Around the World in 60 Minutes
It’s fitting that the choral group Roomful of Teeth is on tour during the 2016 Olympic Games. For one thing, the eight-person ensemble — founded by Williams College professor Brad Wells in 2009 — has set out to “mine the expressive potential of the human voice,” and its members push the envelope with as much intensity as our favorite long-jumping, high-diving athletes.
For another, the expansive, original songs they sing — produced through an ongoing commissioning project with composers — are driven by global, non-classical musical styles, from Tuvan and Inuit throat singing to Korean p’ansori, yodeling, belting, and riffs on Georgian, Sardinian, Hindustani, and Persian traditions.
The group’s second full-length album Render, released last spring, is a deeply-felt creation, smiling but haunting. With a strong beating heart and technicolor soul, it sounds like a symphonic dream rendition of Rio’s Opening Ceremonies. Carl Sagan, we imagine, would have jumped at the chance to press their pan-continental voices into a Golden Record and strap it to the front of Voyager 1. In other words: this is music that reflects who we’ve always been — and also how we might, rather joyously, turn vocal composition on its head.
The singers in Roomful of Teeth — who hail from Texas, California, and across the Northeast — gather annually at MASS MoCA for a few weeks of uninterrupted rehearsal time, something Wells considers a luxury. “Normally when we do a show or we’re preparing new material, we’ll have a couple of days, max, once everyone’s together,” he says. At the North Adams museum, by contrast, the group creates new material that will work its way into the touring repertoire. Singers are also studying new vocal techniques, and re-encountering old ones.
The live show, on Friday Aug. 19, will feature songs pulled from Render and elsewhere, but audiences are sure to encounter work by three of the group’s most recent composers: the young jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire from California, the New York-based overtone performer Toby Twining, and Vermont avant-pop rocker Nick Zammuto.
If that seems eclectic, it’s no accident. “In the classical world, certain styles have gotten looser,” Wells says. These days, composers and performers “listen more liberally” than they used to.
Render, like the group’s eponymous first LP, is a collection of works by several composers. Wells describes the first album, released in 2012, as “loud, noisy, and rhythmic.” When focusing in on the songs for their second album, the singers quickly found a through-line in “something quieter and slower, more reflective and lyrical,” Wells says.
Now seven years old, Roomful of Teeth is going strong, with commissions and projects lined up into 2021 with musicians from all over the globe. The results will continue to be something unique — not a definitive take on world traditions, per se, but a strange and beautiful group effort by an expanding circle of friends. Smartly, Wells eschews the idea that he provides an authentic window onto other cultures. “We’re very clear about not presenting ourselves as Inuit throat singers,” he says. “We have studied with masters in those traditions, but our work is colored on every level by how we learn and perform, and who we’re writing with.”
“Still, people in every culture sing and make music,” he adds. “So we try not to get too caught up on who owns what. We don’t want to claim any sort of ultimate authority. But we certainly love sharing what we learn.”
Roomful of Teeth plays MASS MoCA on Friday, Aug. 19, at 8 p.m. Render is available on the iTunes Store, Amazon, and Bandcamp.
— Hunter Styles