Roomful of Teeth (Santa Ana Sites)
Church of the Messiah
Mesmerizing vocal harmonies filled the small, 128-year-old church in Santa Ana last Friday, as Roomful of Teeth closed out the spring concert series of the the pop-up art and music project, Santa Ana Sites. The concert, held at Church of the Messiah in Downtown Santa Ana, featured the full eight-part vocal group performing two acts of musically intricate a cappella music crafted specifically for them by various composers.
“Beyond going into different locations and bringing different mediums, I try to find things that otherwise wouldn’t be programed around here,” said artistic director for Santa Ana Sites, Allen Moon. “They have any out-of-the-box sensibility about them.”
Walking into the sanctuary at Church of the Messiah evokes a certain sense of reverence that House of Blues or the Grove just isn’t going to give you. Paired with the haunting musical intricacies of Roomful of Teeth’s sound, the effect was jaw-dropping.
YouTube videos did no justice for the caliber of musicality demonstrated by this group of singers. Imagine a hipster version of the Pentatonix singing stuff that sounds like a somersaulting orb of Imogen Heap, classical choral, and unidentifiable desert space music.
All of them are professional musicians individually, with jobs and lives around the country –but every year, the group comes together for a few weeks on campus at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to write and receive training in various music styles and techniques.
“We are kind of in the woodshed together for those couple weeks,” said bass vocalist, Cameron Beauchamp. “It’s the think tank of creating new music, working on new repertoire, working with composers or being with vocal specialists from whatever tradition we are trying to learn from.”
The first act featured the group’s most popular piece “Partida for 8 Voices” (you might have heard this one) composed by member Caroline Shaw. It starts out with a growing garble of spoken statements about coordinates and swells into a series of huge parallel harmonies.
During the four-movement piece, which took about 30 minutes, the group used a palate of moving textures both in the way they technically sang as well as in their harmonic color. Growling and syncopated breaths intertwined with overtones and bellowing. As they quickly rolled through different styles, they stretched and pulled into different harmonies – almost like kneading bread.
At one point, bass-baritone Dashon Burton was sustaining this long, insanely low note and staring out into the audience (I swear right at me) – the whole vibe conjured an image of Idris Elba as Heimdall the Gatekeeper in The Avengers movies.
After a brief intermission, the choir returned to the blue-lit dome at the front of the church to perform a set of more specialized songs. These compositions demonstrated their bizarre stylistic range which included unusual uses of Broadway belting, yodeling, and my personal favorite – Tuvan throat singing.
A standing ovation brought Roomful of Teeth out for an encore performance of the slow-burning ballad “Fall Into Me.”
“That last piece, I watched it from the side, you know so I could be there as they walked off at the end. And thought, ‘Wow, how lucky am I? I just get to stand here and watch,'” said Moon. “One of the reasons I started [Santa Ana Sites] was to just bring stuff to myself,” “but also to my friends, my neighbors – my community.
Roomful of Teeth at Church of the Messiah was the eighteenth performance organized by Moon for Santa Ana Sites. Several times in the fall and spring, Moon invites different musicians and artists from around the world to Santa Ana, and curates a performance for them in a local space for the public to come and watch.
Before Friday’s program, Santa Ana Sites and local non-profit Community Engagement collaborated in organizing a special workshop by Roomful of Teeth at with the group at local senior living. The group performed and worked with residence in collaboration of artistic expression.
“With the new partnership with Community Engagement, I’m looking forward to doing more stuff like that as time permits,” said Moon.
As artistic director, Moon decided he liked the pop-up feel of Santa Ana Sites and mostly only plans one show at a time. When we talked about future shows, a summer performance seemed to be a possibility, so stay tuned.
“I want to keep this framework,” Moon said about future performances. “I appreciate the intimacy of it.”