Contemporary vocal group Roomful of Teeth heads to Athens

When Jeffrey Martin, director of the University of Georgia Performing Arts Center in Athens, started crafting his maiden performing arts season, he searched for ensembles that played “music that expands upon what we understand music to be.”

Martin tried to fill the schedule, his first full season since arriving at UGA after a decade programming arts events at Brigham Young University in Utah, with musicians, dancers and other artists that crisscrossed the classical, world and pop music disciplines. So he invited Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Silk Road Ensemble alongside the Chinese Acrobats of Hebei and the Reduced Shakespeare Company. But for the first musical performance of 2019, he looked to a cappella.

The eight-person group Roomful of Teeth, which creates unaccompanied vocal music that blurs genre lines, will perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall. Firmly rooted in the classical aesthetic, the ensemble performs commissioned compositions that use techniques from across the globe — everything from Inuit throat singing to yodeling and Hindustani vocalizations.

“It’s a group that I wanted to bring here as soon as I could just because they’re so fascinating,” Martin said. “Athens is really a music town, and I just felt like people could appreciate something that’s a little bit different from what we’ve previously done.”

During the Athens concert, Roomful of Teeth will perform a collection of previously recorded work from 2015’s “Render” and the ensemble’s 2012 eponymous debut album.

Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Partita for 8 Voices” opens the concert. The four movement work, which spans about 25 minutes, incorporates many of the non-Western vocal methods that have become the ensemble’s trademark. In the “Sarabande” movement, Shaw, who sings alto in the group, wrote voices that begin at a whisper, sliding up in volume and pitch to focus on a single chord – akin to adjusting the volume and tuning knobs on an old radio simultaneously. The opening movement includes a compelling cacophony of spoken square dance instructions that coalesces into wordless, spine-tinglingly astringent beauty.

The Athens performance also includes “Vesper Sparrow” by Missy Mazzoli, and William Brittelle’s “High Done No Why To.” Both pieces, as well as many of the original works Roomful of Teeth performs, were written in a somewhat unusual fashion. In the early days of the band, it would commission composers to join them at a summer residency while they learned new vocal techniques. During these practice sessions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass., the composers were given very little in terms of requirements; they were simply there to hear the band learn a new technique and write whatever struck their fancy.

Baritone Avery Griffin, who has been with the group since its founding in 2009, knows this commissioning relationship is far from the standard fare, but said the composers embraced it.

“I think the idea of just being around other people as they’re essentially playing and being a fly on the wall and gleaning ideas from that was an interesting thing for sure,” he said. “Whatever came out of their interest — the sounds that they found cool or unique — that’s kind of what they wrote.”

These composition sessions resulted in uniquely tailored songs for the group — pieces specifically written for their vocal strengths. Griffin said that the songs born from the workshop at Mass MOCA, and recent compositions commissioned via more traditional means, were not meant to be performed by other a cappella ensembles. If other performers programmed the songs, they’d be functioning as a cover band, in a sense, of Roomful of Teeth.

“We skew toward an image of ourselves more in the vein of a band or more of a conventional ensemble in terms of the pop music scene or even jazz music,” Griffin said. “There is music that’s been written for us that’s not really sufficiently Roomful of Teeth-esque that other ensembles can pick it up and do quite easily, but I think we like the idea of it being music that only the group does.”

Like many contemporary classical ensembles, Martin said, the group works hard to relate to its audiences. The ensemble will hold a “Show and Tell” workshop in the afternoon before the main performance, as well as a pre-concert talk.

“They’re accessible, and they want to talk about their work and want people to feel like they can have as many entry points into it as possible,” Martin said.

In Atlanta, universities that program touring acts check up on the others’ plans to make sure, if possible, to program on top of one another. Martin says his obvious competitors in the area are venues that wouldn’t necessarily program the same musical acts. In the fall, however, he has to watch out for one nonmusical powerhouse.

“I factor in the football schedule — that’s my No. 1 consideration,” he said.

The draw for performances at UGA is typically Athens and the surrounding area, though Martin said the group might attract some listeners from Atlanta or elsewhere. Perhaps these music lovers would be attracted by the unusual ensemble name, he said, or they might simply want to try something new.

“It’s definitely not a ‘Rachmaninoff/Tchaikovsky-famous-superstar’ classical music program,” he said. “It is kind of a program for the adventurous.”


Roomful of Teeth

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16. $25-$45. Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall, University of Georgia, 230 River Road, Athens.

Pre-concert talk. 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16. Free. Ramsey Concert Hall, University of Georgia, 230 River Road, Athens.

“Show and Tell” workshop with the artists. 1:25 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16. Free. Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall.