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Roomful of Teeth aims to become 'yesterday's classical music'

Roomful of Teeth recently completed a residency at MASS MoCA. Bonica Ayala

Classical vocal music has traditionally been divided into two camps — the bel canto technique of opera singers and the smooth, blending voices of choral ensembles.

Roomful of Teeth is a contemporary music ensemble aiming to challenge those conventions and broaden the range of what is considered standard repertoire for vocalists.

Founded in 2008 by music director Brad Wells, the group has expanded their vocal techniques to include traditions from around the world.

Rather than taking an existing vocal model and trying to modify it, Wells told the New Yorker that his approach was to start from scratch, with the ensemble "trying to build a new kind of instrument, [to] force ourselves to come up with clothes cut for our particular physique."

The members are all classically trained in Western conventions — three even have perfect pitch — but they also have studied unconventional techniques: Bulgarian belting, Persian Tahrir, and Inuit and Tuvan throat singing, among others.

Listening to any of the ensemble's performances shows how successful this hybrid approach has been, as the group seamlessly transitions from smooth unison melodies reminiscent of Gregorian chant to high-pitched nasal yelling or low baritone grumbles.

One of the group's members, Caroline Shaw, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her composition written for the ensemble, Partita for 8 Voices. Then 30 years old, Shaw was distinguished as the youngest recipient of the award.

Roomful of Teeth has faced some backlash from the established choral world for its unique approach to vocal music. Wells told NPR in 2015 that he views the ensemble as a band rather than a choir due to its challenging of norms.

"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."

The ensemble's approach has been aided by new works from various composers, who meet with the group and write music for its specific voices and ranges. The group started with a three-week residency at MASS MoCA in 2008, after Wells convinced the museum to host a concert with works commissioned by Judd Greenstein and Rinde Eckert.

Since its inception, the ensemble has also performed works by Merrill Garbus of indie duo Tune-Yards and Italian composer Luciano Berio, both of which were performed with the Seattle Symphony.

With so many new works composed specifically for Roomful of Teeth, it's difficult to gauge how its legacy will carry on or be adopted by other groups. But that isn't the point — even though the ensemble may be difficult to replicate, its impact in breaking boundaries and vocal conventions will ripple across the entire genre.

Who knows — maybe one day throat singing and belting will be considered the bel canto of our time.

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