A Conversation with Caroline Shaw and Eric Dudley of Roomful of Teeth

by Franck Mercurio and Kayla Moore


Fanfare Cincinnati: How did you all meet and begin working together as Roomful of Teeth?

Caroline Shaw: I’m grateful to Brad Wells for his beautiful idea for Roomful of Teeth, which he founded. I was one of the lucky singers to audition for him, and it’s been a wild ride and an incredible journey ever since. We never stop learning.

Eric Dudley: Funnily enough, I learned about Roomful of Teeth not too long after concluding my tenure as assistant conductor with the Cincinnati Symphony, so it always feels special to return to Cincinnati to perform—especially alongside my former colleagues in the CSO and May Festival! After my time in Cincinnati I moved to New York for a number of conducting and freelance engagements and, somewhere along the way, reconnected with an even earlier passion—singing! One of the ensembles I had the great privilege of joining shortly after arriving in NYC was the Choir of Trinity Wall Street in lower Manhattan, and through working alongside those stellar professional choral musicians and scholars, I met, befriended and sang with many of the future members of Roomful of Teeth. The group’s founder, Brad Wells, had the concept for the group in his mind for the longest time beforehand; the idea of forming a group of eight singers that would fearlessly launch out on divergent paths to learn about and assimilate a panoply of singing styles from across the world, and thereby give composers a larger-than-ever set of sonic resources with which to compose new vocal ensemble music. When Brad went about soliciting recommendations for singers that might fit well in such a group, he came across my name and the names of several other Trinity Wall Street choristers through mutual connections and networks.

FC: Eric, you’re performing four different pieces on your stand-alone program for the Festival at the Woodward Theater in Over-the-Rhine. Which one are you particularly passionate about/excited to perform? Why?

ED: I’d say that for myself, and probably for all the members of the group, we’re always passionate about performing Caroline’s Partita. It’s so intimately tied to the history of the group and so much a part of our DNA by now, and yet every time we perform it there are new discoveries and different spins on its many supremely satisfying moments. The other three works are also deeply engrained in our collective consciousness—Beneath by Caleb Burhans, the husband of soprano Martha Cluver and a great friend and colleague to us all; Quizassa by Merrill Garbus from our first couple of years of residency; and Caroline’s more recent piece The Isle, which feels so closely tailored to the sound and sensibility of the group and its individual members—all of these pieces are incredibly “close to home,” and give us such a sense of intense joy and camaraderie every time we perform them.

FC: Caroline, you composed two pieces on the May 15 program and have worked with the CSO on multiple collaborations. From where do you draw influences?

CS: I’m so happy that Roomful of Teeth will be in Cincinnati again, collaborating with the CSO! I was lucky to get to write my first orchestra piece for the CSO back in 2015 as part of the Music Now festival. Influence for writing pieces can come from many different places—conversations, paintings, news articles, gardens, fabrics, and from other pieces of music. It’s important to always pay attention to the world around oneself, because there’s music everywhere.

FC: Both of you are composers; tell us a little about your composition process. How do you build from an idea and expand it into a fully formed piece of music?

CS: I often start with a sound that I want to hear, that I’ve never heard before. And then I construct the before and the after. It’s like discovering a delicious plot twist, and then figuring out how to write the story that leads up to it.

ED: For me, coming back to composition within the context of the works I’ve written for Roomful of Teeth has mainly been a process of allowing for the natural inspiration that arises from shared experience. I had fallen largely silent as a composer during my more intense years of focus on conducting and the rigorous study of other people’s music, and I had forgotten somewhat the simple joys of writing for the sake of writing and composing for colleagues and friends. (It’s hard to write for full orchestra without a specific commission, simply because of the necessary commitment of time and resources.) My experience with Roomful of Teeth has provided an immensely rewarding outlet for a return to that sensibility, and for the chance to experiment with the many different vocal practices we’ve encountered and to draw inspiration from the numerous life-changing experiences we’ve shared together. 

FC: You’ll also be collaborating with the Juanjo Mena, the May Festival Chorus and the CSO for the first Music Hall concert of the Festival. What are you most looking forward to for this performance?

ED: I’m excited to see the May Festival under the leadership of Maestro Mena, and to participate in the U.S. premiere of this fantastic Mark Simpson piece, The Immortal. My own interactions with orchestra have always been and continue to be two-fold, as both performer and conductor, and I always consider it a distinct honor and informative venture to be on either side of the dialogue! n