A Conversation With Brad Wells, Founder of Roomful of Teeth, Coming to the Cleveland Museum of Art Tomorrow

By Mike Telin

When Brad Wells founded the innovative vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth in 2009, he wanted to explore all the possibilities of the human voice. “Before I studied classical technique, my experience with the voice was initially pop, rock, jazz, and then classical,” Wells said during a recent telephone conversation. “When I got into choral and solo singing, as well as composing for the voice, on the one hand the Western classical style struck me as very powerful, beautiful and expressive. But at the same time, I felt that from a composer’s point of view, there were all sorts of colors, gestures and timbres that were out there still waiting to be harnessed.”

On Friday, March 20 at 7:30 in Gartner Auditorium at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Wells and his eight-member ensemble, will present a concert featuring music from their 2014 Grammy-winning album, including ensemble member Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices.

In addition to Western classical singing, Roomful of Teeth’s musical styles include Tuvan and Inuit throat singing, yodeling, belting, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing and Sardinian cantu a tenore. Wells became curious about the technical possibilities of the voice while in college. “I was listening to Meredith Monk and non-classical singing at the same time as I was performing and studying the vocal music of Stockhausen, Berio and Cage, which I was fascinated by and found compelling. Those composers were among the first to look beyond the bel canto sound and use techniques like the rolling of the tongue and the sound of laughter and talking. But I think even the classical audience found it difficult to engage with those sounds primarily because there was no precedent for their being expressive of emotions.”

During the 1980s and ‘90s Wells was introduced to the music of a number of non-Western vocal traditions such as the Bulgarian Women’s Choirs and throat singers. “When I heard these singers I thought, OK, the voice is being used in distinctly different ways that have evolved over hundreds if not thousands of years. And the music means something powerful to those communities.”

Roomful of Teeth members are all committed to studying the different vocal techniques they are required to perform, which they do together each summer during their residency at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA). It is there that new repertoire is also created by members of the group who are also composers, as well as invited composers. “What we like to do is to have the composers really get to know each singer and their range of skills in all of the different arenas that we’ve studied,” Wells said. “During the first couple of days of the residency each composer will meet individually with singers, who will demonstrate what they sound like when yodeling, throat singing or belting. The composers will take notes and make recordings, and based on how they respond to what the singers can do, their piece will take shape. There are many examples of pieces where certain effects were written because the composer knew a singer could perform them.”

Read the entire article at ClevelandClassical.com.

Read the entire article at ClevelandClassical.com.
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