“It’s all about the voice,” says Brad Wells, founder of Grammy-winning Roomful of Teeth, a nine-person vocal ensemble dedicated to mining “the expressive potential of the human voice.” Through use of a wide array of supremely challenging and/or obscure vocal techniques, the group creates a sound like nothing else. The modern classical Roomful of Teeth comes to the Masonic Temple on Thursday, April 28, as this month’s marquee event in Free Range Asheville’s inaugural season.
“Pretty much all of us [in the group] come from a choral music tradition,” says Wells. And while classical choral music sometimes adds instruments, Roomful of Teeth records and performs unaccompanied. “A guiding principle of the project is [to highlight] what’s possible with the human voice in creating a ‘mixed martial arts’ instrument from a group of singers, where different styles are available to composers at the same time and place,” Wells says.
The Williamstown, Mass.-based group studies and employs Tuvan throat singing, Hindustani music, yodeling and many other exotic — and historically important — vocal styles to create its sound. The ensemble’s repertoire is built wholly on original material and commissioned works from celebrated composers. Wells says that when working with Roomful of Teeth, those composers have a broad palette from which to draw. “They don’t have to cut and paste; they can just hear what somebody [in the group] can do, and transform it into their own compositional language,” he says.
Ensemble member Caroline Shaw was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music for her “Partita for 8 Voices,” featured on the group’s self-titled 2012 debut album. “Partita” is also a favorite in the ensemble’s live set and will be a centerpiece of the show hosted by Free Range Asheville. Wells says that awards and critical acclaim have certainly increased the ensemble’s visibility, which he says “results in more performances, more people interested in programming the group and more interest or openness from composers of note.”
Current and upcoming projects will find the vocalists working with names as diverse as Julia Wolf (another Pulitzer winner), the Seattle Symphony and The National’s Bryce Dessner. Such projects “establish that this group is out there doing interesting music,” says Wells.
Roomful of Teeth’s second release, 2015’s Render, is highlighted by composer Missy Mazzoli‘s “Vesper Sparrow.” Arguably, one doesn’t need to understand the song’s lyrics to experience the power and transcendence of the work. “My sense of that piece,” says Wells, “is that there are so few lyrics — they come in and out in a kind of dreamy way — that if you catch all of the words or none of the words, the spirit of the piece should still work.” Mazzoli’s “Vesper Sparrow,” along with Caleb Burhans‘ work, “Beneath,” and other pieces, will also be on the program for the group’s Asheville performance.
“The idea of inventive repertoire choices is a throughline in our programming,” says Free Range Asheville’s executive director Estelle Woodward Arnal. The local organization provides “a platform for research and discourse where local, national and international artists can engage and collaborate in performance and laboratory settings with other artists and organizations,” according to its brief. Recent programming sponsored by Free Range Asheville included performances by The Knights chamber orchestra, pianist Jonathan Biss being interviewed by Dick Kowal of WCQS as part of the Creative Thinker series, and a performance by The Tesla Quartet.
“We fell in love with Roomful of Teeth years ago,” says Jeff Arnal, artistic director of Free Range Asheville. “They are otherworldly. We all have a voice, breath and a resonating chamber — our body — and we all have experienced vocal music before, but Roomful of Teeth explodes the idea of voice and vocal forms.”
While serious about its art, Roomful of Teeth has wide appeal, a quality sometimes in short supply where classical repertoire is involved. Wells recalls a recent concert for a group of Westminster Choir College students. “There was an energy in the room that was more ‘rock concert’ than you’d get with a string quartet or an early music ensemble: shouting, whooping, yelling and cheering, and at times when you wouldn’t necessarily expect it. We love the looser approach, and I think that’s something in the demeanor of the group.”
WHAT: Free Range Asheville presents Roomful of Teeth
WHERE: The Asheville Masonic Temple, 80 Broadway
WHEN: Thursday, April 28, 7 p.m. $18 advance/$20 at the door/$15 students. freerangeavl.org