Roomful of Teeth is the self-titled debut album from an ensemble founded and directed by Brad Wells, Lyell B. Clay artist in residence in vocal studies and director of choral activities. On December 6, 2013, the album received three Grammy nominations. As an ensemble, Roomful of Teeth incorporates a range of vocal styles and attempts to explore differen styles of song. The album was nominated in three categories: Best Engineer for Classical Album, Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance and Best Contemporary Classical Composition for “Partita 8 for Voices” by ensemble member Caroline Shaw. In each category, Roomful of Teeth will be competing against four other nominees.
Wells founded Roomful of Teeth in 2009, with the hope of finding musicians that satisfied his goal of incorporating a multitude of different vocal styles into the work. “I auditioned singers for several months in the spring of 2009 – primarily in New York City,” Wells said. “I was looking for singers who were first, excellent musicians and second, had flexible voices that I could imagine switching between different vocal techniques with ease.” The ensemble features eight members and performs work that is specifically commissioned for its unique set of voices and talents. According to the ensemble’s website, Roomful of Teeth “continually expands its vocabulary of singing techniques and, through an on-going commissioning project, invites today’s brightest composers to create a repertoire without borders.”
Since auditions began in 2009, the ensemble has set to work on producing its self-titled debut. According to Wells, most of the album was written during the ensemble’s residencies at MASS MoCA. “The pieces on the album are a sort of retrospective of our first three residencies at MASS MoCA,” Wells explained. “Each work – except one – was written during one of our summer residencies there, and each of our six commissioned composers is featured.” Roomful of Teeth works together every year at Mass MOCA to explore different singing styles and according to its website, has previously explored Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, belting, Inuit throat singing,
Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing and Sardinian cantu a tenore with experts in each discipline.
One composition that has been specifically recognized is “Partita for 8 Voices”, composed by Caroline Shaw. “As someone writing from inside the group, she had a unique perspective – she brilliantly unites the wide range of vocal techniques with the particular qualities of each singer in the group and folds in texts and ideas from Sol LeWitt, so the partita is reflective not only of who Roomful of Teeth is, but also where we create our new work,” Wells said in reference to MASS MoCA’s renowned Sol LeWitt visual art exhibit. Shaw was previously awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her partita.
In addition to featuring such acclaimed compositions, Roomful of Teeth is a successful album in part because of how well it blends disparate vocal styles. “Everyone’s response to music is different, so what’s powerful to one might be off-putting or too bizarre to another,” Wells explained. “My feeling is that the album’s appeal is that it balances all sorts of things well: new compositions with old singing techniques; to many ears, strange uses of the voice but sung by beautiful voices with great intonation; ‘new’ classical music that’s never stuffy or academic-sounding, but meant to just work as music and communicate to an audience.” In this way, Roomful of Teeth is the manifestation of the ensemble’s goal of revisiting established uses of the voice and intermixing them to create an entirely new sound.
When asked what distinguishes Roomful of Teeth from the other deserving nominees, Wells spoke to the album’s novelty. “Each category is quite different, but the clearest distinguishing factor is that we’re a unique musical animal,” he said. “Unlike every other nominee, we only perform music written or specifically arranged for us and our unique set of sounds.”
While the album has received critical praise, and Shaw’s composition in particular has already received prestigious recognition, Wells says that he was “very surprised and, of course, thrilled” upon learning of the ensemble’s three nominations. The 56th Grammy Awards will be held this Sunday and will be broadcast on CBS.