The boundary-destroying ensemble Roomful of Teeth is at the forefront of new music written for the voice. Since 2009, founder and Artistic Director Brad Wells and his core group of 8 versatile singers -- which includes Eastman alumni Martha Cluver and Eric Dudley -- have created an indomitable, singular sound that has since garnered a 2014 Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. On February 27, Roomful of Teeth will bring that sound to Kilbourn Hall, in a concert that will include ensemble member Caroline Shaw's 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning composition "Partita for 8 Voices."
With a voracious appetite for vocal traditions from all over the world, the group makes music that sounds as if it's coming not from humans with vibrating vocal cords, but from some unknown, ethereal and mystical source. CITY recently spoke to Wells over the phone about Roomful of Teeth's origins, its kaleidoscopic musical performances, and success in the classical music world. An edited transcript follows.
CITY: How did you decide to form Roomful of Teeth? Was there a niche that needed to be filled?
Brad Wells: I think that's a good way of putting it. I think my love of "new music" and my love of the remarkable, wide range of sounds that the human voice is capable of -- I think those two things coexisted and intensified starting in college. So I got very much into "new music" in college, but also exploring John Cage and Luciano Berio and Stockhausen and the mid-century modernists who were exploring the sort of unabashed sound worlds that the voice was capable of. And that intrigued me.
At the same time, I was falling in love with Steve Reich and Meredith Monk and albums that had a kind of very clear, evident sonic beauty on the surface, and substance as well. And then over the years, getting to know different singing traditions from around the world and how they opened up emotional terrain that I didn't hear necessarily accessible using bel canto technique, the kind of burps and hiccups and laughs and raspberries that was a lot of the kind of mid-century modernists' extended vocal technique.
Is Western music inherently limited then by its sense of structure and form and almost arbitrary imposition of what's appropriate?
I don't think I feel confident coming down sort of hard on one side or the other. There are two things that I think of in response to that question. One is that with any language that we construct our ideas in, whether it's spoken language or musical language or probably anything else, the structures of that language reflect things about who we are, and about our culture and all that -- and they shape what's sort of in-bounds and where we tend to reside versus what's left natural. And that makes me think about how Western notation privileges certain things over other things. It's really precise in particular ways, but not very precise in other ways. We've got basically our equal-tempered scale that allows us to move from key to key with this confidence...But what we don't have is, say, the Indian music's much more nuanced sense, and a lot of other music's nuanced sense of intonation, and how intervals can respond to one another.
The need to be adaptable when it comes to the interpretation of different works is really essential. And I think that perhaps, students of music, whether they attend a formal institution or not, can benefit from a broader approach, like the one that you take to the ensemble.
I feel like a lot of Roomful of Teeth's discussions with singers in schools of music around the country are around these issues. The more flexible you are as a young musician, odds are the more hireable you'll be, and the more exciting a musician you'll be.
At the same time, there's no one right answer. There are going to be a lot of singers who really should specialize in Western classical singing, and not get caught up in feeling like they have to become a Swiss Army Knife of the voice, the way I'm kind of pushing my ensemble to be. Because they are going to continue that Western operatic or bel canto tradition at a really high level, and it takes a degree of specialization to keep that level that high.
At the same time, that's not for everybody. And I know lots of voices aren't built to do that full-time. They have some of that in their toolkit, but they would probably benefit from having some other things developed as well. So that's where we live, and I think encouraging that kind of flexibility in young singers is part of what we're up to. Not as a kind of "apply this across the board," but as an option.
Roomful of Teeth takes an almost kaleidoscopic approach to musical styles. It sounds like the incorporation of world music is both part of an organic evolution toward broader expression, but also an intentional thing that you wanted to explore within the group. Is that an accurate assessment?
Absolutely. I think that's pretty much at the core of it. It's easy in certain pieces, like in "Otherwise," to think of the composing of those works, to some degree, kind of like cutting out swatches of material and leaving them together, and getting these interesting juxtapositions of very different patterns or colors -- or whatever analogy you want to use -- up against each other. To a degree that's true, but the way we think about it is less like "Sing in that technique," or "Sing in this technique." It's more like, "Sing with that sound that you have, based on your experience studying that tradition or that style." So, for instance, the "bing-bom" kind of rhythmic thread in "Otherwise" is clearly derived -- if you had seen what we were up to that summer when I wrote that piece -- we had been studying the Sardinian folk style called "cantu a tènore," where three of the four singers in a quartet do that kind of thing.
One of the things that sets the ensemble apart is the fact you have composers like Caroline Shaw and yourself in your ranks. How does this affect your preparation of non-Roomful of Teeth composers and the dialogue that ensues?
I'm realizing the longer our history gets, it puts some onus on me to bring outside composers as up-to-speed as possible, and make as few assumptions as possible about what they know and what their comfort level is in writing for such a particular group.
For those of us in the group, there's now 10, 15 different singing traditions we've studied, and these master singers, some of them have returned for a couple different summers, or we'll be in touch with them through the years with some questions. That all is in our vocabulary, and when we write for the group, we can make references to those things, those experiences.
Did Roomful of Teeth's Grammy win in 2014 change how you view success and its relationship to artistic integrity?
I hope not. It's funny, in the classical world, a Grammy, I think, it's helpful, it's nice. I think it was just a really fortunate thing for the group to both win a Grammy and then some months before that, Caroline's Pulitzer helped put us on the map. So that in the classical world, people became familiar with us fairly quickly. But from the beginning, the project was colored by my personal inclination, which is, I'm more about art and music connecting with an audience in a real place at a particular moment, than getting caught up in what I think has been part of the problem with new classical music for the last hundred years, which is kind of the Beethoven Syndrome: "Whether or not people like it or get it at first hearing, it will be around in 50 years and will be held up as something with great integrity."
I feel like that has it kind of backwards. All art should be about connecting with people right now, because you're writing about your experience right now. And if that doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. And sometimes pieces are too difficult to get, for whatever reason, on first hearing, on first viewing, on first reading, and it takes some time for people to kind of adjust to what the artist is up to. But I feel like that shouldn't be the aim. I feel like the aim is, you just wanna connect. You just wanna move people, you wanna excite people, youwanna somehow make the moment heightened and transformative. So whether or not you have an award or great recognition, I feel like that's what it should be about. And it's not about popularity, it's about connecting.