Brad Wells insists Roomful of Teeth is a band, not a choir, with each musician playing a unique role. “It’s inspiring, humbling, ear-stretching.”
Brad Wells, professor of music at Williams College, heard in the 1990s Tuvan throat singers performing with a classical Western group of women vocalists. Together they sounded gorgeous but constrained, he says, two distinct ensembles in different sound worlds. They gave him an idea: He wanted one ensemble, a group that could study with master musicians from around the world to bring disparate sounds together. It would give composers a breadth of expression they rarely find.
In 2009 Wells held auditions and invited eight musicians to Mass MoCA for a residency. The group, called Roomful of Teeth, has returned every summer to study Tuvan throat singing, Appalachian yodeling, Hindustani melody, classical Persian ornamentation, belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, and Sardinian cantu a tenore.
The group’s name, Wells says, invokes the permanence of bone against the fleeting sound of the voice. While they look like a choir — it’s a group of vocalists after all — Wells insists Roomful of Teeth is a band, not a choir. Choirs have sections of voices and blend them carefully. Here, as in a band, each musician is unique. Many Roomful of Teeth members compose their own music, including Caroline Shaw, who in 2013 became the youngest winner of a Pulitzer Prize in music for her “Partita in Eight Voices.”
The group’s breadth and independence have served them well. In 2014, Roomful of Teeth won a Grammy Award for chamber music. Wells knows of no one else blending traditions like this.
This summer, composers came to Roomful of Teeth. In a change of pace, this weekend’s performance will feature a collaboration with Mass MoCA composer-in-residence Ted Hearne, who wrote a work for them; jazz pianist Fred Hersch; composer Anna Clyne; and Wally Gunn, who wrote two new movements for “The Ascendent,” a work Roomful of Teeth performed on its April 2015 album, Render.
“Hearne is the embodiment of a new generation of composers coming up who have listened to all sorts of music, from the most refined and obscure Western classical to rock and punk and jazz, and don’t see divisions between them,” Wells says. “He adapts influences with energy and ease.”
So does Roomful of Teeth, absorbing influences across the world. “It’s inspiring, humbling, ear-stretching,” Wells says. “Always a feeling I get is one of awe — when you hear people who are masters of singing styles radically different from yours, and they are sitting a few feet away, and you hear them explore what they do … You hear the richness of someone’s native singing style, and they have a breadth and depth we will never have. We’re coming as visitors and as adults.”