When I ask Brad Wells, the founder and director of New York vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, if there is a Roomful of Teeth "sound," he just laughs.
"It makes me think of the kids around town who refer to us and go 'yaaaaaaaah,'" he finally manages, "and immediately do some throat singing thing."
The Grammy-winning group is best known for its enthusiastic embrace of vocal techniques outside of the classical tradition—Tuvan and Inuit throat singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Georgian choral singing, among others. Working with sympathetic composers, the singers synthesize these techniques with operatic bel canto, Broadway belting, and doo-wop bits into musical polyglots. No two Roomful of Teeth pieces sound the same.
At Duke, Roomful of Teeth will showcase that singularity with Partita, by North Carolina native Caroline Shaw, and The Ascendant, from New York's Wally Gunn. Where Partita whirls with restless energy, The Ascendant is conceptually compact, filling all the crevices of a given idea.
Wells never did define Roomful of Teeth's "sound," so we talked about the primal joy of singing and questions of appropriation, instead.
INdy: You originally spread three parts of The Ascendant across one album and are only now adding the last three. How do they work together?
BRAD WELLS: They fit seamlessly. Wally is such a thoughtful, patient composer. He gets ideas and boils them down in his reduction sauce for a long time, so when you finally get to his score, it's so clean, and the lines are so beautiful. It's all still text by the same Australian poet, Maria Zajkowski, all from the same collection of poetry. The themes all connect, so that helps the continuity.
Does the group's approach to a piece change when there is a text involved?
If it makes sense to talk about the text in terms of shaping or color, we do. Everybody in the group is pretty sensitive that way. Most of them sing as soloists in various capacities, so they have a built-in proclivity to deliver text meaningfully. For the pieces that don't have text, when it's more explicitly about color or timbral shifts or various techniques, making sure everybody is clean and clear in their concept is important. That gets talked about—how much belt here, how much mix there, how gritty in this part? We get into nuanced discussions about these things more than pieces with text.
Of all the techniques Roomful of Teeth has learned, do you have a favorite?
A couple of them attract me in a more consuming way. One is the phenomenon of belting. It's a way for women to sing loudly but in a powerful, emotional, possibly beautiful way. Women singing in choral settings don't necessarily have the experience of a full-bodied analogue to a "roar." You think about a baritone or tenor really letting it rip; it can feel so full-throated and satisfying. Women in choral settings don't have that experience. They're up high in their head voice, and physically it's not the same. But it is if they're belting. Then the other is Korean pansori, to me an incarnation of the blues spirit. It's about voicing pain and suffering in order to relieve the pain and suffering.
Do you think about questions of appropriation, since you take foreign techniques and recontextualize them?
Our feeling is that the experience of studying these techniques is very much about encountering the culture of singing that an expert will bring to us. In addition to learning some of the mechanics of Inuit throat singing, we spent a week getting to know these two singers from northern Quebec—what's behind their traditions, who taught them, why did these women do it. There's a kind of broader learning that's part of our exploration.
Then there's a kind of experience of echo. We don't hold ourselves as practitioners in any expert way of any of these techniques. It's more like the voices have been expanded in terms of what they've experienced and what's available to them.
I remember, a few months ago, talking to an anthropology professor who had studied textiles on some Southeast Asian island about how the textiles responded to Westerners coming through from the fifteen-hundreds on. The artists on those islands immediately started to take advantage of Western art aspects—sometimes subtly, sometimes less so.
The question of cultural appropriation assumes that the powerful culture is the only one that is involved in the exchange, but in fact these exchanges are happening constantly. There's an arrogance in our role, thinking of ourselves as the powerful culture and handpicking little things to use to our profit. These exchanges happen everywhere all the time, and you can't stop them. They can enrich everybody.
This article appeared in print with the headline "World of Voices"