It's been an exciting year for contempoary vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, whose debut album (New Amsterdam)—which includes Caroline Shaw's Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices—is up for three Grammy Awards this month, including Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. I had the chance to sit down a couple of weeks ago with Roomful of Teeth's Founder and Director, Brad Wells, to talk about the group's working methods and influences, and why they're not "a &$%ing choir!"
(Note: Roomful of Teeth will be performing as part of the upcoming Winter Jazzfest at Judson Memorial Church next Friday, January 10, at 9:45 p.m. Tickets and info here.)
On Starting Roomful of Teeth: There were these hard lines that had been drawn between classical voice pedagogy and everything else. The mentality was: keep everything else out, because everything else is an inferior use of the voice. But thinking about how long people have been using their voice in different parts of the world, how could those other techniques be wrong?
I love a throaty or a belchy voice. I love yodeling. I love voices when they crack. I love hearing grit in the voice. As a young composer, I thought: Well, those are really just colors, the same way an oboe is a different variant of a wind instrument from an English Horn or a clarinet. So it seemed like a given to me that composers would enjoy writing for the voice in dramatically different gears—from bel canto, to throat singing, to all of these different kinds of techniques. Once I knew we could stretch the singers without damaging them, and once I knew I could find the right teachers from different vocal disciplines, I knew this was going to work.
On Teeth's Identity: We've definitely looked to other vocal groups as role models: Chanticleer, New York Polyphony, Austin's Conspirare, and Seraphic Fire in Miami. But at the same time, we aren't like any of them. In fact, we have this mantra: "We're not a fucking choir!" We like to think of it as a band. A band doesn't get caught up in thinking about who's going to be covering this stuff in the future; just do your music, and whatever happens, happens.
On Working with Composers: The success rate has been surprisingly high. I feel like there's something about the ethos of the group, the fact that composers haven't written for this particular machine before. We set it up so they can try things out, get to know the singers individually. We have a chart that we update that lists each singer and their range: if they're singing in their chest voice or their falsetto, this is where they yodel and their breaks work the best, this is their range for throat singing, etc. We have little notes like, "I can only do this for about 10 seconds before I need a break."
Sometimes when the group is building new techniques into their vocabulary, I'll draw the composers' attention to aspects of those techniques that I think are interesting or unique. For example, we were studying Korean P'ansori, which is sort of a high blues that uses vibrato in a very particular way. I showed this to Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs), and within the hour, she had constructed a section of a piece using it.
Judd Greenstein's AEIOU, which he wrote during our first summer residency at Mass MoCA, asks the singers to yodel up from their chest voice to their head voice, in tune. Everyone at first thought, "Jesus, this is really hard." But, we performed it again a year later, after it had sat in our ears for a while and we had done lots of other yodeling. And, it was like, "Oh, this isn't that hard anymore."
On Discovering Caroline Shaw: When I met Caroline and heard her, she had such a beautiful, pure sound, but wasn't trained to have a big voice. But knowing that we were going to be miking the singers and were looking for flexibility in musicianship, she definitely fit the bill.
On Partita for 8 Voices: During that first summer at Mass MoCA, we had Judd and Rinde (Eckert) writing for us, but we needed music for a full program, and I was certain that I didn't want to do any music that hadn't been written for the group. So I basically went to the group and said, "Help me out here, kids!" Several of them did, and Caroline's piece jumped out right away.
When we first performed Passacaglia, there was a real power to it, and the audience responded in a dramatic way. The experience in the room that night typified what we all were hoping this group was going to be: a new look at using the voice, writing music that is about connecting with listeners right now, not getting caught up in trying to write the best piece of music in the world that's going to last for centuries. Just write kick-ass music that's going to get people leaning forward in their chairs right now. The audience that night couldn't help but cheer right in the middle of it. (You can watch it here.)
In most bands, the tune isn't by a particular person, it's by the band. And as Caroline has said: Even though she wrote Partita, she didn't always have a clear idea of what she wanted with the sound. It was a collaborative effort. You can't do this sort of thing without your friends, and in this case, her friends have their fingerprints all over it.
Caroline, in her super fresh way, says "I'm going to write music because I'm curious and I'm interested in music that's functional." It's just crazily serendipitous that somebody with that sort of gift, even unknown to her, would land in a group that's like a sponge needing new stuff.
On the Grammys: We actually couldn't apply to the choral category because our group is only eight singers, and you need to have a minimum of 16 members to be considered a choir. As you can imagine, I'm totally fine with that! (In addition to the three Grammys for which they've been nominated, Roomful of Teeth will be performing at the Grammy Awards ceremony.)
On the Future: Things have definitely gotten busier. I used to do everything myself, but now I've had to get a booking manager and a social media manager. We've also been getting a lot of invitations to pursue collaborations with other performers/ensembles. In March, we'll present a work by Elliot Cole that has us singing an Indian creation tale like a Greek chorus with percussion. In May, we're excited to be giving the premiere of Caroline's new piece for us at A Far Cry at St. John's Church in Boston.
This summer, Teeth will be learning Hindustani and Middle Eastern singing. Ideally, we'd like to start doing a winter residency, in addition to the summer residency at MoCA, where we get to work with other groups.
As for future releases, we have at least a couple of albums more worth of material we could put out right now. I love our first album, but it's really varied, even bizarre-seeming stuff. It actually blows my mind that it's been embraced as much as it has.