“We’ve all become fairly fond of the term grit in the voice,” Roomful of Teeth artistic director Brad Wells tells The Adelaide Review.
Before co-founding the group in 2009, Wells had grown dissatisfied with the strictures of conventional vocal music while studying classical voice, composition and conducting at college.
“I think I what I was finding a little frustrating over time was an expectation that the voice in new compositions was typically a sort of classical, as in bel canto or western operatic, sounds as opposed to, you know, anything,” he says, citing guitarists in new music ensembles who have swapped their nylon-stringed acoustics for electric guitars and effects.
“So in some ways it was a desire to keep up with that musical vernacular, but it was also just excitement around the things we were learning, about how the voice works in different singing traditions both in the west and otherwise.”
A decade on, Roomful of Teeth have carved themselves a niche as one of America’s most interesting contemporary vocal groups. In 2012 they won a Grammy for their debut album, a record that featured Partita for 8 Voices, a suite written for the group that won founding member Caroline Shaw the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music – the youngest composer to claim the prize.
One of the group’s defining features is its embrace of sounds and practices that fall outside the classical canon – the musical equivalent of challenging traditional western beauty standards, perhaps. Part of this work includes enlisting expert teachers from around the world to explore techniques from Tuvan and Inuit throat singing to Korean Pansori. This helps to inform the group’s curious and ever-evolving blend of styles – snatches of spoken word give way to huge oscillating chords, peppered by call-and-response hocketing and the occasional belting spree.