In just a few short years, the innovative vocal octet, Roomful of Teeth, has rocketed to international stardom. Since coming together in 2009, the group has been greeted with riotous acclaim, taking home the 2014 Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance for its self-titled début album and earning a 2016 Grammy nomination for its latest album, Render. The brainchild of Founder & Artistic Director, Brad Wells, Roomful of Teeth has been hailed as “a tour de force of vocal mischief-making,” “Glee on acid,” and even “the future of vocal music.” The fame and praise are well deserved — the group’s arresting blend of technical precision and creative daring is unique on the vocal music scene. I am always astonished not only by the incredible sounds that these singers produce, but also by their stamina and vocal flexibility in live performance.
Roomful of Teeth has a full schedule of upcoming performances, including one at the University of Connecticut on February 10, 2016 and another at the Eastern Division Conference of ACDA in Boston on February 11, 2016.
Back in 2013, I interviewed Brad Wells about his work with Roomful of Teeth, his ideas about the present and future of music, and his own history as a musician.
Can you please share a bit about your story, your background, and how Roomful of Teeth came about?
The Roomful of Teeth idea actually started when I was in college. I was focusing a lot on the voice, and I was getting the message from the classical voice world that there was one ideal sound for the human voice. But then I would go back to my dorm and listen to both classical and a lot of non-classical things, pop and rock and jazz and even [Meredith] Monk, who was the first to point me in the direction that the voice, even in the art world scene, doesn’t have to be operatic bel canto. You can take a more folk-type sound and put it in a classical vein and still come up with some beautiful stuff. Over the years as I got more into choral work and teaching at high schools and colleges, the ease with which we all started hearing different world music was mind-blowing. Eventually, finding myself at Williams and with a great laboratory for new art — the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — just down the road, I decided to test my idea. I gathered some good, flexible classical singers, vocal coaches from very different singing traditions, and two composers who liked the idea of writing for the voice in non-traditional ways. The music was bright and energetic and had a kind of a visceral quality that engaged both the performers and the audience right away. There was a sense of excitement in having the human voice do different things not just because it can but because the sounds are rooted in cultures around the world. Nobody knows when people started singing these ways; they go generations back. A good parallel for me is food. All sorts of plants and animals in the world are edible, but when we’re visiting another culture we don’t necessarily go out and just grab things and start eating them simply because we can. We investigate, and we say “well, in your part of the world, what have you found are good plants and animals to eat and how do you prepare them to be especially delicious? Oh, I’m going to do that, or I’m going to do some of that, and combine it with some of the way we do it in our neighborhood, and come up with something new.”
So is that one of the things that you seek when collaborating? Are you specifically interested in working with musicians whose traditions have endured for ages?
What I’m most interested in and what I look for in different vocal traditions to engage with is a notable difference. How many steps removed from Western classical or even Western pop singing is this tradition? If it’s pretty close in terms of vocal approach, I’m less interested. One of the styles that especially blows my mind is from Sardinia, called contu a tenore singing. Although the island of Sardinia is just off the coast of Italy, this style of male quartet singing is almost completely unknown in the West. There’s very little academic study of it, very little musical transcription, very few people outside of that island who have even tried to sing that way. And it’s very different! I mean, that’s amazing to me! Show that to a composer and see what they make of it… get them to hear it live. It’s unknown territory that I think will yield really exciting new works.
It seems to me that a big part of what you’re trying to do is to cultivate friendships and connections and to create an environment in which cross-pollination can occur. What your group is doing is sort of a catalyst for this sort of communication. One of the things that Roomful of Teeth does that I think is unusual and wonderful is that it builds this platform not just for itself, but also for the many other artists with whom it interfaces and collaborates. In some cases, it creates a platform where none existed, especially in terms of live performances.
That’s right. The purpose for us isn’t to be a showcase of world music, it’s very much more “let’s embody these as much as possible and then be an instrument for the composers who make use of these various colors and techniques.” And sharing our excitement about the styles we study and master performers with whom we work is a part of our evangelism.
You’ve talked a lot about how some of these singing styles are pretty far outside the approach that you were taught in college and of that which is considered mainstream within the classical and academic circles of vocal pedagogy. Have you experienced any pushback or any sort of dissension or concern either from voice teachers, the singers themselves, or anyone within the “establishment” of classical singing that these “alternative” performance practices may be destroying the singers’ voices? I’ve sometimes heard statements like “belting is always unhealthy” or “eliminating or minimizing vibrato does vocal damage no matter how you slice it.” I’m sort of playing devil’s advocate here, but I’m curious as to whether you’ve encountered any of that, and if so, how you have handled it.
I’ve only heard second or third hand that members of the classical singing community object to our approach; I have yet to have a conversation with anyone who has a problem with it. From numerous established voice teachers I have heard the opposite. We’ve held residencies at multiple colleges during which we hold master classes with singers and work closely with voice faculty. They raved about the work and some have even expressed a desire that voice pedagogy were more like what we do, a more “mixed martial arts” for singing. And I do feel that belief around inherent ills in, say, belting are misguided and have their roots in ignorance of vocal physiology and function. That’s not to say belting or throat singing can’t be unhealthy: bad (unsustainable) technique exists in every vocal mode. Our aim is to sing as healthily as possible in each technique we utilize.
I’m curious about how your rehearsals work and what kind of role you play versus the clinicians and singers. In one of the video clips on your web site, you can be seen in the background sipping a cup of coffee while your clinician instructs the singers. You were apparently involved but looking pretty relaxed. How does it feel to sit back and let the experts do their thing and serve as more of a coordinator than a “maestro on the podium”? Is it hard to play a limited role in some of the interpretive elements? Many conductors like to have a very high degree of control and that’s why in fact they decide to be a conductor, but you seem like you’re perhaps even excited about this process taking place without you necessarily needing to be an expert. It appears as though you see yourself being a student as much as you are a teacher. I’m curious about whether my hunches about that are on point or if I’m missing something. What are your thoughts about your role?
You’re exactly right. . Since the spring of 2013 the group has regularly performed unconducted. I’ve loved stepping out and having the group make music as a chamber ensemble, interacting with each other and directly with the audience without needing a conductor as a conduit. As much as I love conducting the group, I feel like the ideal for them is to run unconducted, since the group is small enough and the musicianship level is so high. If in a certain context the level of complexity or the amount of time means that there needs to be a conductor, I happily play that role.
That’s wonderful. It seems as though you really have sort of an entrepreneurial perspective on this project. It’s pretty bold to say, “we need $120,000 to make this happen; we’ve pulled together 30,000, and all we need is another 90,000 to get this thing launched.” It takes a certain combination of self-confidence and idealism, I think, but it seems like you have a real finger on the pulse of what it takes to run an enterprise like this as a business. It requires marketing and funding, and those are certainly not core courses at the Yale School of Music. Do you have any sense of how you got that entrepreneurial spark?
I do feel like to a degree that there is a marketing aspect to attracting singers to one’s choir, keeping them interested and engaged in the music-making and attracting audiences to concerts or supporters for programs.
No doubt about it. We all face those challenges. Your model is a unique concept, and so you went into it kind of unproven, but you seemed to know somehow in your heart of hearts that this could happen and be successful. What is your dream for the future? I know you just had this Caroline Shaw piece that won the Pulitzer, which is thrilling. Where does this go from here?
The Pulitzer is obviously an extraordinary but absolutely appropriate honoring of Caroline’s remarkable talent. I think I really lucked out in hiring her for this group. In terms of visions for the future, more learning, more new music, more recording and touring. In August we’ll study vocal traditions from Persia and India and this season will perform new works by Sam Amidon, Julia Wolfe, Michael Harrison, Elena Ruehr, Evan Ziporyn, Christine Southworth, William Brittelle and Johann Johannsen. We’ll release our second album in April of 2015 on New Amsterdam Records.
Have you ever thought about creating a larger ensemble of some sort?
I often call Roomful of Teeth a project as opposed to an ensemble. Currently it’s a chamber ensemble that has an idea behind it, but I think stepping back and thinking longer term and thinking of it more as a project that can have all sorts of different incarnations or sizes of ensembles or even individual projects is very attractive and appealing. In the short term, we’ve already done a few performances where we’ve not only coached but included choirs in repertoire that was composed for us, and it’s been really fun getting ensembles of singers to yodel or belt or do Korean pansori singing or Inuit singing. It’s exciting for them to branch out and use their voices in different ways and feel the power and beauty of these different sounds. Also it’s incredibly exciting for us to hear the music take new shape and life when sung by larger ensembles. My hope is that eventually our website can be a resource of different vocal techniques from around the world. I would love to have videos of people describing how they perform different techniques, explaining what their cultural meanings are, singing in different ways, and noting if there’s been any academic research on the physiology or the acoustics of the techniques. There’s no one place to learn about the world of the voice and the voice in the world, and my dream would be to have that housed on a website.
So I have to ask, how did you come up with the name?
Really it was just a quick idea. I was trying to think of a name that would point to contemporary vocal chamber music. The word “room” made chamber more mundane and contemporary. I also like the idea that teeth are the parts of our bodies that are longest lasting, in contrast to the sound of the voice which disappears almost as soon as you vocalize. The juxtaposition of permanence versus impermanence appealed to me.
Further information about Roomful of Teeth is available at roomfulofteeth.org.
Special thanks to Spencer Klavan and Connor Buechler for their editorial assistance.