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ROOMFUL OF TEETH & FRIENDS

Roomful of Teeth once again fills Mass MoCA's Hunter Center with a virtuosic blend of sound

Roomful of Teeth

Vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth returns to Mass MoCA's Hunter Center on Aug. 17.

NORTH ADAMS — They sang each year for a decade up till 2019, and then there was silence as in-person concerts fell by the pandemic wayside.

After three long years absence, on Aug. 17 homegrown international vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth will once again fill the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's vast Hunter Center with a virtuosic blend of adventurous new works and eight-person a cappella vocal pyrotechnics.

Since the group’s creation in 2009 by longtime Williams College professor Brad Wells at the North Adams museum and performing arts center, the globe-trotting Grammy Award-winning singers returned each summer for two-week residencies, with culminating public concerts drawing crowds eager to hear new compositions live for the very first time.

This year, 10 singers will perform, eight at a time — Estelí Gomez, Martha Cluver, Mingjia Chen, Eliza Bagg, Virginia Warnken Kelsey, Steven Bradshaw, Jodie Landau, Avery Griffin, Thann Scoggin and Cameron Beauchamp — with brand new music composed by Leilehua Lanzilotti, Nathalie Joachim, Alev Lenz and Gabriel Kahane, and short solo sets by Lenz, Chen, and Bagg’s alter-ego “Lisel.”

They will develop new work with composers Angėlica Negrón and inti figgis-vizueta and animator Rose Bond.

Non-performing Teeth singers at the residency include Pulitzer-winning composer Caroline Shaw and bass-baritone Dashon Burton, soloist at Tanglewood’s upcoming season-ending concert.

Founding the group, Wells said by phone, was the result of years “of hearing more possibilities in vocal music in my head than were existing in the world, in terms of composed music for performing ensembles.”

While the vocabulary of vocal colors and timbres was getting wider, the reigning classical model was 19th century opera, he said, “a beautiful, virtuosic way of using the voice, but not closely related to how we speak.”

Global singing traditions typically stem from speaking, subject to language and social, physical and environmental influences, he said.

Wells thought, what would it be like to loosen up the ears and voices of a group of singers and share that with composers so they knew different paths were possible?

An original inspiration was Kronos Quartet, who since the 1970s “refashioned how we think of the string quartet in contemporary times, making it an instrument for now as opposed to playing old music,” Wells said.

“Roomful of Teeth is a kind of Kronos Quartet for the voice. Over a decade in, it feels like we’re well on our way.”

The music is visceral, he added. “The beauty of being a protean ensemble is we don’t stay in one musical mode for long, even within a single concert.”

Rock, jazz and classical composers and musicians love working with the group, he said. “When your music is used on Beyonce’s film on Netflix, it’s finding a place in the music scene contemporary classical musicians don’t expect to find themselves.”

The group recently recorded the soundtrack for director Lena Dunham’s upcoming Amazon movie “Catherine, called Birdy.”

Wells sees Teeth engaging in more film projects, through the score and live performances. Also ahead are opportunities to fuse opera and musical theater with film and live singing in dynamic energetic ways, he said. “It blurs boundaries and combines genres, mixes up vocabularies and freshens film and opera.”

Over time they have inspired other vocal ensembles, with Teeth members coaching them on how to present works.

“It gets more singers playing with what’s possible in their voice,” Wells said.

Now in his final year at Williams College, where he taught voice and led vocal ensembles since 1999, during the pandemic pause Wells handed over Teeth’s leadership baton to co-artistic director Cameron Beauchamp, who runs day-to-day business with general manager Sunny Cyr.

Musically, the group is self directing, Wells noted. “The most important thing for me is that the group thrives and I’m connected in some creative fashion.”

He will engage in future planning, “scheming and dreaming,” and plans to write more works for the group.

“Those are the things I love the most,” he said.

For the first time, Wells won’t participate in the residency due to travel, but will return for the concluding concert.

“Music is about making sounds people can find meaning in,” he explained. “Composers who work with us all share this goal of connection. You should be able to walk in off the street and hear a piece and be blown away.”

“Since 2009, Brad has been doing it all,” said Beauchamp by phone. “The pandemic was a sign from the universe to let other people take charge. He still oversees the larger umbrella artistically. We’ve been great friends since the beginning, and work really well together.”

“I’ve always had a hard time putting myself in a box musically or vocally,” the singer said. Then Boston-based, he heard about the ensemble forming and auditioned.

“I’ve been singing the lowest part in the group ever since,” said Beauchamp, now living in San Antonio, Texas.

Some 20 singers and composers will participate in the residency, before the group heads to Boston for a recording.

Shaw and Burton will drop in but not perform.

“We premiered a piece of [Shaw’s] in Norway in June that will get its U.S. premiere with New York Philharmonic in October. Dashon still performs with us, but everybody wants him so we have to share," Beauchamp said. “About 12 of us are constantly touring, filling that eight-number spot. We have a few others on reserve."

Singers hail from around New York City, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and California. They travel the world together, from North America and Mexico to Europe, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia.

Last fall, their first live concert after lockdown was in Paris. “It was magical, quite emotional, the most beautiful 18-month reunion,” Beauchamp recalled. “For many people who came it was their first concert [back].”

The all-new program for the 2 hour concert is still fluid.

“Alev has written 8 or 9 pieces, Natalie’s written a score but we haven’t interacted with her yet, so it will change. Leilehua’s piece is finished and set. With Gabriel, we have no idea what will happen so that’s exciting. It’s the Wild West when we come into Mass MoCA, anything can happen.”

“Our audience always gets the first taste, they can expect to be surprised,” he added. “All our music shares the same sense of curiosity, exploration, excitement, a bit of the unknown. Ears, minds and maybe hearts will be challenged a little. Hopefully they will see a lot of joy coming from the stage.”

Almost all the some-200 pieces in their repertoire past and present were written for them, Beauchamp said. “We think of ourselves as a band performing our own music any way we want, it’s always changing.”

In past residencies, they have studied with masters of vocal traditions from yodeling to Persian to throat singing. “As we’ve got older, our individual tool boxes have grown and expanded,” Beauchamp said. “The palette is fairly full right now of colors and sounds.”

Returning to Mass MoCA “just feels so nostalgic,” he said, “it’s where we were born and raised as a group. There’s so many memories over 13 years, we owe Mass MoCA so much of who we are.”

“We’ve been part of their existence since the beginning,” said Susan Killam Mass MoCA director of performing arts, who oversees the residency program. “I’ve seen them grow in popularity and acceptance and demand.”

“We used to host them in Club B-10 upstairs which holds a couple hundred people. We soon realized we had to move them to the Hunter Center with a capacity of 600 to accommodate audience demand.”

Not only do residencies help the artists, she noted, they also add to “the vibe of having creatives in town amongst us on a regular basis.”

Caroline Shaw wrote her 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Partita for 8 Voices" for Roomful of Teeth at Mass MoCA.

“It’s based on one of our Sol LeWitt drawings,” Killam noted, “it’s exciting to see someone so connected to us really be celebrated.”

The group joins other longtime residency participants Bang on a Can and Sundance Lab, and frequent project development visitor Taylor Mac.

“With a long term connection with artists all over the country, we can be a home base for them for their creative work,” Killam said. “They bring different voices to Mass MoCA and to our programming. It keeps us fresh and thriving and contributing to the artists we love and support.”

IF YOU GO

What: Roomful of Teeth & Friends

Who: Grammy-winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth led by Brad Wells

Where: Hunter Center, Mass MoCA, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams

When: 8 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 17

Tickets: $22, advance and students; $32 day of; $42 preferred seating

Reservations and information: 413-662-2111, massmoca.org 

COVID-19 protocol: Masks are required for indoor performing arts events. 

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