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A band of voices, reimagined

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Roomful of Teeth reimagines the human voice by pushing the boundaries of vocal music.

By Joshua Balicki
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Founder and artistic director of Roomful of Teeth Brad Wells set out to reimagine the human voice through vocal performance.

Through a breadth of multilayered a cappella sounds, his eight-voice ensemble has garnered praise in the music industry. Roomful of Teeth will make its Iowa City début at the Englert, 221 E. Washington St., at 8 p.m today.

Wells attempts to form an ensemble that pushes the bounds of music while connecting with audiences of all kinds. The initial inspiration for Roomful of Teeth came when Wells heard a Meredith Monk record from the late-1970s.

“She was using her voice in and the voice of her ensemble members — none of whom sounded traditionally classical — in ways that I found original and arresting,” Wells said in a press release.

Roomful of Teeth gathers annually at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to study with acclaimed vocal performers and composers. Although all of the members of Roomful of Teeth are professionally and classically trained, this allows the group an opportunity to hone the craft.

A wide range of vocal styles, including throat singing, traditional yodeling, Broadway belting, Hinduistic music, and heavy metal are implemented in the group’s performance. This is part of the reason Roomful of Teeth identifies as a band rather than a choir. 

“In a choral setting, typically you have at the very least three or four altos, three or four tenors, and you’re going for a rich, clean blend in each section,” Wells said. “And this group is about not single colors or single unifying blends, but almost the opposite: juxtaposing the individual colors of the voices in the group.”

Commissioned composers write the scores with each member of Roomful of Teeth in mind. This creates a diverse set list that varies from song to song. Its avant-garde performance showcases rhythmic sound, lyrical imagery, and exploratory vocals.   

“It is up to our composers to be inspired by our sound collectively and a specific aspect of our own personal style,” said Roomful of Teeth member Virginia Warnken Kelsey. “After eight years together, we all bring new ways of approaching music.”

Its self-titled début album, released in 2012, won Best Chamber Music/Small Performance Ensemble at the 2014 Grammy Awards. It was also nominated for Best Engineer for Classical Album and Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

“The Grammy certainly created a bigger platform for us,” Kelsey said. “It made our music more assemble to a broader audience.” 

Violinist and member of Roomful of Teeth Caroline Shaw, who composed “Partita for 8 Voices” for the début album, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music. She is the youngest composer to receive the prize. The exclusive release of “Partita for 8 Voices” peaked at No. 1 on the iTunes Classical Charts.

The band’s sophomore album, Render, was nominated for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance at the 2016 Grammy Awards.

In addition to the live performance, Roomful of Teeth members lead master classes, improv workshops, and vocal-technique courses at high schools and universities around the country. The goal is to set up an educational institute in which singers and composers can discuss singing and writing for voice.

Other 2016-17 projects include a music-driven documentary about survival in the Colorado River Basin, collaborations with A Far Cry and Nick Zammuto of The Books, and non-classical genre expansion.

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