Roomful of Teeth: Music with Teeth
With custom-composed pieces employing a staggering range of vocal styles, Roomful of Teeth makes music that can be difficult to define.
Roomful of Teeth is an award-winning vocal ensemble known for using a variety of singing techniques to explore the expressive potential of the human voice.
Founded in 2009 by conductor, singer, and composer Brad Wells with singers he handpicked from around the United States, Roomful of Teeth was incubated during annual trips to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. The group’s eponymous first album won a 2014 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance and received nominations in two other categories. Composer and founding member Caroline Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for Music for her “Partita for 8 Voices,” which appears on the album.
The ensemble has also performed world premiere pieces by the world’s leading composers of choral music, including Julia Wolfe, David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Missy Mazzoli. They maintain a busy touring schedule and have played with many of the world’s major orchestras. Their third album, 3, was released in 2019.
We’ve never heard music like this before. Perhaps because there’s never really been music like this before, nor a group like Roomful of Teeth, which almost defies definition.
Estelí Gomez: It’s this band, it’s this vocal ensemble, octet.
It’s actually an eight member vocal ensemble, founded in 2009 by conductor, singer, and composer, Brad Wells. Every year since then, they’ve met here at MASS MoCA, in the small town of North Adams, Massachusetts, to learn new vocal techniques. and to collaborate with composers. This is a room full of talented musicians, but what is a Roomful of Teeth?
Brad Wells: I was looking for a less sort of highbrow term for chamber music, ’cause we’re vocal chamber music. So I’m thinking chamber, room, vocal, mouth, teeth. I like how relatively permanent teeth are, right up against this breath and voice that disappears as soon as we say or sing.
AJC: You wanted to put together a small group of very talented musicians, to do what?
Wells: To explore what the voice could do in an unapologetic way. The definition of musical sounds for the voice is a very generous one.
Virginia Warnken Kelsey: Within one Roomful of Teeth concert, I will have to sing in my operatic voice, I will have to sing a shredding rock goddess solo. I will have to sing very, very straight tone, high, ethereal. I will have to Tuvan throat sing.
Yes, Tuvan throat singing. It’s just one of the exotic vocal techniques the group has studied with experts brought in from around the world. At the feet of these masters, the group can ask questions that go beyond the practical aspects of creating sounds.
Wells: How does their craft work for them in their culture, in their bodies, in their traditions? And humbly learn what we can, not trying to be Tuvan throat singers, but trying to see how it feels to sing alongside of them. How does your voice shift if you’re trying to approximate what they do, with the hints they give you? What can you do? What’s possible?
Dashon Burton: Trying to see what it is in our own bodies and our own training that can make those beautifully expressive sounds, maybe not well enough to be at the highest levels of each of those individual worlds, but we want to see what that sounds like in our voice, what that journey is like towards that in our own individual bodies and how that can serve the beauty of the music that has been written for us.
The most successful composition written for Room Full of Teeth came from one of its own members. In 2013, Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices” made her the youngest ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The piece, which was also on the group’s Grammy winning debut CD, had its genesis in a typical Room Full of Teeth vocal experiment.
Caroline Shaw: I said okay, can everyone sing this chord (singing), that’s a third of the chord and then go from vocal fry which is (throaty sound), so like we’d go from this group of vocal fry to (singing from the diaphragm), just to see if that would work. And then, from there, found this chord progression that I really identified with and kind of used that to shape it. It came from this place, and these people, and the particular character of those weeks, the conversations that we were having. And even if it didn’t become directly a part of the piece, was a real catalyst for my own thinking, so…
And rather than being an anomaly, the intimate nature of this process is typical for Roomful of Teeth.
Dashon Burton: We’re very lucky to have composers who are writing for us and saying, ‘no I’m interested in that sound specifically in your voice.’
While most classical ensembles have fluid memberships, Roomful of Teeth has, since its inception, been comprised of the same eight singers.
Cameron Beauchamp: We’ve all dedicated ourselves so much to being a band and a family.
AJC: I like that you used the phrase band, ’cause that’s what it really feel like.
Beauchamp: That’s how we feel about ourselves, yeah. We definitely feel like a band, we have our music that’s written for our voices.
Estelí Gomez: It doesn’t say ‘for some soprano,’ it says ‘Estelí’ on the score. And we have this chance to have a say in what works and what doesn’t. That doesn’t happen very often.
Outside of rock, there are few groups whose repertoire is so constantly changing. So, from the get go, flexibility, in voice, and in personality, was a prerequisite for membership, says founder Brad Wells.
Wells: Could I imagine them going from an expert to a beginner and being okay with being a beginner for some length of time?
Virginia Warken Kelsey: We trust each other, I think, more so than you would in another ensemble where you’re coming together as badasses, and ‘we got this.’ It’s different than that. There’s an immediate vulnerability in every year coming together and having to start over from scratch.
Gomez: We come into it, and we say ‘I am open, Iam ready to throw my mind and heart and body into this.
The result of this artistic exploration is music that’s constantly surprising to both audiences and artists.
Beauchamp: I’ve never wanted to put myself in a box as far as a musician. I’ve never thought of myself as a classical musician or a jazz musician. I just, I’m always interested in what speaks.
Burton: We’re living in a great time of artistic exploration, one where all you know can be sort of mixed together in the pursuit of artistic beauty.
And the pursuit of artistic beauty is what drives Roomful of Teeth to find the extremes of what is possible in that most organic of instruments, the human voice.