[ Interviews: Faculty & Artists ]

One, In A Roomful Of Teeth

May 13, 2019

Roomful of Teeth kicks off the 2019 Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. Founding member (and returning Norfolk artist) bass-baritone Dashon Burton talks about the ensemble and his singing.

Bariton Dashon Burton

Dashon Burton

On paper, Roomful of Teeth is an eight-person vocal ensemble that sometimes expands to greater numbers depending on the work.

In concert, Roomful of Teeth is a musical trip through the world’s vocal history and traditions. The classically-trained singers incorporate everything from Tuvan throat singing and Broadway belting to Persian classical singing and death metal, to name just a few of their vocal techniques, to create a musical experience unlike choral concerts just about anywhere. Standard a cappella this ain’t.

The Grammy® award-winning ensemble kicks off the 2019 Norfolk Chamber Music Festival season on June 29. We caught up with bass/baritone Dashon Burton, a founding member of the ensemble, to learn more about Roomful of Teeth and its unique approach to vocal music.


Dashon Burton with Roomful of Teeth

Dashon Burton with Roomful of Teeth

Founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, Roomful of Teeth made musical waves when its first record won a Grammy® for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance in 2013. That was also the year that composer Caroline Shaw, who is one of the group’s mezzo-sopranos, won the Pulitzer Prize for music for her piece Partita for 8 Voices.  She wrote the piece for Roomful of Teeth and it is among those that will be performed June 29.

Burton explains the group’s mission this way: “We try to find the old growth forest in the human voice. If you think of voice as a whole universe of experiences and colors, how can you go deep into the jungle and uncover different colors of what can be used there.”

“Some places have trees growing for hundreds of year,” he continues. “If you really get into those places you find things you wouldn’t otherwise.”

The group’s singers hail from all over the country, which means that rehearsals are less traditional than many ensembles. Roomful of Teeth relies on its annual summer residency at Mass MoCA, Burton says, as its main rehearsal and vocal exploration time. “We bring in experts from different vocal techniques,” he says, adding that composers are often there too. “We’re all in the same crucible. It’s about how to find new color in our voices through the lenses of these techniques.”

Not surprisingly, this vocal exploration has had an impact in Burton’s “other” singing career. He is an opera and recital singer who has performed with ensembles such as Philharmonia Baroque, the Handel and Haydn Society and Boston Baroque, as well as the Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland orchestras, to name a few.

“One of the most important ways singing with Roomful of Teeth has affected all of us is the way we listen to music,” he says. “It opens your ears and spirit and allows you to experience other kinds of music.”

Burton recalls that first summer when they studied Tuvan throat singing. “It’s an open human voice that emphasizes overtones,” he says. “It sounds like you’re singing two or three notes at the same time. When you start to hear these extra sounds you start to hear them everywhere — in the birdcalls etc. You of course by extension start to hear them in the music you’re making as well. It opens your ears and musical experiences to a lot of different kinds of new sounds and new kinds of listening as well.”

Burton studied bel canto Italianate opera singing. “It’s a very specific type of singing.” While some singers would be concerned about singing with a group that requires all kinds of vocal noisemaking, Burton says the key is to follow basic vocal hygiene: hydrate and get rest. “If you start off without those things you’re going to have a bad time. Additionally we have to know our limits, not only within this repertoire in terms of ranges but also in terms of focus,” he says. “If you’re singing something really intense then you don’t want to do that over and over again. It’s the same as repetitiveness syndrome with instrumentalists. If you’re going too hard, you’re going to injure yourself.”

One of the most feared techniques for the singers, Burton says, is Korean Pansori folk singing. “The grittier your voice, the more rough and sandpapery your voice is, the better it sounds,” Burton says of this traditional style. “Traditionally people would scream at waterfalls and in thunderstorms to compete with the loudest sounds they could hear. They would do it over and over until their voices were louder. For us we definitely we don’t want to injure voices in any way. That has inspired us to learn why that style is so powerful and what it is about that style that speaks to people in that intense way.”

Burton doesn’t come from a musical family. He discovered the world of singing in 8th grade. “All my friends were in choir,” he says. “I had no idea what that meant so I explored that with my friends. I’m still doing it with friends.”

Burton was getting his master’s degree when Wells reached out to him about this new project. Burton liked the idea of being in another ensemble and he was drawn to the mission of “finding these new techniques and colors and combining them in ways that are novel to the ear and spirit.” The audition involved presenting two contrasting pieces to show musical breadth and “some really gnarly sightreading.”

The resulting ensemble is deliberately comprised of more than singers. Educators, conductors, and instrumentalists are in the mix, although singing is what they all do in Roomful of Teeth. The mix “helps us to be nimble and flexible in a way we find novel,” says Burton. “We’re in a long line of students. We all have a student relationship with this music.”

That mix also seems apt given the name of the group. Burton says Wells has a different story explaining the name almost every time he’s asked. “One of my favorites is that a roomful of teeth is what each of us shares. It’s the most representative thing about a singer. You’re sharing this chamber and you’re using every part of your mouth to make this music.” Seems like an appropriate explanation for a group that uses the world and its traditions to create its music.

By Janet Reynolds

Janet Reynolds is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Connecticut. She’s a lifelong cellist and viola da gamba player, and has played in the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra for 36 years.