Roomful of Teeth artistic director Brad Wells prefers the sound of his own voices
Brad Wells, choral director and music lecturer at Williams College in Massachusetts, has dedicated his academic and professional career to studying the voice. He teaches courses on the meaning of vocal styles and the voice as art, and he put his theories into practice by forming the eight-voice avant garde a cappella ensemble Roomful of Teeth.
Wells’ Grammy-winning experimental vocal octet will make its Penn State concert debut at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17, in Schwab Auditorium. The performance will feature ensemble member Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Partita for 8 Voices.”
Wells spoke with the Center for the Performing Arts about how he coaxed proper choir singers to experiment with their prized assets, how he feels about speaking trends, which surprising vocal style he inspired his vocalists to try next, and why beatboxing has no place in the band.
Heather Longley: You liken the group more to a band than a choir. Regarding each piece of vocal intonation, is it written in strictly or do the singers have freedom to improvise?
Brad Wells: It all depends on the piece. … Certainly we’re not like a band where everybody’s writing music. Some members of the group do write music for the group, but I think it’s almost more like a jazz band than a rock band. You think of the saxophone section and the trombones, this group definitely does have its “sections,” and, yeah, there are parts where there’s improvisation or some freedom. But the scores are also very clear and finely crafted, for the most part. So the flexibility comes in the group’s pacing overall and responding to each other.
Longley: How might a composer begin to write a piece for Roomful of Teeth?
Wells: What we do is get the composers to get to know the singers as well as they can, what their capabilities are and all these other techniques we studied, what their ranges are, and how their voices sound at different parts of the range. In some ways, it’s similar to what people have to do if they write an orchestral piece. They need to know how the sounds of the clarinet changes as it goes through its range.
Longley: I noticed that many of the group’s singers have backgrounds in proper choirs. What was the process in coaxing them to loosen their vocal expectations and traditions?
Wells: Basically, it was, “I have this idea, want to give it a try?” Everyone who auditioned for the group was game to learn some things. And I think if any singer didn’t want to be coaxed, they just didn’t audition for the group. So there was a self-selection there. At the same time, some of the techniques we study can be a little scary for the voice. They can be wearing, quickly tiring. So we have to go carefully in some cases, and they know that I’m not interested in pushing them places that aren’t vocally healthy.
Longley: What style might be more challenging?
Wells: The one that I think was most challenging in that respect was a Korean p’ansori. ... It’s a very expressive way of using the voice that’s kind of theatrical, and it can have a lot of constriction, a lot of grit, a lot of wear on the voice.
Longley: I read in an interview that you love a “throaty” or “belchy” voice, voices when they crack, or grit in the voice. What is your opinion, then, of modern youth’s speaking tendencies, such as vocal fry or upspeak?
Wells: I actually love every way that people speak. I know a lot of people, especially voice people who are trained, get disturbed by mannerisms like vocal fry. But I don’t think people decide they’re going to speak a certain way before they speak. I think that’s one of the amazing things about the voice, especially when it’s used just in speech. It’s very spontaneous, and it tells us a lot about people, individuals, groups, societies ... . So these things tend to happen, they happen organically, and they’re colorful.
Longley: What other styles are you looking at studying in the future?
Wells: We just finished a week of studying death metal style. And it’s really amazing. I was a little trepidatious going in, but I think it’s going to be a very fruitful sort of arena to use for composers in all sorts of way. … It’s like there is a whole wide range of timbres, some things that are pitched, some things that aren’t pitched, some things that are kind of pitched, some things that combine with other vocal styles like belting or different types of rock singing. It’s very expressive.
Longley: Some people might think that death metal is just screaming or roaring.
Wells: Trends that kind of come and go very quickly, I think there probably wasn’t a lot there, people aren’t getting a lot out of it, or there’s not a lot of room to explore. But death metal is a style that developed several decades ago and has hung around, continues to evolve, and has a huge following in different parts of the world. Hearing the singer demonstrate varying amounts of constriction in the voice, and how comfortable it could feel to put air through the larynx even without any pitch but with a certain sort of energy and delivery of the text felt meaningful. And I don’t see any of my singers experiencing pain or damage. It is just sort of an expressive sound.
Longley: How do feel about beat boxing in that context?
Wells: So beat boxing to me has always been amazing, but what I’m interested in is what the voice is uniquely capable of. What other instruments do and other things are amazing, and they’re built to do specific things. The voice is definitely a good mimic, but that’s what I feel beat boxing is, for the most part. It’s mimicking existing instruments that actually do those things better, or as least as well, which is why I have no interest in studying beat boxing.
Longley: The styles that your group studies, they are very ethnically diverse. How has that translated for the audience? Are the influences so subtle that they come out just sounding like a song from Roomful of Teeth, or does it sound like a song that may have originated with a certain style?
Wells: I think, for the most, part it’s the former. And in a way that’s what I would prefer. I don’t want it to feel like we are cutting and pasting different cultures’ music into a fabric that we present as ours. From a certain point of view, you can say that’s what we do, but we don’t say that we are Tuvan throat singers or master yodelers. The singers are students of these styles that have affected how they sing, but they open up possibilities and then composers have their way with them.
Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.