It is the distance that drives Brad Wells crazy. This distance—the empty span between a traditional choir and its audience—is necessary for voices to blend “into a single sound,” but it forms a barrier to engagement—to intimacy.
Better, according to Wells, is the close-miked style of a rock band. Here listeners “feel the sound in their body. It might be unbearably loud, but it’s present in the room.” Desire for this buzzing immediacy led Wells to found Roomful of Teeth.
At a Teeth concert, “everybody is miked. It is vivid and exciting, and hopefully it really gets you.” This collection of virtuoso singers “does not shy away from individual idiosyncrasies.” Summing it up, Wells calls his ensemble “the voice close up.”
The group’s name hints at zaniness, referencing a comically threatening line in the slapstick Bob Hope–Bing Crosby flick Road to Morocco (“Quit shoving or there’ll be a roomful of teeth here”). But it is also a reminder that we humans show our teeth to communicate a vast range of emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, excitement, fury, disgust.
Teeth was founded in 2009. The group’s musical forebears include Meredith Monk, whose raw vocal utterances conjure what Monk herself calls “folk music from another planet,” and the Kronos Quartet, whose receptiveness and versatility allows radical mutation between projects.
Wells doesn’t think of this group as a choir, but a “vocal project,” a term conjuring images of lab coats, hinting at hypotheses, experiments, data. But what is the subject of this musical research?
“We’ve pitched around the world,” says Wells, taking in many different vocal styles “to gain inspiration, flexibility in what the voice can do.” Each season, Teeth brings in expert practitioners to introduce the group to folk traditions from across the globe. One year it might be the declarative shaking of Korean p’ansori, the next year the close harmonies of Georgian singing, the next the guttural belting of Sardinian canto a tenore.
These influences filter through ears, body, and brain into new work. Composer Missy Mazzoli was surprised and impressed that Teeth gave “the same commitment to throat singing” as it did to Western vocal music. Their intense focus allowed Mazzoli to “open up” as a composer, and the sound of her Sardinian-tinged Teeth work “has influenced my music ever since.”
But Wells also aims for closer connections to the people, language, and cultures that give birth to these vocal styles. In working with Inuit throat singers, for instance, Teeth members ask not just how, but also why, digging into stories behind the technique.
“Openness is a way of expanding,” says Wells. “Exploring and inhabiting the voices of others is a point where we can find connection,” particularly with those whose perspectives are not often represented in the concert hall.
Wells is particularly fascinated by “the way individuals express themselves in pure speech” through variations of intonation or constriction, by a lack of pitch, by the way tone falls into the low growl of a so-called vocal fry. “I love a throaty or a belchy voice. I love yodeling. I love hearing grit.”
According to composer Christopher Cerrone, most classical creators “write for the most generic version of voice.” But working with Teeth is the opposite, such that “calling one of the singers by their voice type would be like calling Prince a tenor or Morrissey a baritone.”
For their upcoming Carnegie Hall concert, the group brings a work they have turned into a modern classic, Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize–winning “Partita for 8 Voices.” Shaw, a member of Teeth, turns voices into instruments, machines, drums. Rhythmic breaths whisper a sensual groove into our ears, whirling speech traces a Sol LeWitt artwork in air.
Teeth also introduces New York audiences to works by two new members of their ever-expanding artistic community. Like Teeth, Ambrose Akinmusire and Tigran Hamasyan are boundary crossers, jazz musicians who draw on diverse traditions to create distinctive musical worlds.
Trumpet player Akinmusire casts virtuoso display aside, collaborating across the spectrum on works of fragile beauty and searing pain. Talking about a recent project, he asks, “What if I were able to play a bunch of stuff from an iPod all at the same time? What would that sound like? This is a beautiful time in music. They’ve erased these boundaries of where you can and cannot go.”
In his wordless work for Teeth, “a promise in the stillness,” scattered raindrops pool, gleam, and cleanse. A lone voice cracks in lament. The piece puts “race issues front and center,” says Wells, but what is the “promise” of the title? Has it been kept?
Armenian pianist Hamasyan sews seductive musical quilts from sources that include heavy metal, Indian classical music, and the folk music of his homeland. His new work for Teeth is part of the 125 Commissions Project, Carnegie Hall’s plan to bring 125 new works into the world by 2020. This season includes new music by Bryce Dessner, Stacy Garrop, Philip Glass, Gabriel Kahane, and Zachary J. Watkins, as well as several world premieres by Shaw.
At the heart of Hamasyan’s new work is a rare, florid 10th-century sacred song by one of Armenia’s most important early poets and musicians, the mystic Gregory of Narek. Over the past summer, Teeth tested some of Hamasyan’s heavily ornamented melodic lines. Wells describes the music as “saturated with a kind of filagree, a feel uniquely from that corner of the world.”
Buzzing with talk of new collaborations, new voices, new sounds, Wells recalls the energy of Teeth’s first concert, all those years ago at the MASS MoCA. The project was the realization of a dream, with “many ears coming to a central place to have a collective experience.” The room was charged, electric—just as Zankel Hall will be this January.