Brad Wells

A Conversation with Brad Wells

Brad Wells is the founder of Roomful of Teeth, the experimental vocal ensemble that broke onto the music scene with the release of its eponymous first album in 2012. That won them a Grammy, and almost immediately afterward, member and composer Caroline Shaw won a Pulitzer Prize for her Partita for 8 Voices, which was written for and performed by the ensemble.

Now, Roomful of Teeth is one of today’s leading ensembles. But when the group started, it was just a way for founder and conductor Brad Wells to “scratch an itch.” Wells spoke with director of the 21st Century Musician Initiative Mark Rabideau during a recent visit to DePauw University School of Music.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On how Roomful of Teeth “invented” itself …

[I founded Roomful of Teeth] to scratch an itch, really. I wanted to open up possibilities. … My ears had been searching, aching for new sound combinations that I wasn’t hearing out in the world. I had always enjoyed composing but didn’t feel confident to be the composer-in-chief of a project, but I knew lots of composers I loved. I had met vocalists from different traditions whom I had confidence in as teachers. And then I thought, I’m just going to find some really talented young singers and see if they can be the kind of sponges I suspect they can be and let the composers make what they make and see what happens.

On the innovative vocal techniques RoT has experimented with and used …

We studied Persian classical singing, yodeling, belting from different traditions – from Broadway [belting] to … Pygmy-style and Bulgarian belting, Korean PansoriHindustani. I’m sure I’m leaving some out. We just studied with an amazing death-metal singer this summer. I wasn’t sure if it was a timbre, a kind of un-pitched timbre, that could be of interest to me, but it ended up being just a mind-blowing experience, and I think it’s going to be a fruitful influence on a lot of composers in the years to come.

On how the singers in RoT responded to vocal experimentation …

I think perhaps 15 years ago it would have been a tougher prospect to get as many talented young singers as I did interested and ready to go. But one thing they remarked on was that they had never been hired to learn and to become beginners [in unfamiliar techniques]. It wasn’t anything I questioned. I just thought, this is necessary for the project. But for them to be invited to explore some foreign techniques like Tuvan throat-singing – and to get paid in the process? Paid because I value their time and am confident we’re going to come up with something worthwhile. A number of singers were interested to give that a go.

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