You’ve never heard anything like ensemble Roomful of Teeth, who will be making their Cincinnati debut at the Contemporary Arts Center this week. That’s no understatement. Their performances interweave Western classical singing with vocal techniques used throughout the world, ranging from yodeling and Inuit throat singing to Tuvan kargyraa. New York’s WQXR FM called them “the future of vocal music,” and they received the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.
Roomful of Teeth founder Brad Wells, an experienced choral conductor, singer and composer, first got the idea to form a new vocal ensemble whose performances would mesh classical singing techniques with widely varying World music styles in 2008.
“It was always a tantalizing question for me,” says Wells, who heads the choral department at Williams College in Amherst, Mass. “I was struck by how beautiful World music was and how unaware singers and teachers were about what the voice was doing in any given style.”
As for claims that yodeling or throat singing isn’t compatible for Western voice, Wells disagrees. “If there are top-flight performers in these styles, it must be sustainable or you’d hear deterioration. And you don’t,” he says.
Wells first auditioned musical theater singers for Roomful of Teeth, reasoning that today’s performers would have background in classical as well as Broadway techniques, like belting (aka producing a loud, powerful vocal sound). “But they didn’t have the experience of sight reading or working with complex rhythms and tonalities,” he says. “That’s when I switched to classical singers.”
Thanks to successful crowd-funding campaigns, Wells recruited eight young singers with multi-faceted musical careers in 2009, all of whom are still with the group.
“We think of ourselves as a vocal band,” Wells says. “One voice to a part.”
Tenor Eric Dudley has a strong Cincinnati connection: He served as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor from 2007 to 2009 before moving to New York, where he now teaches, conducts and performs with other ensembles. He says that the vocal challenges distinguish Roomful of Teeth from any other ensemble in which he performs.
“The mission is ambitious,” he says. “We are one of the first vocal groups rooted in Western classical techniques dedicated to learning as many world singing styles as possible. And all the music we perform is written especially for — and often by — us.”
Wells acknowledges that working with these vocal styles and creating compositions is experimental. “We gather these sounds, get them to composers and say, ‘Use these sounds to orchestrate rather than thinking [about] sopranos, altos,’ ” he says.
Commissioned composers include Missy Mazzoli, Judd Greenstein and Sarah Kirkland Snider, and the results are frequently breathtaking and wildly original. “Quizassa” by Merrill Garbus (of tUnE-yArDs) has the edgy nasal tonality of Balkan music with a text invented by Garbus. Yodeling has never been more haunting and intriguing than in “Cesca’s View” by Rinde Eckert. Both compositions appear on Roomful of Teeth’s first self-titled recording, released in 2012, which topped several Classical music charts and earned the aforementioned Grammy Award.
The album also carries another honor. In April 2013, member Caroline Shaw received the Pulitzer Prize for her composition of Partita for 8 Voices, included on the record.
Friday’s CAC performance will feature “Sarabande” from Partita, new works featured on an upcoming album — including compositions by Wells — and Dudley’s 2010 work “Suonare (To Sound),” which he describes as a meditation on the qualities of timbre and language. “My image for the musical setting was a cavernous, echoing space with each of the voice parts moving in delayed reaction to each other,” he says.
In August, Roomful of Teeth returns to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art for its fifth annual residency, to spend weeks studying a folk tradition. This year, the group will focus on Persian and Sufi singing. Wells admits that some techniques, like Tuvan kargyraa, can defy even the most intrepid vocalist.
“Kargyraa is a technique that creates a sub-octave below the note being sung,” he says. “It took me nearly 10 years before I stumbled into it and it’s really hard for the guys.”
Describing the group as pan-stylistic is presumptuous, Wells says. “We always wave a flag and say we’re not authorities in any of these vocal styles. We’re all students. What we do is approximate how singing is done in different parts of the world. It’s more about opening up the vocal palette.”
Dudley agrees, adding that Roomful of Teeth may be a lifelong journey. “This exploration may well last us most of our careers. Still, it’s one of those things where the excitement of the process is more important than its complete fulfillment.”
ROOMFUL OF TEETH performs at the Contemporary Arts Center at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets: contemporaryartscenter.org.