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Vocal Frontiersman: Brad Wells and Roomful of Teeth

September 24, 2019

As I transcribe my interview with Brad Wells, founder of the innovative ensemble Roomful of Teeth, I change the tempo in my Garage Band recording so that his voice becomes slower, more the tempo of my typing. As I make adjustments, his voice starts to sound strange to my ear. Our phone connection was not great, and when I slow the audio down his voice begins to morph into something I recognize, but can’t really understand. Then this becomes interesting to me, and I forget about writing this article, and just begin fiddling with the controls. I crank up the reverb and Brad Wells is now inside of a cave. I pin the compression knob and he sounds very conservative all of a sudden. It occurs to me, I am doing something like what the eight-voice vocal group has been doing for ten years. I am having fun playing with the voice.

Roomful of Teeth, (RoT), will perform in Berkeley at Cal Performances on Sept. 28 in Tryptich. Billed as a “hybrid theater experience,” it includes images by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe with music from composer Bryce Dessner and text from Essex Hemphill and Patti Smith.

Such broad exploratory work is in line with RoT’s mission of “reimagining the expressive potential of the human voice.” For the past nine years, that reimagining has included an annual residency at MassMoCA, (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), where they meet annually, woodshedding different styles and techniques, bringing in expert masters in each tradition and working closely with composers.

“Typically, we share with the composer everything we’ve studied and how different explorations have led to timbres or gestures. Or we say, ‘this person can yodel from these pitches to these pitches,’ and ‘the break is especially clear in this range,’ or ‘they can throat sing for about this number of singing around here,’ or ‘for these notes, make sure they’re really short, but these notes can be longer,’ or ‘they can do this twice in an evening, that’s about it.’”

With a dedication to diverse input, RoT seems less a performing ensemble and more a living organism. The group has studied yodeling, Tuvan throat singing, Korean p’ansori, Persian classical singing, Inuit throat singing, and, closer to home, belting and death metal. Collaborators include an illustrious list of contemporary composers, from Terry Riley to Michael Harrison, and especially composers who are interested in the creative use of the voice, like Missy Mazzoli and Rinde Eckert. Wells is a composer in his own right, and another ensemble member, Caroline Shaw, became the youngest composer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, which she won for Partita for Eight Voices, written for RoT in 2013.

Singers are in a unique position in the musical world. If you thrash a guitar, you can get another one. Your voice is your voice. Forever. But these eight classically trained singers seem self-selected for boldness. And while there is savvy, there is not a debilitating abundance of caution.

“It almost feels like the singers are dancers studying different kinds of moves that they aren’t necessarily accustomed to but the body can do,” says Wells, a native of Lafayette, California, who also once taught at Acalanes High School. “Certain things are not high-contact vocal worlds so that is not as much of an issue, but with something like death metal or Korean p’ansori, there is a degree of caution. Singers are constantly monitoring how things feel, hydrating, resting.

“Death metal and contemporary belt are premised on amplification. They aren’t about projecting, they’re about creating a timbre but using really close microphone amplification. It’s almost like the audience can be fooled that there’s more intensity and effort than there actually is. That’s how belting has been able to go above that C5 [an octave above middle C]. That was the top of Ethel Merman’s range. Most belters, before close mikes, didn’t go above C5 because you just have to lighten up. So it’s caution, delicacy, making use of microphones. People who do sing in these disciplines — and death metal is definitely a discipline — they find a way to do it sustainably, and that’s often what we’re chasing. What’s the sustainable way of doing it? Not just can I do it?”

Singing styles reflect culture, in some cases for millennia, and the intensive immersions the group practices allow for a deep interest in the contexts and meaning of other traditions, though it is far from an intellectual exercise. “A lot of the people we’ve studied with aren’t native English speakers, so we don’t necessarily get the verbal articulation of the philosophy of singing from them,” Wells says. “It’s more like what does it mean in their culture? Their families? Their lives? What is education like in that style of singing? One world of singing it occurs to me we had lots of very interesting conversations about the deep generational history was Inuit throat singing. Without question, it’s the oldest singing style that we’ve studied. It has very close common ancestors in northern Japan and Siberia, and we can safely say this practice hasn’t changed that much in thousands of years. Its meaning certainly has shifted over the centuries, but the way it’s done, the basic sonic vocabulary hasn’t changed much. The way the women talked about how they were taught it by their grandmothers and the way their grandmothers would talk about how they were taught it in their childhoods, you definitely got this feeling of a connection to nature, to family, to a tribal culture that was magical.”

Wells is now on the faculty of Williams College in Massachusetts where he teaches classes like “The Singing Voice: Structure, Styles, and Meaning”, and “Arranging for Voices.” Wells’s own education has included advanced degrees from Yale but his musical imagination was stoked in childhood, in part by commuting every week to sing in the Oakland Youth Choir. “I remember the programming wasn’t all that different from the regular choirs, but there was some jazz and blues stuff that got in and brought a broadening community perspective.”

One of his most powerful influences was Brian McKibbin, who taught music in Wells’s middle school in Lafayette. (McKibbin later served as director of the Oakland Unified School District from 2001 to 2008.)

“He and I kept in touch,” Wells says. “He came over as a vice principal at Acalanes while I was there. He wasn’t a trained classical musician but he had this omnivorous ear. A really good ear. He would listen to a Beatles song, or a Beach Boys song, or a more contemporary band as time went on, and he would memorize every vocal part, and we’d come in and he’d be doing the chords on his guitar and he would just teach by rote the choirs every part of that Crosby, Stills, and Nash song, or Beatles, or a Beach Boys [song]. And it was totally natural. We just thought ‘this is how it’s done.’ We didn’t know it was so unusual for somebody to memorize so many parts and have nothing except for a word sheet.” Wells also attributes a certain degree of his love of out-of-the-box thinking to his mother’s deep interest in contemporary art, saying that the two spent a lot of time thinking and talking about abstract art. “I was always looking for what’s new and relevant in this arena that I love. I love Schütz, I love Rachmaninoff, I love opera, but what’s meaningful to us right now?”

Within conservatories, a sense of strictness and traditionalism is inherent and necessary. But generally, Wells finds an open mindedness on campus. “There are certain techniques from different corners of the world that my undergrad students who have had no formal training can slip into with an ease that my experienced Roomful of Teeth singers have taken years to find, or still haven’t found because they’re already trained — they’ve trained their bodies in a certain way that just doesn’t allow them that access. It’s kind of like language learning, or dance. We fix our bodies in particular ways, but when they’re taught early enough, you can kind of build in more flexibility.” He also finds his colleagues open to what he’s doing. “These days, my experience is people in the classical world will say, ‘I don’t know how to do that, but that’s amazing. Teach me, or teach my students.’ Every voice teacher is different in this department in terms of the degree to which they can imagine their students developing a different way of using their voices that is not going to impinge on the primary pursuit. It’s still something we’re exploring.”

Wells says he rejects the idea that there is one “right” way of singing. “That didn’t make sense to me. But it’s the world I grew up in,” he says. “I remember hearing for the first time those Bulgarian women’s choirs on those Nonesuch recordings and literally being kind of repulsed, and afraid for them when I first heard that timbre. And then it didn’t take long to hear how beautiful those arrangements were and then I thought, ‘Oh, that timbre is a part of what makes that music beautiful.’ And obviously they are touring around the world and singing that way all the time, so it must be sustainable.”

 It is easy to consider RoT’s multiculturalism as somehow political, but on this topic, Wells is sanguine. “Borders between all sorts of things are healthy. Identity is very important for individuals, for communities, for language, for stories, and history. And time does what it does. Eventually the mountains are worn down and the borders will change or dissolve or adapt because they no longer make sense. At this point, our work isn’t really driven by anything political so much as it is humanistic. We all carry the same instrument with us and we respond to singing in particular because it is our instrument. We are constructed to respond to it with a lot of nuance and attention to detail. If we’re capable of painting this insanely wide spectrum of color, why not get to know that palette better and better as we invite composers in to express themselves?”

As for the group’s name, Wells says he was trying to think of something that had a vernacular American sound, more like a band than a fancy classical ensemble, perhaps something not unlike one of his collaborators, Bang on a Can. He also likes the juxtaposition of teeth and sound. “Of all the parts of our body the teeth are the longest to survive when we decay. I like the idea of the most permanent part of us compared with what we sing, which is gone the moment it is expressed.”

For this upcoming work at Cal Performances, Wells had this to say. “Certain singing traditions, especially Western classical, you are almost working to transcend the limits of the body, and the listener doesn’t hear the body as much as a pure sound. But [in] a lot of traditions you hear the body, you hear the breath pass through the chambers in different ways; in throat singing you feel a certain constriction, in p’ansouri you hear a certain grit. We’ve talked about that with Bryce [Dessner], and he’s incorporated some of those aspects into the score. It feels like an appropriate musical analogue to the kind of aesthetic that Mapplethorpe was up to.”

Wells’s next vocal frontier will be the world of voice in theater. “I’m interested in finding some theatrical vocal coaches and people who do accents and stage projection, and the different ways that the actors are taught and coached, to consider the voice around text, because we’re working on more pieces with text and theatrical aspects. The speech-singing spectrum is something I really want to spend more time in. To get some people in with the singers to dig down into those paths might be fruitful.”

Lisa Houston is a feature contributor to Classical Singer magazine and San Francisco Classical Voice, and the founder of SingerSpirit.com, a website for singers.