The Eight Headed Science Experiment

by Trevor Wilson 8.1.13

Caroline Shaw awoke one day in April to find that she was the youngest composer awarded a Pulitzer, for Partita for Eight Voices. Partita appears in an album by Roomful of Teeth, of which Shaw is a member. Released in October, 2012, these 13 tracks display work by 7 different composers, all applying their personal aesthetics to the technique-driven vocal octet.

These singers are clinicians, approaching each composition as literal as can be; almost as scientific experiments. As a result, we have the chance to hear different compositional voices side by side, performed by the exact same ensemble in the exact same way in the same exact time. In this clinical trial, there are many positive results, although Shaw’s compositional voice always stands out. These composers are linked by more than just the eight-headed instrument that brings their ideas to life; they also share a desire for an expanded vocabulary (perhaps with the exception of Caleb Burhans piece, the emotive and simpler No). We have an all-of-the-above strategy of extended vocal techniques; Tuvan, Inuit, Sardinian, Pygmy, Korean, Beyonce, Bjork, Monk. The ensemble has made a priority of expanding their technique vocabulary, studying these various international idioms at residencies and the like. The compositions in this collection include it all, sometimes within the same movement.

Shaw is not without a lightness, a sense of humor, that I am sure is tied to the part of her personality that allows her to express herself more truthfully than some of her colleagues. (I recently discovered some of her Hurricane Sandy candlelight Youtube covers, which rival Weird Al in earnest dorkiness.) Shaw can be just as excited about the new vocal toys, but she finds ways to use them that feel like true expression.  Courante, a movement that begins with a pattern of exhales, is interrupted by a steady lighthouse call. I feel her here.

However. Also in Courante, the male voices deliver their first note of a triad with such accuracy and stark attack/decay that leaves me little. Perhaps this approach is intended to mimic a digital instrument. I’ve seen this work successfully on Dirty Projector’s track Bitte Orca, but there, it was obscured and danced around, so that I never felt any decisions, only music. I was missing the same human quality in much of the performers on Bjork’s Medulla, but in that case, the voice in the forefront had enough character for the lot of them.

That Roomful of Teeth has dedicated so much energy to the precision of their vocabulary scares me. It seems that the existence of this school of music is the inevitable conclusion of our times; today, all aesthetics are colliding. New Music ensembles like Roomful of Teeth are sounding more like new rock bands, and lineage is increasingly lateral, hyperlinked, complex. Hierarchies are being diluted. And with the expansive array of music at our digital fingertips, field recordings of pygmy music from the 50’s are as available to us as Beyonce’s newest single; and somehow equally important.

This expansion of vocabulary, this musical manifest destiny, has only one inevitable conclusion; an apex and a retaliation. I fear this too. Someday in the future, when we begin the rejection of this virtuosic idiom, we may be left with almost no vocabulary at all. It is out of these polar fears that I am deeply grateful for Roomful of Teeth’s fearless exploration and for the composers that have taken the bait. No one is quite doing what they are doing in the musical landscape, and it needs to be done.

But there are important things to keep in mind. In listening to Roomful of Teeth’s collection, I keep going back to Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, as the overarching aesthetic seems deeply connected to that piece. The tone of the singers is similar, as is the vocabulary. But while the vocabulary in Dolmen Music opened many doors at the time, it was music first. Some part of that is restraint, but most of it is about knowing how to express honestly, cutting through the surface distractions. In hearing Dolmen Music, some internal logic comes out of the piece, which leaves me no questions about any note, tone, warble, or shriek. Apart from much of Shaw’s writing, I fail to find that kind of internal logic in much of the writing and performances by Roomful of Teeth.

I am very excited to hear how an ensemble with as much creative energy, dedication, and talent as Roomful of Teeth will grow in the years to come. These performers and composers have created an important document for the future. I am hoping that we will hear Shaw and the gang take more risks, applying more dirt, personality, truth, and continue shaping a musical landscape that we are lucky to have today.

Trevor Wilson is a songwriter and bandleader of Trevor Wilson and Vocal Ensemble. He has worked as the personal assistant to Meredith Monk for some time. He has also worked as an assistant to Steve Cannon, the director of Gathering of the Tribes Gallery. Trevor lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and can be reached at