Roomful of Teeth and The World's Oldest Instrument

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Conductor, singer and composer Brad Wells founded the a cappella octet Roomful of Teeth in 2009 with the intention of updating vocal music with a 21st Century bent toward technique and eclecticism. Winners of the 2010 American Prize, the group behind our current album of the week has been featured at the Ecstatic Music Festival and collaborated with composers including Judd Greenstein, Caleb Burhans and Merrill Garbus (a.k.a. tUnE-yArDs).

Wells writes the following of his Mixtape, which explores the sonic possibilities of what he calls "The World's Oldest Instrument":

Our mixtape is a collection of tunes that have been central in some way to Roomful of Teeth, either in helping shape the idea of the project (over many years) or, once we were underway, in helping create the sound world.

As a college student in the 1980s, my thinking about the voice was cracked wide open when I encountered Meredith Monk’s music. In particular, Dolmen Music was not just rapturously beautiful, but it also revealed for me an untapped range of expressive power of the voice in contemporary music. Meredith and her ensemble demonstrated that radically different vocal qualities, each expressive in its own right, could coexist within the same work and, at least in Dolmen Music, create a whole greater than the sum of the parts. 

In Western classical music, women rarely get to sing loudly in choruses while still being perceived as sounding beautiful. Bulgarian women’s choirs shatter this rule. Singing arranged folk songs in a bracingly “belt-y” mode (as opposed to the lyrical “heady” quality of classical choral women) while maintaining impeccable intonation and heart-stopping phrasing, this singing style, which became hugely popular in the late 1980s and 1990s, was another revelation for me. 

John Cage’s Aria is classic Cage. All styles, all sounds are fair game for expressiveness and beauty.  A single voice captures a world of sound.

Tracks 4, 6 and 8 provide snapshots of world vocal styles Roomful of Teeth has studied and, to varying degrees, incorporated in our work: the hocketing and yodel breaks of central Africa pygmies (track 4); the otherworldly textures and over- and undertones of Tuvan throat singing (sung here by our friends and coaches, Alash); and the tightly woven, rich rhythmic play of Inuit throat singing in track 8. 

Diamanda Galas and Laurie Anderson, each in their distinctive way, show us new and devastatingly affecting singing worlds…one artist unafraid of voicing the horizons of fury and ecstasy, the other using technology to reduce a song’s pulse to the essence of singing: vocalized breath. 

The brilliant Toby Twining, another godfather of Roomful of Teeth, moved the range of the voice light years ahead with the virtuosic use of biphonic (or overtone) singing in gorgeous, composed works.  Hymn, from his first album, is a testament to his mastery as a singer and his inspiration as a composer.  


Meredith Monk - Dolmen Music
Traditional Bulgarian- Pilentze Pee (from “Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares”; Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir)
John Cage: Aria (from "Will You Give Me To Tell You"; Hilde Torgersen, vocalist)
Traditional Aka pygmy: Bossobe (from “African Rhythms”)
Diamanda Galas: My Love Will Never Die (from “The Singer”)
Traditional Tuvan - My Throat, the Ediski (from “Burra”; Alash Ensemble)
Laurie Anderson - O Superman - For Massanet (from "Big Science")
Traditional Nukariik - Love Song  (from “Inuit Throat Songs and Drumming”)
Toby Twining Music - Hymn (from “Shaman”)
Traditional Balinese - Kecak: The Ramayana Monkey Chant – excerpt (from "Indonesia: Music from the Nonesuch Explorer Series")