Roomful of Teeth takes a bite out of Grammys


WILLIAMSTOWN -- A mission to seek the heights and potential of vocal expression led a team of vocal explorers all the way to a Grammy Award last weekend.

Roomful of Teeth, an eight-voice ensemble, received the Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance for their debut, "Roomful of Teeth," an entirely a cappella album at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards.

The album was also nominated for Best Engineer for Classical Album, and Best Contemporary Classical Composition for group member Caroline Shaw's composition "Partita for 8 Voices."

According to group conductor and vocalist Bradley Wells, Roomful -- the group and the album -- is the result of a two-week vocal workshop the ensemble has conducted every summer for the past three years at Mass MoCA in North Adams.

"You dream, but you never think it will happen," Wells said of the award from his hotel in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

Wells is the Lyell B. Clay Artist in Residence in Vocal Studies and director of choral activities at Williams College. The award was presented to the ensemble during the pre-telecast presentation Sunday at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. The group performed one of their songs live during the ceremonies.

"One of the most thrilling things was our performance," Wells said. "The audience gave us a standing ovation in a hall of several thousand -- they got what was beautiful and moving about what we do."

The album is considered new classical or contemporary classical -- a musical movement that has been growing steadily through the past decade or so. What was different about the album "Roomful of Teeth" is that it was all original music performed by, with one exception, the composers, Wells said.

This is the group's second international award in less than a year: Shaw's "Partita for 8 Voices," part of the album, was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music in April 2013.

The 26-minute, four-movement work was described by the jury as "a highly polished and inventive a cappella work uniquely embracing speech, whispers, sighs, murmurs, wordless melodies and novel vocal effects."

The summer workshops at Mass MoCA concentrated solely on vocal work, and studied a wide variety of vocal styles and expressions with specialists from around the world, including Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean P'ansori, Georgian singing and Sardinian cantu a tenore styles.

Wells said their album was composed directly from their work at Mass MoCA.

"Mass MoCA is our laboratory," Wells said. "We wouldn't have had this album without our work at Mass MoCA."

The modern art museum offered space to Roomful for their annual workshops, according to Sue Killam, managing director of the performing arts at Mass MoCA, and the group hosts a performance highlighting their work from that summer after each two-week session.

"I think people are intrigued by what they're doing," she said. "We always have a full house for them."

Killam noted that the ensemble is known for crossing lines and testing boundaries of convention and culture.

"There's nothing they're afraid to try -- they are willing to explore," she added.

Founded in 2009 by Wells, Roomful of Teeth includes award winning vocalists Cameron Beauchamp, Dashon Burton, Martha Cluver, Eric Dudley, Estelí Gomez, Avery Griffin, Caroline Shaw and Virginia Warnken.

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