Welcome back, Roomful of Teeth
By Michelle Marrocco
Founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, Roomful of Teeth is a vocal project dedicated to mining the expressive potential of the human voice. Through study with masters from non-classical traditions the world over, the eight-voice ensemble continually expands its vocabulary of singing techniques and, through an ongoing commissioning project, invites todayâsÂ brightest composers to create a repertoire without borders.
Since its inceptionÂ (with the exception of last year), Grammy-winning Roomful of TeethÂ has come to MASS MoCA every summer to spend a few weeks away from the distractions of everyday life. During its stay here, Teeth (their abbreviation of choice) spends the first week of its residency working with coaches who specialize in two or three specific styles of singing. In the past, these styles have included Tuvan throat-singing, Inuit throat-singing, yodeling, belting, Korean Pâansuri, Georgian singing, SardinianÂ cantu aÂ tenore, and pop-singing. This year Teeth is focusing on classical Persian singing with Sepidah Raissadat and the vocal techniques of Hindustani music, traditional music popular in northern India, with Warren Senders. I was lucky enough to sit in on one of these coaching sessions.
As Teeth members filter in to the rehearsal hall, it becomes obvious that this is a family reunion and MASS MoCA is Grandmaâs house. As vocalists tend to do, there are the obligatory lip trills and weird noises referred to as warm-ups, thereâs chatter around the snack table, and fussing over how big someone’s baby has become (mind you, this baby is adorable and just as much a member of the group as anyone, as she coos along). Eventually all eight members of Roomful of Teeth, along with director Brad Wells, make their way to the circle of chairs in the center of the room. The level of comfort they all feel with each other and with this space is palpable: shoes are off, and smiles are abundant as everyone folds into their seats and prepare to sing.
I slowly realize that all attention is focused on one woman. Sheâs petite with dark hair, reserved, and soft-spoken, but she commands attention. This is the last day of coaching sessions before the composers arrive on Tuesday, so Sepidah Raissadat answers some last-minute questions and imparts wisdom before launching an improvisation session. While Raissadat strums what looks like a small, four-stringed sitar (which upon further research, I discovered, is actually called a tanbur), Dashon Burton (bass-baritone) begins. As they move around the circle, everyone improvises while RaissadatÂ echoes them on the tanbur and doles out advice for a more authentic Persian sound.
âI like how we sing and itâs murky and then you play it back clearly,â comments mezzo-soprano Virginia Warnken. âThatâs because I know the hierarchy of notes, so I know which ones to pass over,â Raissadat replies in reference to the dastgah, the Persian modal system. The difficulty in teaching Persian music to western, classically trained singers lies not only in technique and scale, but also in communication. Just as languages with different alphabets do not easily translate, neither do musical traditions. During her coaching session, Raissadat struggled to explain, in terms of western music, how the pitch one sings differs when ascending as opposed to descending. Â Eventually she resorts to teaching this idea the way she learned it: through imitation. RaissadatÂ and Roomful of Teeth end the session by singing a song they learned together the day before. In a style of music characterized by trills, flips, and complicated vocal maneuvers, the texture created by multiple voices is uncommon and striking. As they sang, single voices wove in and out of the whole and created a texture that was charged by moments of perfect synchronization and moments of collective individualism.
After a half-hour break, during which Teeth chatted, wandered, and refueled, the group returned to tackle its final coaching session of this yearâs residency.
RaissadatÂ has moved over a seat and been replaced by Warren Senders, a middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair poking out from beneath his hat, who immediately reaches over and turns on his drone machine in lieu of a sitar. Without much preamble, SendersÂ spurs the Teeth into a call-and-response singing session; he sings a phrase or a line, and the Teeth echo him. Itâs immediately evident that some members are very comfortable with this style of learning, eyes closed as they succumb to the poignancy of the melodies they echo. As a performer, composer, and teacher of Hindustani music for over 30 years, SendersÂ easily shifts back and forth between Western and Hindustani musical verbiage in a way that makes even the most unusual concept understandable . As he sings, he gestures with his hands to clarify the direction of the melody and interjects with advice. After an especially intimidating run, he clarifies by first breaking up the phrase, with hand gestures acting as guidance. âYouâll come down with maximum twiddliness.â Hindustani singing seems to be more fluid and less precise than the Persian music Teeth was learning earlier, but it is also characterized by embellishment.
Again Teeth is called on to improvise solo. Using only his body language, Warren directs attention to one person, sings a phrase, and he or she echoes. Iâm struck by this process and the response to it. Some membersÂ flourish, and some are nervous. (Iâm reminded of times I was asked to sing solo in school choirs – itâs a frightening experience!) SendersÂ hears the fear and responds, âjust make music.â You can feel the tension dissipate. As the session continues, Senders pulls everyone in – âsometimes itâs secret musicâ – and tells the story of the music they’re studying. He has that kind of presence. Heâs a highly charismatic and revolutionary teacher, and he has a knack for pulling singers out of their comfort zone in a way that still feels safe.
For the second week of its residency, Roomful of Teeth will work with composers Michael Harrison (who has three decades of study and practice of Indian music under his belt), Julia Wolfe (who was here in July as a co-founder of Bang on a Can), and singer/songwriter Sam Amidon (who will be here again for FreshGrass in September), informing their compositions with Roomful of Teethâs new-found knowledge of Persian and Hindustani vocal technique. Be sure to catch Roomful of TeethâsÂ performanceÂ in MASS MoCA’s Courtyard C onÂ Friday, August 29, at 8pm!
Posted August 27, 2014 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Music, Work-in-progress
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Imaginations Fly Away with Andrew Dawson
By Rebecca McBrien
Photos by Olympia Shannon
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, â
4, 3, 2, 1, 0 â
And off we went into Andrew Dawson’s Space Panorama. On Saturday morning, we flew through space and traveled back in time as Dawson’s hands recreated Apollo 11âs lunar landing. Cutting scenes, as if in a movie, he carried us through the awe of space travel while captivating generations both young and old.
Dawson’s wit and charisma was effortless as he relayed the historical event with his hands, a table, and Shostakovichâs 10th Symphony. Garvin Robertson narrated as Dawson recreated the momentous occasion bringing our imaginations to the foreground.
âItâs potent stuff, your imagination,â said Dawson during the post-performance Q & A.
He explained how he got into miming, âA teacher told me I was rubbish at acting.â Luckily this didn’t deter him and he found a way to express himself through mime and dance. Now as a performer, director, choreographer, and hand model, Dawson has broken the mold surrounding miming. Â His graceful hands move beyond what most people think of as mime and into the territory of interpretive dance, although he continues to just use his hands.
Dawsonâs performance ofÂ Space PanoramaÂ comes during his residency at MASS MoCA, where he is currently developingÂ The Russian Doctor. Â It is a theatrical new work crafted around the astounding exploration made by the literary giant, Anton Chekhov. Dawson teams up with long-time collaborator and neuroscientist Jonathan Cole and medical historian Marius Turda to explore an oft-forgotten element of Chekhovâs legacy. Working with Chekhovâs only non-fiction work, The Russian Doctor explores the great risk Chekhov took during his tour of the Sakhalin Islands. Be sure to reserve your tickets for what promises to be another magical step back in time and space. More event details can be found here.
Posted May 7, 2014 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Work-in-progress
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Artist Spotlight: Emily Johnson
Performing Arts intern Julia and Marketing/Public Relations intern Elizabeth team up for a chat with our artist-in-residence, Bessie-award winning choreographer/performer Emily Johnson (founder of Catalyst Dances) to discuss Johnsonâs artistic background and the inspiration for her new work Niicugni (Listen).
Describe your dance and artistic background.
I grew up in a very small town in Alaska. I was an athlete growing up, mainly basketball, long distance running, and softball. Those were my absolute loves. Either sports instilled a love of movement or I had a love of movement going into it.
Dance was not in my life until I got to college. There was a great confluence of teachers at the University of Minnesota when I got there with a heavy focus on improvisation. I loved that suddenly there was movement that wasnât connected to the game or the race. I could move fully; I could be feeling and thinking. My thoughts could change my movement and my movement could change my thoughts.
What inspires your movement vocabulary?
Movement always comes from an internal thought or feeling first. Iâm always trying to get it out of my body, past the skin. In a way, I donât care if people watch me or my dancer’s arm moving. Itâs about what can be communicated between my arm movement and the audience. What is communicated in that space?
There has to be such intentionality in the movement. Itâs not that any moment is more precious than the next but, in every moment, we have to know where we are in our story. We have to stay connected with that story and that effort in order to communicate it.
What were the conceptual seeds of Niicugni (Listen)?
A few thoughts crossed paths when I was looking into beginning a new piece. I saw an exhibit at a gallery in Homer, Alaska. It was an exhibit of work made entirely of fish skin. Salmon has always been part of my familyâs life but I had never worked with the skin before. This image of 50 fish skin lanterns hanging in the stage and in the house, creating this secondary diagonal, was the first visual image of this piece before I even knew how to work with the skin.
Around the same time, my dad laid out a map on the counter in my parentsâ house in Alaska. He had just received land from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Though the Settlement Act was created in 1970s, his land just finally came through. It just really very suddenly struck me that we would have to figure out how to build a relationship with that land.
I was struck with âWhat does this mean?â This land is now my fatherâs. It will eventually be passed to my brothers and me. How do we get to know land that is ancestral land? I was looking at this piece of paper that did not give me the information I needed. Maps tell us how to get somewhere, not how to live with land and whatâs really there or who has been there before or who will be there after. This piece really started with all of those questions.
What about the vocal storytelling that is woven through the piece? How do those moments connect to the choreography?
To me, itâs all part of the dance. The stories are as much the dance as we are. Making these lanterns is as much the dance as anything. Itâs not that they are just parts that are important; they are dance.
I like to work with the similarities and differences in how bodies and minds respond to stories and movement. What happens for someone listening to a story? How does a body take in a story? What images are created in your mind? Where does your mind go with that story? Then, how does your body take in movement? Itâs the conversation between those two forms of communication that I find really interesting.
How your work evolved during your residency at MASS MoCA?
Very specifically, being here has allowed us to work on our rigging. We were able to work with all the crew here and our crew to create two improvements and a whole rigging system. That will have a profound impact on this work in terms of its touring life.
In a broad sense, the piece is always informed by the place weâre in because we think very specifically about the building and imagine feeling the ground beneath our feet. We think about how the ground moves in all directions. Itâs the support for us here. Itâs a new kind of mapping as we work to experience many places at once.
See Niicugni (Listen) in the Hunter Center at MASS MoCA on Friday, November 16 at 8 PM. Find tickets here.
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Artist Spotlight: Here Lies Love Director Alex Timbers
MASS MoCA Marketing Coordinator Emily Evans sat down with Here Lies Love Director Alex Timbers to find out what itâs like being a director, working with artists like David Byrne, and making theatre at MASS MoCA.
Director Alex Timbers
I was a dance major at Conn College, my mentor being that wonderful dance maker David Dorfman, and I know youâve co-directed some of his work. How is directing dance different than directing theatre or musicals?
Davidâs great â Iâve been a dramaturg for a couple of his pieces. I think dance works in a more abstract, less narrative way. Thereâs a sense of pacing and scale and variety that I think is also true to directing a musical. [With dance] youâre working much more with a sort of principal nature of the elements, because youâre serving a story and emotional palette that is much more visceral and abstract. In a musical, youâre trying to get that richness, but you ultimately have to serve a prescribed script and set of songs.
Do you have a preference, a favorite thing to direct?
I love to direct theatre, and Iâve really enjoyed working on shows like Peter and the Starcatcher and The Pee Wee Herman Show, that are kind of what I like to call âplays plus.â They have all the attributes of a play, a sort of naturalism and an emotional hook, and yet they also have song elements and dance and movement and a certain heightened design. They feel inherently and richly theatrical, instead of the type of play that could take place in a living room or a kitchen. They are sort of epic in scale and yet emotionally more grounded than more traditional or conventional musical theatre.
How did you get into directing? How did you discover you had this passion?
I was in college and I was doing a lot of improv and sketch comedy. I had acted a little bit (just sort of in the way that everyone acts in college or high school) and I got very interested in the mechanics of comedy, so I decided to direct a farce, and then another farce, and I got really into directing. I started running the college theatre company, and then I snuck into graduate school classes at Yale School of Drama and started learning about the management side.
When I graduated, I worked as an intern at Manhattan Theatre Club, and I realized no one ever tells you that in the real world, people donât hire young directors â it just doesnât happen. [If youâre young,] no oneâs gonna hire you to direct Thornton Wilder or Shakespeare because theyâre entrusting you with a lot of money, and they donât trust you. In film and TV, youâre trying to appeal to young people as often as older people, so it makes sense to let [a young director] be the voice. But in theatre, youâre not going after really young audiences, so why would you ask a young director or playwright? So what I did was create my own opportunities. I created a company â thatâs where Les Freres Corbusier started.
How did you get involved with Here Lies Love?
I had done a show for The Public Theater called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, that was sort of a classic example of the shows I was doing with LFC â sort of about historical figures but done in an irreverent, post modern way. It combined pop and rock music and big visuals. The Public Theatre was also developing Here Lies Love, and the artistic director Oskar Eustis put me in contact with David [Byrne]. I think there were a couple of directors that interviewed for it, but David and I hit it off pretty immediately, and I think the impression I had of what the piece should be in 3 dimensions, more than just an album, was similar to what David always had in mind for it.
Can you tell me what Here Lies Love is about in 4 sentences or less?
Sure. Here Lies Love is a fully immersive club musical that tells the story of Imelda Marcosâ rise and infamous fall. Itâs told entirely through song, without dialogue and without seating. It takes place all around you â itâs what I call a sort of 360 degree theatre piece. It refuses to glorify Imelda and is examining the politics of power and the psychology or pathology behind a person that so desperately wanted to be loved and yet was thrown out by her own citizens.
Whatâs it like working with this particular cast and crew, and with David Byrne and Annie-B Parson?
In terms of the cast (David and the choreographer and the crew), itâs really fantastic, because these are people who Iâve for years looked up to! I had seen Annie-B Parsonâs Big Dance Theatre shows for many years. Â Iâve been listening to Davidâs music and reading his writing for years. So to collaborate with these people is phenomenal. And the design team is this great mix of downtown and uptown people â they are downtown theatre artists but they have Broadway experience. Thereâs a really exciting mix (just as the show is) between a kind of left of center sensibility and a delivery of the great pleasure principles of musical theatre.
How has MASS MoCA and this particular space impacted the development of the piece? Is it different from where you guys have been before?
Absolutely. Iâve been coming to MASS MoCA for about 7 years now, and Iâve always been mesmerized as much by the art at MASS MoCA as by the architectural surroundings of this place. When the idea came up to develop the show outside of New York, one of the questions I had was, âCan we not do it at a place where it will feel like a musical?â (Which itâs not.) So this idea came up to do it at a museum as a sort of art installation. I think that sets up your expectations for the piece better.
I have a long history with Williamstown Theatre Festival, and [artistic director] Jenny Gersten has been an incredible friend and advisor, so the idea of triangulating The Public Theater and WTF and MASS MoCA started to feel like a really exciting convergence of great arts institutions. The thought with the residency at MASS MoCA was that we could really build the piece â it wasnât that weâd be delivering some sort of finished product, but we would have the space and staff and collaborators here to create a 360 degree art environment.
Every day there have been new songs coming in, weâre changing staging on the fly, and just today before we started talking I saw new choreography for the opening number! Weâre assembling it here in a way you couldnât do with the pressure of New York or youâd go crazy. The space here is unbelievable âÂ itâs huge! â and there are 2 things weâre examining: how can we make the best possible performance here at MASS MoCA, and how can we honor the spatial limitations Here Lies Love will confront when it eventually moves to New York?
Whatâs next for Here Lies Love?
After this it will go to The Public Theater in New York, and it starts performances in March 2013 at the Luesther, one of the five theatres of The Public â itâs a downtown space.
Yeah, I think itâs pretty cool.
Alex Timbers and David Byrne at opening night of Timbersâ Peter and the Starcatcher
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Artist Spotlight: Chatting with Playwright Ain Gordon
Playwright/actor/director Ain Gordon is here in residency this week in preparation for the performance of his work-in-progress play Not What Happened, which centers on historical reenacment in 1800s New England. Marketing Intern Cora sat down with him to chat about the piece.
Ain Gordon in rehearsal with actress Betsy Aidman.
Could you explain the plot in a little more detail?
Well, Iâm not a story-driven guy. I tend to be more interested in characters in a situation and what happens to them rather than a plot unfolding. So, itâs pretty simple. There is a rural, solitary woman alone in her summer kitchen in 1804, baking bread, surrounded pretty much only with the mental remnants of other days, and talking to herself. And it’s about what happens to her, in her head that day. And then a historical re-enactor two centuries later on the same piece of ground, which is now a deficit-ridden historic site, leads the tourist through her ability to re-enact that same day.
How has it developed since the shows that you did at the Vermont Performance Lab and Marlboro College?
At VPL, we only did half of it. That was the very first time working with actors on it. Itâs brand new. So we spent five days there, and we did some rudimentary staging and just showed the first half. Then we were at the Baryshnikov Arts Center for another five days, and we pushed through to the end and showed all of it. Then we had a week off, and now weâre here. And weâre going to show all of it again. Each space is one step biggerâat VPL it was in an 1800s meeting house, very small, very intimate, beautiful space. At BAC it was in a larger studio with raked seating. And here itâs in a theater! So weâve been kind of getting used to leaving behind the intimacy of table work, studio work, theater work etcetera, and building up to being bigger. And here is the first time that we will have basic lighting, and basic use of projections, which we havenât done at all before.
Right, I read that this is the first time that you were introducing the element of photography to the piece, with photographer/historian Forrest Hozapfelâs projections. Has that influenced the play at all?
We kind of researched togetherâhe lives in Marlboroâand we took walks in the forest together, and looked at cellar holes and that kind of thing. Definitely his thinking and his body of knowledge influenced the writing. And early on, I had his images in mind for what I wanted to see as the set. Here, youâre kind of seeing a sketch of that because we donât have a giant screen. So this is very much just another stage of showing the piece with some tech.
Can you talk about the local history aspect of the play and how New England ties into it?
With almost all of my work, Iâm interested in the idea of marginalized or neglected history as source material for theater. Particularly because in most places, but certainly in America, the writing of mainstream history is kind of a ruthless editing machine, and thereâs a lot of stuff that hits the cutting room floor. Iâm pretty interested in what hits the floor. And I had been thinking that with this piece, I wanted to reach further back in time to an era that yields even less evidenceâsort of the pre-industrial era when things are handmade; things are used until theyâre broken and then theyâre gone. So there arenât 80,000 artifacts. And I was interested in looking at a rural landscape, which I had never done, which would be a landscape in which there would be even less manmade evidence manufactured, ever. And the natural distances between manmade outpost and manmade outpost is so huge, that stuff just disappears back into the landscape. So I was interested in that, and then the relationship with VPL started to happen at the same time, and so it just made sense to put it in New England. So we used the Brattleboro-Guilford-Marlboro area as a research launch pad. The play is not situated directly in any place, it sort of uses the ethos of unsettled New England at that time, as opposed to Boston or somewhere like that.
How does the audience or the setting for each performance change your ideas for the play?
Well the good thing about the way this has played outâwhich I canât claim credit forâis that three showings in three very different locations for three very different audiences is a great way for me to accrue notes for going to a next draft. With One showing in one place, itâs pretty hard not to just be incredibly reactive. Iâm either like âIt went wellâ or â it didnât go wellââyou either are good or youâre bad. Three showings really gives you a chance to hear it in front of very different communities and get an idea of what to do next. The play doesnât premiere until the fall of 2013, so Iâm going into a whole other rewrite time.
And just in general, what inspires you as a playwright?
As I say, history is certainly my âthing,â but I think that Iâm pretty interested in the interstitial, particularly. Iâm interested in the moment between the moments that seem to matter, and that evidently matter, and how we can theatricalize insignificance for a new significance. So, the idea of this woman in 1804âshe is essentially, by most standards, a woman of no importance, engaged in an action of no consequence, on a day of no significance (laughs). And what does that look like if we actually frame it and pay attention to it?
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Catching Up with Joe
Museum director Joe Thompson blogs about the latest goings-on at MASS MoCA.
I love mud season because it kicks off MASS MoCAâs most intense season of making art. Itâs our sugaring season. Our performing arts stages are booked solid with residencies, and the galleries are abuzz with visiting artists.
I caught Gisele Amantea in the act of converting our Hunter foyer into what may end up feeling a little bit like a Canadian bordello (which is to say polite, and rather chic), riffing wildly on a Louis Sullivan decorative motif from the tomb of the wife of one of the architectâs greatest Chicago patrons, Ellis Wainwright.
But Gisele (seen here in the middle, with black shirt) is also riffing on the âMASSâ in MASS MoCA — her finger poking gently in our ribs for our penchant for large-scale work — by elaborating the delicate fleur-de-lis designs into man-eating dimension: every part of the design that is now white will soon be flocked into light-sucking blackness, and extended for the full 90â length of the space.
This is the powerful first contribution by a Canadian artist to our upcoming Oh, Canada show, opening this Memorial Day.
On a more precipitous timeline is Making Room, the Space Between Two and Three Dimensions, which just opened Saturday.
Claire Harvey was in town this past week for Making Room, doing an extraordinary series of tiny paintings on small pieces of glass and acetate, which are then projected on the walls and other provisional surfaces using old-fashioned overhead projectors, like your teacher used to do in fifth grade.Â Itâs startling how much modeling and complex space she can generate in renderings that in some cases are only ÂŸâ high, but which gain extraordinary presence when projected and enlarged to a height of 5â tall.
Continuing the theme of utilizing obsolete techniques with new media technology and inventive presentation,Â ChloĂ« Ăstmo was also in North Adams this past week, fastidiously suspending over 200 photographs on a grid of cotton thread. The amazing effect is that of a single image. Here is a shot showing ChloĂ«’s process midway through installation.
This is going to be a sleeper of an exhibition, full of engaging art, rich narratives, and interesting cross-references: a true show. It is superbly selected by Caitlin Condell and Ali Nemerov, both now students in the Williams College-Clark Art Graduate Program in the History of Art, and MASS MoCA graduate interns. The eleventh in our series of exhibitions organized by up-and-coming curators, and realized with the support of the Clark (and, in this case, the helpful guidance of MASS MoCA curator Susan Cross), the exhibition is a fascinating bookend to the previous iteration of this series, Memery, which celebrated the internetâs capacity to propel strange bits of otherwise forgettable popular culture deep into our collective memories through sheer repetition and the power of web-buzz.Â Â Making Room, on the other hand, focuses on work that celebrates and rewards careful looking through creation of complex visual spaces and thoughtful forms that feel, at times with a wisp of nostalgia, like an antidote to online frenzy.
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