Mining the toolbox of vocal stylings

Friday August 31, 2012

NORTH ADAMS - Many cultures intersect in the vocal harmonies of Roomful of Teeth. An eightperson singing group, the ensemble defies traditional conceptions of the a cappella group or choir.

Brad Wells, an accomplished composer and vocalist who directs the choral program at William College, founded the group in 2009 as a culminating step in his long-held interest in lesser known singing styles from around the world.

"Especially the first year or so, it was especially kind of a leap of faith, because these sounds have not necessarily ever been put together before," Wells says in a telephone interview. " Inuit throat singing and Tuvan throat singing and belting and yodeling, rubbing up against each other in the same music, is not something anybody's done before."

Roomful of Teeth caps its annual summer residency at Mass MoCA with a concert tonight in its Club B-10. The concert will include the debut of two new pieces written for the occasion by composer Missy Mazzoli, who has been in residence with the group.

The choir's members receive instruction in a wide range of vocal approaches, for the express intent of providing a deep toolbox for visiting composers tasked with writing new works for the group to perform. Wells says he had a "lightbulb moment" when observing the success of the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, which scored unlikely hits with a series of records in the midto- late 1980s, winning a Grammy award and even performing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

First, he thought it would be great to import some of their traditional techniques to a Western ensemble.

Harness tradition

But as he continued to study different singing styles, the idea came about to harness disparate traditions together.

"The story kept growing, in terms of getting to know vocal techniques from different corners," he says. " Over the years, as I got exposed to and learned something about the vocal techniques around the world, I then saw how beautiful and exciting those sounds were to audiences." A key distinction for the group is that it doesn't offer a greatest hits of traditional music from around the world - it's dedicated to new compositions.

First album coming

Roomful of Teeth's first album will be released in September, featuring performances of songs written for the group by composers including Merrill Garbus, Rinde Eckert, Caroline Shaw and several other new-music figures.

Mazzoli leads the well-reviewed quintet Victoire ( which plays only her own compositions), has been the composer/ educator in residence at Albany Symphony, and this year debuted her chamber opera, "Song from the Uproar."

This fall will see the premiere of her composition "SALT," one third of innovative cellist Maya Beiser's new multimedia opera.

First for voice

Her work is performed by progressive new-music ensembles as well as symphony orchestras, but this is her first piece written just for the human voice.

She says the development process for the two new pieces is unlike any other she's been a part of.

I showed up a week ago without any sketches at all, any idea of what they would be performing, which I've never really done before," Mazzoli explains.

As is the standard mode for Roomful of Teeth's residencies, she began the process by meeting with the singers individually and as a group to get a very specific sense for their strong points and limitations.

She then brought in drafts of compositions, to work out in rehearsal and then revise. The process is much more like that for a new play, and unusual in a concert performance setting, where a finished piece is typically " delivered unto us" in more or less final form, Wells says.

Sardinian technique

Mazzoli has made a point of integrating some elements from traditional Sardinian singing, a technique Roomful of Teeth began working on this summer.

She says the openness of the process, in which she has space to try out new experiments and discard them if they're not working, is liberating.

" Usually you write something alone in your room and then you deliver it and it has to be finished. It has to sound good even though you haven't heard it yet, which is kind of crazy and limits composers to things they know are going to work," she says. "It keeps you from trying new things. This process is completely the opposite."

Wells says the unusual nature of the ensemble -i ts dedication to commissioned work and its juxtaposition of styles and approaches - helps attract excellent talent.

"It's very unusual. I think it's one thing that really attracted these singers to the project - the possibility of learning to do some of these techniques, because they swim in waters where people don't do them."

Who: Roomful of Teeth with Missy Mazzoli

What: Vocal ensemble

When: Tonight 8

Where: Mass MoCA, Club B-10, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams

Tickets: $15; students $10

How: (413) 662-2111;; at the box office


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