” with the quiet dissonance of the vocals evolving into the energetic yet unnerving rise of the song, and a mix of throat-singing and African ululations.

The concert choir joined in for the mournful monody “Kalief Browder,” a piece inspired the tragic story of the wrongly imprisoned high schooler that committed suicide, due to the trauma of his time in jail and solitary confinement.

The vocals then turned to the more assonant songs “Suonare/To Sound,” and the final, triumphant chord “Quizassa.”

UConn choristers appreciated the opportunity to work with Roomful of Teeth.

“It’s so nice to be on stage with such a supremely talented group,” said Brian Stevens, second bass in the concert choir. “They feed off each other’s give and take. … It keeps the music organic and gives it immense energy.”

Rachel Feldman (second alto) agreed. “It’s really cool to explore new ways with the human voice.” she said, after she exited the stage.

After a brief intermission, the UConn Symphony Orchestra joined the group for several pieces. Though instrumental accompaniment is not usual for the ensemble, the UConn residency allowed for undergraduate composers to craft the backups.

The combination is something magical. The added strings create an entire new atmosphere and adds a powerful, yet plucky beat to already strong pieces such as “Survived Death” and “The Beginning And.”

The UConn Wind Ensemble, consisting of flutes, bassoons, French horns and others concluded the concert, with a four-piece movement titled “Partita,” with the instrumental accompaniment also written by UConn composers.

The music included an eclectic mix of Baroque and Western Square Dance, along with American folk hymn and Inuit inspired “hock breathing,” before ending on a triumphant note with the powerful “Passcalglia.”

Roomful of Teeth were highly enthusiastic to work with UConn students, in both the musical and visual medium.

“Everyone’s heart was open,” said the group’s bass-baritone Dashon Burton. “The creations in arrangements and artworks were so special. … It’s very touching.”

As for the audience, the music was a hit, with the concert ending on a standing ovations and cheers for the crowd.

“It’s an extraordinary performance,” said Ben Stanley, professor of art history at UConn. “It is some of the most interesting and refined use of voice. It’s just marvelous for this group to be with us.”


Marlese Lessing is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu.