Esteli Gomez
A&E

Roomful of Teeth Reinvents Vocals

Star of unconventional vocal performance group got her start at Aptos High

PHOTO: BONICA AYALA PHOTOGRAPHY

Somewhere near the start of the 21st century, inquiring singer, music explorer and California native Brad Wells began foraging well outside the standard repertoire of the harmony and melody performed by Western choral groups since the Renaissance.

After surveying the performance galaxy of music from other cultures—ones in which much more than vocal chord vibration is used to produce sounds—Wells started holding auditions for what would become Roomful of Teeth in 2009. 

Next came commissions of exploratory work for the group’s precise set of skills and sound effects, then a 2013 Grammy for the ensemble’s recording of Partita for 8 Voices, composed by Roomful’s mezzo-soprano Caroline Shaw. The group’s reputation soared. They performed all over the world, and as Wells had stipulated from the very beginning, each singer made a living wage. 

Roomful of Teeth has been called a lab experiment for the human voice. The sounds they are capable of creating using teeth, tongue, throat, and lips can range from stabbing percussion to shimmering whispers and lusty yodels. Each singer is classically trained, yet Bach would be astonished at the sounds they produce. Floating high above all the action of the lower voices is the effervescent soprano of Esteli Gomez, a Santa Cruz native who first studied music at Aptos High School with choral director Meri Pezzoni.

“This really is new and exciting music,” says Pezzoni, a UCSC music graduate. An accomplished singer and pianist, Pezzoni recently formed a woman’s vocal group, Amica, now rehearsing for its second annual concert.

Having performed with countless choral groups in the Bay Area, Pezzoni suddenly wanted to do an all women’s group. “Instead of a book club,” she says with a laugh, “we have a singing club with a very high skill level.” Pezzoni has kept in touch with Gomez since the days when she was a student in Aptos. “She started with me in junior high, and sang for six years as one of my soprano soloists.”

After Aptos, Gomez went to Yale School of Sacred Music, where she got involved in Baroque music. Pezzoni vividly recalls Gomez’s “beautiful soprano voice and great phrasing. She was always a superstar,” she says. 

The allure of singing with other voices in a choral ensemble is powerful, says Pezzoni.

“You’re either a soloist or you’re not. If you’re drawn to singing with others, it becomes your passion, and it can often begin in high school, where choirs get to travel and you sing with your friends. There’s a sense of belonging, of being a family,” Pezzoni says. She’s preaching to the choir, since I too began choral singing as a kid (and was in a madrigal group with Pezzoni several decades ago) and haven’t stopped. 

Roomful of Teeth continues to find alternative kinds of sound and music, says Pezzoni. 

“These musicians are always trying to push the envelope,” she says. “They’re astonishing.”

Roomful of Teeth will perform at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music on opening night (Friday, Aug. 2, 8 p.m.), when they’ll appear with the festival orchestra and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton in the world premiere of ‘When There are Nine.’ They will also be part of the festival’s free Community Sing (Saturday, Aug. 3, 4 p.m.). Finally, there is a chamber concert devoted entirely to their radical choral music (Sunday, Aug. 4, 7 p.m.). Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. cabrillomusic.org.

Christina Waters was born in Santa Cruz and raised all over the world (thanks to an Air Force dad), with real-world training in painting, music, winetasting, trail running, organic gardening, and teaching. She has a PhD in Philosophy, teaches in the Arts at UCSC and sings with the UCSC Concert Choir. Look for her recent memoir “Inside the Flame” at bookstores everywhere.

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