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This Just In: Roomful of Teeth's "Rough Magic"

Members of Roomful of Teeth pose in a postmodern Renaissance-styled portrait
Photo and album cover courtesy New Amsterdam Recordings. Graphical treatment our own.
Roomful of Teeth

From Shakespeare to an apocalyptic musical fever dream and everything in between, eclectic choral ensemble Roomful of Teeth’s Grammy-winning "Rough Magic" is an album worth hearing.

An ensemble as widely known for their impressive and expressive vocality as they are for their boundary-smashing repertory, Roomful of Teeth is a force to be reckoned with, but more importantly, a force to be heard. Exploring the sonic possibilities of the human voice, they draw from influences as varied as throat singing, yodeling, belting, and Korean p’ansori.

Released in May of 2023, Roomful of Teeth’s Grammy-nominated Rough Magic is a stunning showcase in both vocal performance and cutting-edge compositional prowess. This is perhaps most apparent in William Britelle’s three movement Psychedelics for choir and synthesizer. Nominated for its own Grammy in the category of Best Contemporary Classical Composition, this work is a musical tour de force, running the gamut of what is possible with the human voice. Per Britelle:

Psychedelics is, in part, an effort to integrate the many vocal techniques and effects mastered by Roomful of Teeth into one (semi-)coherent whole.”

But Psychedelics is not just a showstopper because of its virtuosic vocal writing, though it never ceases to amaze what Roomful of Teeth can do. It is a musical fever dream, shifting rapidly from moment to moment in a whirlwind of hyper-evolving expression, with lyrics just as non-linear as the music. Take this moment in movement one, for example:

Deep Blue (You Beat Me) excerpt
From William Britelle's "Psychedelics"

Over the course of just 30 seconds, we hear rich and colorful chords from the choir underpinned by ‘80s style synth sounds, all while being subtly (and not so subtly) punctured by heavy metal screaming. The sonic result is a mosaic of warped, jagged, and serrated textures that shimmer as much as they cut — and this effect is similarly expressed visually in promotional videos for Rough Magic:

I am the Watchtower video.mp4

And that’s just one piece by one composer on Rough Magic. Grammy-nominated or not, every piece on the album merits attention. Eve Beglarian’s None More Than You practically verges on ASMR with its delicious textural mutterings. The guttural yet personal vocality of Peter S. Shin’s multifaceted Bits torn from words speaks directly to his lived experience as a Korean American reckoning with anxiety. And it wouldn’t be Roomful of Teeth without fellow member and classical music icon Caroline Shaw. Her evocative, exploratory interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in The Isle further cements Roomful of Teeth’s musical excellence. Without exaggeration, this album merits every accolade it’s received and more.

Learn more about Roomful of Teeth and Rough Magic.

William Peacock is a Lead Music Programmer for WCRB.