Vocal group explores the boundaries of the human voice

Weehawken resident Avery Griffin sings with "Roomful of Teeth "

Griffin (left) is a baritone with the award-winning music group. Photo by Bonica Alaya
Griffin (left) is a baritone with the award-winning music group. Photo by Bonica Alaya

Roomful of Teeth, an eight-member vocal ensemble, was founded in 2009 by composer and artistic director Brad Wells. The members have used their classical discipline to create vocal arrangements with a shared aim to “push the potential of the human voice to unexplored boundaries.” Their works are recognized for their orchestral qualities that few vocal groups have achieved.

Since it first took off, the group constantly tours and collaborates with several composers, sewing more into their patchwork of global influences. The group’s self-titled album debuted in 2012, which landed it a Grammy two years later for Best Chamber Music/ Small Ensemble Performance, one of three nominations it received that year. Four of the songs on the album, a movement called “Partita for 8 Voices,” composed by member and vocalist Caroline Shaw won her the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Now 37, she is the youngest recipient of that award in history.

Since then the group released a sophomore album, “Render,” and has collaborated on on four other records which a long line of artists. The name stems from a line in the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby film Road to Morocco.

Avery Griffin, one of the group’s baritones, is a Weehawken resident, who revealed what led him to join the group, and how he and his fellow members maintain their creative momentum.

A bold endeavor

Griffin works as an audio engineer and website manager for St. Thomas Church, on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. He’s a composer in his own right, and teaches with the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers program. He began freelancing after studying with Princeton University’s Westminster Choir College, when he was introduced to the fledgling project.

“I think the work is important and exciting, and I continue to be challenged by the music. I feel personally enriched by it.” -Avery Griffin

“I approached it like any other gig,” Griffin said. “This is the one that stuck around, because I think the work is important and exciting, and I continue to be challenged by the music. I feel personally enriched by it financially, practically, and spiritually.”

Griffin said the group follows Wells’s lead, researching innovative vocal traditions from around the world. It’s more than ethnomusicology; it’s composers harnessing those styles for use in chamber music arrangements.

Voices of the world

The vocalists are scattered across the United States and gather at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art for residencies with world-renowned masters of unique, demanding, and often ancient vocal techniques.

The group fearlessly adopts the breathy stutters of Inuit vocal styles, the polyphonic humming of Tuvan throat singing, belting, yodeling, Korean Pansori, Georgian singing, Sardinian Cantu a Tenore, Persian classical singing, and death metal vocals, to create wild textures with the human voice.

“It’s a good lesson in humility… every year we become complete novices and expose ourselves musically.” – Avery Griffin

“Expert singers from around the world sit with us for a week, and composers we commission show us what they can do,” Griffin said. “We think about and analyze what they’re doing with their voices, and as beginners we try to approximate horribly what people have spent a lifetime learning.”

Roomful of Teeth practices a new kind of vocal music that reaches heights of extremity, dynamism, and experimentation, through a global cross-section of vocal disciplines. Exploring this artistic frontier is part of what has kept Griffin from hitting a plateau; having no genre or point of reference from forerunners keeps the artists fresh.

“There are some accidental sounds based on the fact that we’re initially pretty bad at all these techniques,” Griffin said. “It’s a good lesson in humility; all the members are highly trained singers or instrumentalists, and every year we become complete novices and expose ourselves musically.”

The first instrument

The group rightfully rejects music critics’ use of the term chorus. While they do everything vocally, they don’t let conventions or genres interfere with the unorthodox combination of techniques.

“We describe ourselves as a chamber vocal ensemble, or a band,” Griffin said. “I always like to think of the group as an orchestra. Composers can juxtapose light, airy things with some kind of lower, guttural roar. It’s like having higher strings, with double bass coming in to do a low, rumbling kind of thing.”

That, combined with deadlines and forming new relationships with a vast number of composers, keeps the artists on their toes.

“One thing that’s unique to us is the issue of vocal health,” Griffin said. “We need to promote the longevity of our instruments, because we only get one of them. These ways of making sounds can be permanently damaging, so feeling your own limits is a constant. Another thing, time is money. The last tour we did was a pretty thorny piece of music we only had a few hours to put together.”

The tight melodies and vocal effects allow the songs to go from uplifting belts to eerie, uncanny takes on dark, jazzy harmonies. While Roomful of Teeth constantly pushes the envelope,doing so isn’t the be all end all of their mission.

“I like the group because the music is fun to listen to,” Griffin said. “The atmosphere of the shows is special and unique in the classical world, and we all hope everyone has a good time. Pushing boundaries is a nice side to what we’re doing, but the music is just fun.”

For updates on this and other stories, check hudsonreporter.com, or follow us on twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at mikem@hudsonreporter.com.