Roomful of Teeth: a new model for new vocal music

Roomful of Teeth performs Friday night at Lewis & Clark College.

Roomful of Teeth performs Friday night at Lewis & Clark College.

When Brad Wells wanted to start a vocal ensemble, he didn’t look to the standard choir model. Although many choirs are constantly seeking new music, they too often tend to be pretty conservative, firmly in the Western choral tradition, maybe with some jazz harmonies, usually with more emphasis on producing lush, pretty sounds than on musical ambition or adventure.

Wells’s New York/Massachusetts octet Roomful of Teeth, which performs Friday night at Lewis & Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel, aims to change that. Modeling itself on the Kronos Quartet, RoT works with some of contemporary classical music’s most exciting composers (Caleb Burhans, Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzolli, et al) to develop fascinating new works for vocal ensemble – including this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning composition by one of its members, 30 year old RoT singer and composer Caroline Shaw, the youngest composer ever to snag the award.

Instead of imitating other choirs, Wells, a California native who was on the music faculty at Boston’s Williams College, looked to the most influential ensemble in classical music, which he’d encountered first hand during his days teaching and singing in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I’ve loved Kronos Quartet since the 1970s,” he recalls. “I always used them as a model, and the way they helped redefine a genre of music [the string quartet] with a very long history by presenting new music all over the world, in more casual ways, marketing themselves and music in a different way.”

That meant finding performers who weren’t just highly skilled singers but who also sought more interesting musical challenges. Along with Kronos, the Bay Area was also the birthplace of the world music movement in classical music, thanks in part to Berkeley’s Center for World Music and the musicians it brought from around the globe. A composer himself (one of his pieces is on RoT’s Portland program), Wells even sang on the premiere recording of one of the early pinnacles of Asian influenced choral music, California composer and Portland native Lou Harrison’s “The Heart Sutra” in the 1980s.

“For a number of years  through ‘80s and ‘90s, as a composer, I’d been interested in what the voice was capable of,” Wells remembers. “As more world music became easily available and people from these different cultures started performing and teaching, I’d go to workshops, and it seemed natural to put the widest range of vocal styles and techniques into composers’ hands and see what they could do with them.”

Unfortunately, most contemporary choirs (with notable exceptions like Chanticleer, Conspirare, Toby Twining’s group dedicated to his music, and some others) tended to shy away from such experimentation, “afraid of misusing  their voices in a way that would negatively affect classical singing,” Wells explains. “Not only does it take a long time in a singer’s life to develop that high level of skill, power, and precision” enough to sing opera or major choral or art songs, he says, “it also took a long time in European history to get to that place as well, so it makes sense that it would be a cherished institution,” and sometimes resistant to change. Hence the choral conservatism that has left vocal music generally way behind its instrumental counterparts in musical ambition. “That stream of contemporary choral music has frustrated me for so many years,” Wells says. “I wonder if it’s people not being willing to take choral music in different directions?”

Wells was. He formed RoT four years ago and immediately began challenging contemporary composers to write for the ensemble, employing relatively rarely used techniques like Tuvan throat singing, Sardinian chanting, Mbuti pygmy music and more. But he also notes that academic modernist composers might actually find RoT’s music conservative, since “pretty much everything is tonally grounded, and it’s very accessible. Younger listeners with varied musical tastes connect with it. They get it.”

Maybe the main difference between RoT and conventional choral/vocal ensembles is its way of working with composers, which they invite to join them in residency at the Williams museum and work with the singers directly, rather than writing a score intended for just any choir. The result: music tailored to RoT’s specific voices. “We’ve built a structure that allows composers to workshop their pieces. It might take some iterations to get it all worked out. Having that laboratory set up has been really successful,” Wells says, “so pretty much everything that’s been written for us, we continue to perform.”

That’s especially true of the piece that put RoT on the national map, Shaw’s astonishing “Partita.”

“I was singing with Roomful of Teeth, so that’s who I wrote for,” Shaw explains. “I think of the music I’ve written for Roomful of Teeth not as choral music but I’m thinking of the voice as an instrument. I think of them as a small orchestra of voices, not as a choir.” Trained as a violinist, Shaw is writing a string quartet for a New York new music ensemble and another piece for RoT, and each is tailored to the specific players in the group that commissioned them.

A New Model?

But can music crafted so specifically to a particular set of voices transfer to other vocal ensembles? “There’s certainly an energy and a sense of doing something unique, and there’s a different type of satisfaction in doing this,” Wells says. “I don’t know if other groups are going to do this.” Though Wells thinks others might be able to handle it if they’re willing to “honor her vocabulary of sounds,” Shaw admits that her signature work might be tough for community choirs (she runs one in New York), and she’ll know more when groups in Austin and Indianapolis perform it soon.

“I like to think of our group as a band like a folk or rock band,” Wells says. “We’re not getting caught up in whether it’s performable by outside groups. That said, a number of our pieces that we’ve shared with outside chamber choirs have worked really well, in some cases even better. In other cases, they might have a hard time because they’re so well tailored to the current members in the group even subs covering for them with us can have a hard time with them.” He suspects that it would be harder for a larger chamber choir of 32 or more voices to imitate RoT’s unique sound.

But no matter how much repertoire Roomful of Teeth generates for other groups, it’s already setting an exciting new course for choral music by translating the Kronos/Bang on a Can All Stars model to vocal music, which portends a new era of more adventurous compositions for voice. Other groups will no doubt follow their lead.

“Is it the curating of the composers or the approach to the voice that has helped define ourselves very differently [from other vocal groups]?” Wells muses. “I’m sure it’s both. It’s all a package.”
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