During the summer months, BU Today is revisiting some of the past year’s favorite stories. This week, we feature music.
The a cappella group Roomful of Teeth struck gold with its eponymous debut album, winning the Grammy Award in 2014 for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. Also picked up were nominations in the Best Engineer for Classical Composition and Best Contemporary Classical Composition categories. Known for its haunting vocal blend of influences, from Tuvan throat singing to yodeling, the group is nominated again this year, and again in the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance category, for its second album, Render, released in April 2015.
The eight singers, who refer to their group as “a vocal project,” include BU alum Avery Griffin (CFA’06). Griffin juggles group tours and recording sessions with his day jobs as a teaching artist with the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers Program and sound engineer and website manager for Manhattan’s Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue.
For baritone and passionate new music advocate Griffin, the group, founded in 2009, offers a chance to perform something completely fresh and captivating and audiences the chance to hear it. Varying widely in mood and timbre, the songs on Render, a collection of original compositions and commissioned works, conjure a startling range of sounds: the rush of waterfalls, the crackle of thunder, the beat of hoofs, melodic birdsong, and human whispers and gasps.
Roomful of Teeth founder Brad Wells, Williams College artist-in-residence and conductor of choral activities, says the ensemble is dedicated “to mining the expressive potential of the human voice.” Composer and group member Caroline Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for “Partita for 8 Voices,” a piece she wrote for the group, which has performed in many national and international venues, among them Trinity Church Wall Street, Lincoln Center, and most recently, Seattle’s Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony. Through study with masters from nonclassical traditions around the world, the group is constantly expanding its musical vocabulary and performing innovative works that create what it calls “a repertoire without borders.”
The ensemble gathers annually at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCA), where the members have tackled Tuvan throat singing, yodeling, belting, Inuit throat singing, Korean P’ansori, Georgian singing, and Sardinian cantu a tenore styles with some of the world’s top performers.
BU Today spoke with Griffin before this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony. Griffin, who grew up in Belmont, Mass., studied composition at the College of Fine Arts with Samuel Headrick, a CFA associate professor, and Martin Amlin and Richard Cornell, both CFA professors. Recent premieres of Griffin’s compositions: Sonnet 75 by the Western Wind, Romantischism, for four spoken voices, by Roomful of Teeth, Sonata for solo piano at the BU Tanglewood Institute, and Old-Timey Dystopic Barbershops, for men’s voices, by the Trinity Wall Street Choir.
BU Today: How did the eight of you first get together?
Griffin: We started in 2009. We’re pretty much a bubblegum band. Brad Wells founded the organization before we had any singers, and he raised enough money to go to New York and hold auditions. He settled on the eight of us, and we’re still together.
Most musicians watching you perform probably wonder what the scores look like. Are you constantly learning new notations?
All eight of us have a lot of prior experience with singing new pieces, and 20th-century pieces, with quite a bit of notation that’s already been standardized. In terms of the less standard stuff, one of the cool things is when we get together at Mass MoCA and bring in experts in singing styles around the world, as well as composers. The first two weeks are workshops, and the composers bring in sketches with strange markings and we can say, this isn’t very clear. At this point, there’s a well-worn process.
Where did the name come from?
I’ve noticed that Brad changes his answer. He likes to keep it mysterious. I don’t know exactly when or where he came up with it, but there’s misinformation on Spotify that says it came from an old movie. That’s not true. It came from Brad thinking about teeth, about how, once someone dies, the teeth are around the longest amount of time, but the voice is ephemeral. He liked that idea of combining something permanent and something that’s here and then gone.
Can you tell us about some of the singing styles you’ve learned?
The first year, we studied Tuvan throat singing, which is based on an entirely different type of vocal production than you’re used to in classical music. In classical music, you’re taught to have an open throat, but the bass sound of Tuvan is restricted. It’s like the sound of electricity in a Jacob’s Ladder of metal rods, and from this sound you can create other notes. I do enjoy it, but I have to monitor myself because I do some singing outside the group. I have to make sure I’m not hurting myself. We also learned yodeling, which is created by breaking the voice. It sounds scary, but it’s not. Usually we have our chest voice and our head voice, and with yodeling, the point is not to meld them. Yodeling is one of the most bizarrely prevalent styles throughout human cultures. African pygmy yodeling, for example, is done with the same vocal production.
What are some of the strangest styles you’ve sung in?
We studied Inuit throat singing, which is predominantly a female form. It’s a game that people used to play sitting at home to pass the time and keep warm, and involves two people looking at each other and making grunting noises. One leads and the other follows, and whoever laughs or misses a beat first, loses. It’s based on sounds from nature—there’s one game that’s based on the sound of sharpening the blades of ice skates. Another style we studied is Korean P’ansori, essentially a folk opera, which can be six hours long, performed by one singer and one drummer. The singer learns the patterns by rote from the drummer, who is the master, and it goes on for hours and hours and hours. The stories are epics about pain, and the style is fascinating, because if you didn’t know what you were listening to you’d think it was a Korean singing an American blues song. It’s thousands of years old, and to technically do it properly you have to hemorrhage your vocal folds and sing while you’re bleeding, so it creates callouses. One of our singers had the lovely experience of actually hemorrhaging her vocal chords, so she can’t do that style anymore.
What styles are heard on the new album, Render?
We’re asked that a lot, and our stock answer is that you can’t point to specific styles with each song. On Render we have Sardinian singing, we have Inuit stuff, but it’s very rare that a composer will hear a style and say, I’ll write that. Usually a composer will pick up on a sound and create something based on it. But there isn’t a moment in the album where I would say that now we’re doing overtone moments, now we’re doing this or that style.
Is there a song on the album that prominently features your voice?
The one that I would say features me is “Beneath.” There’s a beautiful line of the singer Eric Dudley and me.
How did winning a Grammy Award two years ago change things for the group?
I don’t know. I blessedly don’t have to deal with that world. It seems like we have more gigs now, but we have a wonderful booking agent.