Re-imagining Voice

Brad Wells, Williams College's Lyell B. Clay Artist in Residence
Brad Wells, Williams College's Lyell B. Clay Artist in Residence. Photo by David Andrako

With his professional vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Brad Wells has re-imagined the very nature of singing in the 21st century. The group brings renowned artists and composers from all over the world to the Berkshires to create brand new sounds together.

While the voice itself—humanity’s oldest instrument—has not changed in eons, different cultures have manipulated it over time to create an astonishing array of sounds. Until recently these techniques were isolated within specific subcultures, often in remote corners of the world. Now, as humans move fluidly across continents, says Wells, “anything that can be done with the human voice can be learned by anyone else. Everything is possible.”

Wells, the college’s director of choral activities and the Lyell B. Clay Artist in Residence in Vocal Studies, created Roomful of Teeth in 2009 specifically to explore these possibilities. The ensemble brings together eight classically trained singers who work with masters of nontraditional vocal techniques for intensive residencies at Williams and MASS MoCA in North Adams. The singers, who have appeared in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Tanglewood (and with performers ranging from the Boston Pops to Bobby McFerrin) become novices again, learning techniques unlike any they’ve ever attempted.

Roomful of Teeth then commissions the world’s leading contemporary composers to create a “repertoire without borders” for the ensemble, Wells says. The composers are a who’s who of contemporary music: Judd Greenstein ’01, Rinde Eckert, Caleb Burhans, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, William Brittelle and Sarah Kirkland Snider.

Roomful of Teeth
Roomful of Teeth. Photo by David Andrako

Greenstein, a former student of Wells’ and one of the ensemble’s original composers, says, “It’s hard to express just how different Roomful of Teeth is. It starts from square one in terms of the possibilities of the human voice. It’s more than a group of classical singers who know how to do other things. It’s more than a collection of new sounds; these vocalists actually mold their voices into an entirely new product. As a composer, that’s an exciting thing to work with.”

Read more about Roomful of Teeth in the March 2012 Williams Alumni Review. (Click here to read the text-only version.)

For information on Roomful of Teeth’s future appearances and to hear clips of their live performances, click here.