Roomful of Teeth brings world voices to Williams College

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They've won a Grammy, toured the world and include a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer in their ranks. Now internationally acclaimed ensemble Roomful of Teeth brings its eight a cappella voices back to founder Brad Wells' roots with a free concert at Williams College on Friday, Sept. 28.

Choral director Wells has led vocal programs at Williams since 1999, and lets each generation of students experience this ensemble, described as "dedicated to re-imagining the expressive potential of the human voice through study with masters from vocal traditions the world over."

This is the group's third appearance at the college. The Williams Concert Choir will join it to perform "Quizassa" by Merrill Garbus, commissioned for its last visit.

All the works on the program were written for the ensemble. Wally Gunn's song cycle, "The Ascendant," is based on six poems by Australian Maria Zajkowski and will include faculty percussionist Matthew Gold.

Composer and Roomful of Teeth founding singer Caroline Shaw's "The Isle" is based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and offers "a cloud of murmuring voices," Shaw writes, with three monologues set in different styles. Her "Partita for 8 Voices," composed for the group, won a 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

Wells grew up a choral singer and pursued a career as choral conductor from the outset. "It always felt like a natural fit," he said.

Starting with a high school barbershop quartet, he formed vocal groups in college and grad school. "It's been a thing I need to do, conduct and create ensembles of singers that focus on particular types of repertoire," he said.

After developing relationships with singers from different vocal traditions, Wells founded Roomful of Teeth in 2009, gathering young composer friends, auditioning singers and inviting vocal specialists for a three-week residency at Mass MoCA. Early collaborators included a Utah yodeler, Tuvan throat singers and a pop-belting coach. The ensemble has since returned to North Adams each summer to expand its vocal skill set, create new work and stage a much-anticipated concert.

Over the past decade, visiting vocal virtuosi have ranged from Northern Quebec Inuits to a classically trained Texan Death Metal singer — "the perfect person to take us into that world," Wells said. With Korean P'ansori, Georgian, Bulgarian, Persian, Hindustani and Sardinian singing also on board, "the list has gotten pretty long," he said.

The group's increased exposure to new ways voices can be used presents "an ongoing challenge and [is] a little daunting for composers," Wells said.

This summer, he assembled eight composers "just to hear me and the group talk about and demonstrate things the singers can do" and expose them to possible sounds they could incorporate into their works.

New music proponents [often] embrace different musical styles in their quest for adventurous expression, Wells added.

At Williams, William Brittelle's "Psychedelics" perhaps best demonstrates the extensive vocal range. "The human voice is a magically flexible tool," writes Brittelle. "The possibilities are in a sense limitless, especially when working with performers like Roomful of Teeth with a sense of adventure and an exceedingly high level of technique."

The group has recorded two albums, winning a Grammy for its chart-topping eponymous debut, and collaborated on two more.

With all this international acclaim, Wells is a local celebrity, said Williams Music Department chairman Ed Gollin — an oversize Alpine cow bell, Japanese marimba music score by Steve Reich and Motown CD in his office serving as examples of the department's far-ranging reach.

While young people nowadays can access "almost any music one can imagine," he said, they can lack a depth of knowledge of musical fundamentals.

"Roomful of Teeth is drawing from a very eclectic set of music and doing something imaginative with it," he said. "This generation needs to be brought to it."

Through Williams' Visiting Artist Series, leaders in diverse musical fields perform free public concerts and work with students through master classes. Genres span classical music and jazz, both traditional and contemporary, and world music, such as Latin American, African and Asian traditions. With a dozen concerts annually, this season includes pianist Jeremy Denk, early music by Seven Times Salt, pan-African trio 3MA and Javanese Gamelan.

Gollin hopes the program provides an important service to the community by offering this caliber and quantity of musical performances "in the far northwest corner of the state."

While Wells is happy to share Roomful of Teeth's work with his hometown audience, he especially values the time his singers will spend with his students.

"It's a way to bring alive this esoteric, inaccessible world of music making and make it exciting," he said.


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