Interview with Roomful Of Teeth

Roomful of Teeth is a GRAMMY-winning vocal project who explore the boundless potential of the human voice. The group have two albums (released on the iconic New Amsterdam Records) and tour the world sharing their unique vocal language. Founded in 2009 by Brad Wells, Roomful of Teeth have studied with some of the world’s top performers and teachers in Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, Broadway belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian cantu a tenore, Hindustani music, Persian classical singing and Death Metal singing. The group have commissioned a huge range of composers, including Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs), William Brittelle, Toby Twining, Missy Mazzoli, Julia Wolfe, Ted Hearne and Ambrose Akinmusire, among many others.

How would you describe the Roomful Of Teeth sound?

Eric: it’s not easy to quantify in a few words, though I’d say one thing that often defines it is the rapid-fire variety of sonic elements- our decision to perform as an amplified ensemble (using individual microphones) allows sounds within a wide range of extremes to register with more immediacy and presence in relation to each other, and equalizes things across the frequency range so we can have a full-bore, up close and personal kind of sound. I think there’s an intentionality behind creating a bit of a rock concert vibe. 


Do you think of yourselves as a choir, or a band, or something else entirely? 

Cameron: We think of ourselves as a band. We’re totally collaborative. We almost exclusively perform music written for or by us. We are a super close knit family. 


How do you commission new composers and new scores?

Eric: We go about commissioning in a variety of ways, driven by our Artistic Director Brad Wells and the network of composers with which he and all of us are associated- recently, we’ve been the recipient of a generous grant from the American Composers Forum to commission three exciting young composers to write for us in our 10th anniversary season. Most important to the process, in whatever context, is that we have time for the composers to be with us and get to know the range of possibilities in writing for the group- we’ve been super lucky to have worked with an outstanding bunch of composers so far that have really taken advantage of our expanded toolkit and challenged us vocally, musically and conceptually. 


What have been some of your highlights of the Roomful Of Teeth story so far?

Estelí: I love the collective history we share, which has only become more complex over the years.  It’s amazing to have all been in the same room as we’ve learned these new vocal techniques, and then to have collective memory of how our teachers have guided us, what composers have gotten excited about, and how abstract sounds became part of our music, and our repertoire.  It’s a beautiful game of telephone over our nine-year experience, so rooted in the stories we share with one another.


What makes a successful Roomful Of Teeth piece?

Eric: I don’t think there’s any specific recipe, since we’ve had so many great pieces written for us by composers of all different stylistic stripes, but one thing that’s been an important common thread is an engagement with at least one or a few of the vocal practices and techniques that we’ve studied, beyond what we would call “standard” Western classical practice. The pieces that don’t so much capture our interest are ones that any group of eight classically trained singers could encounter and perform; there has to be something more, something that takes the group’s experience and development into account and really capitalizes on it through musical means.


How do you think vocal music has developed over the last few years? And where do you think it will go next?

Cameron: I’ve found that composers have made an effort to choose more relevant subject matter and challenge the audience to be more active listeners. 


What do you want your audience to take away from a  Roomful Of Teeth concert?

Cameron: Joy. Wonderment. Adventure. Inspiration. A renewed sense of possibility for music. 


What are you listening to at the moment? Have you got any good recommendations?

Estelí: I’ve been really loving Moses Sumney’s album Aromanticism lately, plus lots of Becca Stevens and Julie Byrne. 


What’s next for Roomful Of Teeth? Have you got any exciting projects coming up?

Estelí: We’re really excited to be heading to France this November-December for a production of Claude Vivier’s amazing opera Kopernikus, directed by Peter Sellars. We’ll bring it to Germany in the spring, too.