roomful of teeth

Estelí Gomez & Roomful of Teeth in Oregon

Award-winning vocal artists mentor young Oregon composers and sing new music in Portland and Eugene


Last year, University of Oregon graduate student Daniel Daly submitted a vocal composition he had written for soprano Estelí Gomez, a visiting performer in the school’s innovative Vanguard Concert series for new and emerging artists. To his pleasant surprise, he found her earnest commitment to his work as a young composer an unexpected and rewarding experience.

“Estelí studied and interpreted my student work as conscientiously as she did the music of her high-profile engagements,” remembers Daly. “She embodied the text and performed every notated detail. Witnessing this commitment to my piece made me realize that if I am not attending rigorously to every feature of my music and shaping it to the utmost of my ability, I’m not working has hard as she is — and I’m the composer!”

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Estelí Gomez performs Asian Birds by Rebecca Larkin​ (conducting) Beall Hall (2014). Photo: Gary Ferrington.

Gomez, a star in the new music world by virtue of her work with the award winning Roomful of Teeth vocal ensemble and her solo career, has become well known for mentoring and collaborating with young composers and public performances of their work. She returns to the series early this month, and later with Roomful of Teeth, in a program of individual mentoring sessions and seminars on campus, and concludes her visit with concerts in Eugene and Portland. Featured artists in this series, which composer/educator Dr. Robert Kyr has directed since 1992, perform music created for them by students of the Oregon Composers Forum (OCF), either in readings or in public performances. “This unique feature of the University’s composition program offers young composers the opportunity to develop their art through creative interaction with performers of the highest caliber as an essential part of their education,” Kyr explains.

Gomez is returning for her fifth residency with the OCF. Kyr and his composition students consider her truly a member of the school’s artistic community, both as a performer and as a remarkable teacher and mentor who has inspired students to create, according to Kyr, “an entire repertoire of vocal chamber music — over 30 pieces for her as of 2016!” Gomez’s Eugene and Portland Vocal Music Today: Eight Premieres by UO Composers concerts will conclude her eight-day residency with the performance of work by students she has mentored, including Izabel Austin, Daniel Daly, Emily Korzeniewski, Rebecca Larkin, Tao Li, Martin Quiroga, Aidan Ramsay, and Ramsey Sadaka. Gomez will spend two one-hour sessions with each composer and musicians rehearsing and mentoring a work that she will then perform once in Eugene and again in Portland. Such intense student-artist experience is rare in music composition programs.

Roomful of Teeth

The young composers will also have a chance to work with Roomful of Teeth, of which Gomez is a member, during its visit to Eugene. The group’s one-day UO residency features a seminar reading/performance of six pieces composed for the ensemble by University students Alex Bean, Mark Cooney, Nathan Engelmann, Cara Haxo, Benjamin Penwell, and  Justin Ralls. The group will then end their day with a Vocal Soundscapes, New Journeys concert for the entire community. The ensemble comes to Eugene after a residency with performances at Portland’s Marylhurst University.

Founded in 2009, Roomful of Teeth explores the expressiveness of the human voice and vocal techniques not normally associated with classical music, including Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music and Persian classical singing. The a cappella octet performs with amplification, producing a robust tone that enhances their experimental use of sound.

Roomful of Teeth performs at Marylhurst University and the University of Oregon. Photo: Mark Shelby Perry.

Roomful of Teeth performs at Marylhurst University and the University of Oregon. Photo: Mark Shelby Perry.

Its debut album, Roomful of Teeth (2012) won the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance, and its second full-length recording, Render, has been nominated for a Grammy in the same category for 2016. (See also: Brett Campbell’s 2013 ArtsWatch interview with Brad Wells and Caroline Shaw, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her  Partita for 8 Voices, and Jeff Winslow’s ArtsWatch review of the octet’s successful Portland performance that year.)

Students working first with Gomez and later Roomful of Teeth have the opportunity to learn from some of the very finest award wining vocal artists in the world. “For a composer, nothing can compare with the actual first-person experience of collaborating directly with artists for whom one has created a new work,” Kyr notes, “especially when they are as accomplished as these amazing singers.” Gomez’s visit also gives Oregon listeners the chance to hear one of the country’s most exciting new music groups, as well as music by the next generation of Oregon composers.

ArtsWatch recently interviewed Esteli Gomez about her advocacy of new work by emerging composers and her residency at the University of Oregon.


Oregon Composers Forum: Seeding new Oregon music

Fresh sounds flourish from University of Oregon new music program, guest artists, and student-led ensembles


As autumn’s leaves fall, fresh new music is already springing up at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance’s Oregon Composers Forum (OCF), the state’s primary seedbed of new Oregon music.

“The Forum is at the core of the school’s composition program,” texts Robert Kyr, founder and director of OCF, and chair of the university’s composition department. “It offers our students the opportunity to compose and perform their own works and music by their colleagues, while also learning how to found and direct new music ensembles.”  Such experiences, he adds, “deeply connect audiences with an exceptional broad range of contemporary music, including multimedia collaborations.”

OCF premiers new music by young composers. Photo: G. Ferrington.

OCF premiers new music by young composers. Photo: G. Ferrington.

The forum promises a diverse menu of concert options and it all begins with a fall OCF concert at 7:30 pm (Pacific), Tuesday, November 10. This live-streamed event from the University of Oregon’s beautiful Beall Concert Hall, features an array of new music ranging from Li Tao’s Illusion of Fog (2013) for solo piano to large ensemble pieces such as Benjamin J. Penwell’s Kafkaesque (2015) for Flute, Clarinet, Horn, Trumpet, Percussion, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass. Other selections include Passacaglia by Emily Korzeniewski, Echoes from the Void by Aidan Ramsay, Prayer for Roethke by Stephen Anthony Rawson, Tempest by Michael Dekovich, Stilly Sleep by Ramsey Sadaka, 7F by Cara Haxo, June by Madeline Cannon, Spaces by Izabel Austin, and Cascade by Nathan Engelmann.


Roomful of Teeth performed at Lewis & Clark College on Saturday.

Roomful of Teeth performed at Lewis & Clark College last weekend.


“Breaking news!” “Up to the minute!” “Hot off the press!” When is that talk ever about a classical music concert? Even “new music” groups, including the one I serve as a board member, typically mix many ten- or 20-year old works into their offerings. When the choral ensemble Roomful of Teeth blew through Portland last Friday, it brought a program that included only one piece more than four years old; half the pieces were written in the last two years. Included, of course, was a generous portion of member Caroline Shaw’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner “Partita.” Not only that, nary a stereotype of new music or choral music concerts could be heard. The saccharine and the ear-stabbing were both intriguingly absent. How can all this be possible?

It starts with the singers. As artistic director Brad Wells explained in a fascinating Q & A (moderated by Portland’s favorite contemporary classical DJ Robert McBride), RoT auditions seek just two qualifications: excellence and flexibility – a willingness to learn new vocal techniques, mostly from traditional cultures all around the world. This excellence and flexibility, along with an attitude perhaps best summed up by alto Virginia Warnken – “humility” – have combined to create an eight-voice group which can deliver the most intricate and unusual soundscapes as a single being. (The program was performed without Wells conducting.) Throw that performing resource into the midst of hungry young composers, composers for whom battles about tonal vs. atonal and pop vs. art are largely things they read about in history books, and magic can happen.

It happened even in what was probably the most conventional work of the night, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “The Guest,” when a high soprano cut loose over the prevailing texture of overlapping repeats of a short riff, sending chills up my spine. That kind of texture is becoming somewhat of a standard operating procedure in certain quarters, but it fit, evoking the internal demons chasing a sleepwalker out into a snowscape. Less conventional in this context was Warnken’s pop-inflected diction in a line carrying the lyrics. She ripped it out like nobody’s business, it’s not her fault, but it just didn’t fit – a misjudgment on Snider’s part. It’s tough for a composer who grew up in Princeton and got a degree at Yale to be from the wrong side of the tracks. It’s better not to try.

A more integrated and absorbing soundscape was provided by Judd Greenstein’s “Montmartre,” an homage to a time and place – fin de siècle Paris – when European composers first began to treat musical color as something just as fundamental as the traditional disciplines of harmony and counterpoint. Though the contributions of the latter felt repetitive in places, there was no denying the dizzying variety of vocal color expertly traversed by the group, a variety that made the ordinary vowels of language seem but shades of gray. Just when I was beginning to think I’d heard it all, a full-fledged tune redolent of Parisian cabaret sang out over the top. Rainbow sprinkles of throat-singing harmonics topped off the confection.

But the smorgasbord was just beginning – RoT sang ten works plus an encore. It was a joy to hear all the different things this extremely versatile group can do, and the surprising and beautiful ways they have fired composers’ imaginations. Rinde Eckert, in his work “Cesca’s View,” explores yodeling, setting it off against yearning harmony and leaving its last question poignantly unanswered. Caleb Burhans, in “No,” refracts this simple, loaded syllable into a tenderly pulsing accompaniment to a rhapsodic melody (poured out straight from the heart by alto Warnken), with the intent of giving the word a positive spin. At the very least it conveys infinite regret. No reply seems possible, so for once, the fade-out conclusion borrowed from pop music works perfectly. If Merrill Garbus’s “Quizassa” didn’t reach these depths, at least it finished the program off with infectious, exuberant, body-swaying rhythm.

Among the works that explore a more complex emotional landscape are Wells’s “Otherwise,” and Missy Mazzoli’s “Vesper Sparrow” on words by Farnoosh Fathi. As might be expected from the group’s director, “Otherwise” celebrates pretty much the whole range of the group’s abilities in one short work. It’s flashy and attractive, but it feels a bit crammed, especially when the bel canto baritone is running a gantlet of less refined styles in the other voices. Mazzoli’s work develops more gradually, and though it offers nearly as much contrast, each element seems to sit amongst its neighbors more naturally, building through a welcome variety of harmonic progression to a forceful conclusion. Like Wells, she also juxtaposes bel canto singing with other styles, but it soars out over the top in another spine-tingling magical moment.

The star of the show, of course, was Shaw’s “Partita.” The “Courante” and “Passacaglia” movements anchored the program, and we were treated to “Sarabande” for an encore. A question which is hard to avoid thinking about is – just what is it that makes this, and not the other highly creative works on the program, worthy of a Pulitzer? One point, of course, is that “Partita” is a major work, running nearly a half an hour, where the others last about five minutes or less. But there’s always a pile of long works to choose from, and there has been criticism over the years that undeserving ones have been chosen. This time around though, my ears tell me the prize committee acquitted itself well.

For as good a justification as any, take a look at the “Courante.” Starting with a rhythmic groove made only from sharp inhales and exhales, the simplest of pitch elements are added as momentum builds. In a different context, one might be forgiven for imagining a steam locomotive starting to roll, then whistling, but the detail is too rich, the purpose clearly more serious. The first alto pitches grow out of the groove, and they are in turn colored by a men’s duet. Each element seems to be inextricably linked to the next, and to the next. After an engrossing build through the first third of the work, there’s a welcome breather as we hear a pure harmonization of the early American revivalist hymn, “Shining Shore.” Its refrain inspires a renewed rhythmic energy, as the opening groove returns, with much of the breath work now replaced by a filigree of women’s voices. There’s a pause, as if a hand were being extended back to the hymn, which soon seems to catch up and be propelled forward by the re-energized groove. But it’s too much for it, and the hymn refracts into harmonic colors, extensions of the men’s duet in the opening build. The rhythm cuts out, leaving the women’s colors drifting like leaves blown out over a void. Their energy refuses to dissipate, however, and from nowhere the rhythm and the men rejoin them, driving everything towards the brink of a precipice. Suddenly the whole creature stops and vanishes in a few last gasps. After all, this is not the grand finale yet; the Passacaglia is still to come.

There is a level of inevitability and interconnectedness to all this – a unity in variety, prized in the classic repertory – which largely rises above the rest of the program. At the same time, the bits and pieces are all out where they can be heard, not hidden behind a fog of pre-compositional considerations. It would be vain to try to predict how well “Partita” will wear, but there’s no question it has all the right stuff.

And what of Shaw herself? We chatted only a few minutes after the show, but I got an impression of someone unassuming yet confident, a slight young woman, yet with a strong alto voice. Now the world knows she has an equally strong compositional voice.

This has been a good year to reflect on choral music in Portland. As Bruce Browne, Brett Campbell , and I have detailed in Oregon Arts Watch recently, several new groups interested in performing new music have sprung up in the last few years, and many established groups are applying themselves to it with renewed energy. And now on top of it all, Roomful of Teeth comes through and raises the bar, both in their range of technique and in their commitment to partnership in the creation of new compositions. How will Portland’s groups respond? Katherine FitzGibbon, director of the Resonance Ensemble, was in attendance Friday night and was obviously thrilled to be there. Indeed, her organization co-sponsored RoT’s visit, along with Portland new music fixture Fear No Music. Between them, on short notice, they got the word out and Agnes Flanagan chapel was well filled. It all leaves me full of hope for the future.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and a board member of Cascadia Composers.

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Roomful of Teeth performs Friday night at Lewis & Clark College.

Roomful of Teeth performs Friday night at Lewis & Clark College.

When Brad Wells wanted to start a vocal ensemble, he didn’t look to the standard choir model. Although many choirs are constantly seeking new music, they too often tend to be pretty conservative, firmly in the Western choral tradition, maybe with some jazz harmonies, usually with more emphasis on producing lush, pretty sounds than on musical ambition or adventure.

Wells’s New York/Massachusetts octet Roomful of Teeth, which performs Friday night at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel, aims to change that. Modeling itself on the Kronos Quartet, RoT works with some of contemporary classical music’s most exciting composers (Caleb Burhans, Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzolli, et al) to develop fascinating new works for vocal ensemble – including this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning composition by one of its members, 30 year old RoT singer and composer Caroline Shaw, the youngest composer ever to snag the award.


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