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Traditions and Trailblazing With Nathalie Joachim

December 8, 2019

As an 18-year-old freshman at Juilliard, Nathalie Joachim could not have envisioned the multifaceted, groundbreaking career she has today. “At that age, you don’t know what you want,” she said in a recent phone interview. “But I did know what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to be an orchestral player.”

Nor did she really want a solo career. “That life for a flutist is very rare these days. It almost never happens. It was different at the time when Carol was coming up,” she says, speaking of her teacher at Juilliard, Carol Wincenc. “I remember hearing her on the radio and I fell in love with her sound and knew I wanted to study with her.”

Joachim, born in Brooklyn to Haitian-American parents, went through Juilliard’s Music Advancement Program, their precollege program, and undergraduate program, and still describes the school as her musical home. “I was born there as an artist, and so much of the love for music I have was born in that space.” But at the beginning of her college tenure, she faced a conundrum.

“I ended up in a pretty tricky spot there. You arrive on the first day and say ‘I do not want to be an orchestral player,’ and the entire faculty looks at you with a question mark over their heads, like, ‘I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do with you because that’s what we do here.’”

Excited and inspired by the myriad artistic disciplines flourishing just beyond the boundaries of Juilliard’s small campus in New York City, Joachim began to exploit the resources in her midst, engaging with visual arts students from Pratt, and film students from N.Y.U. With this interdisciplinary mission, she began curating performances. But there was a problem. It was against the rules.

“Once we were found out for bringing students from other schools, we sort of hit the institutional wall,” she says. But rather than retreat in defeat and slink back to the practice room and her Telemann concertos, Joachim decided on another route. “The president had office hours every Wednesday from one to 1:30, or some ridiculously small time like that in the middle of the week, and I used to go and make an appointment to see him, and it got cancelled and cancelled and cancelled, until one day he finally met with me, probably out of pity. He said, ‘what do you want, exactly?’ So I told him about the performances, and that I wanted to be able to do them’ And he said, ‘the rules are what they are, but how much would you need to do them somewhere else?’

So Joachim was given $2,000. “When you’re 18” she says, “that feels like a million!” Joachim arranged for a space in warehouse in Brooklyn, some refreshments, and sold tickets. Carol Wincenc even made the trek out to the industrial neighborhood and Joachim was off and running. “I didn’t know about grants or recording, but I did make sure to go back to the president and say ‘this is what we did, and how much we charged and how much we made.’ Little did I know that planted the seed for them to give me the [first ever] Juilliard InterArts Award at graduation, which was $5,000.”

This story shows Joachim’s tenacity but also her boundary-melting interests, which have continued to be reflected in her cross-genre collaborations with composers and ensembles including Eighth Blackbird, with whom Joachim will perform on Dec. 14 at Zellerbach, and her own duo with Allison Loggins-Hull, Flutronix, which The Wall Street Journal called “a unique blend of classical music, hip-hop, electronic programming, and soulful vocals reminiscent of neo-R&B stars like Erykah Badu.”

Currently Joachim is riding a wave of success for her album Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti), which The New York Times called “an evening-length artistic exploration of matriarchy, drawing Haitian folk and popular traditions into the world of contemporary classical music.” The reverse could also be said, that contemporary classical music is being drawn into Haitian folk and popular traditions. Either way, it is a cross-pollination and celebration that prompted Steve Smith of The New Yorker to write, “No more joyous chamber-music collection has arrived this year.”

The work is both musical expression and personal anthropology. “In a way it is a tribute and celebration of the musical lineages of women of Haiti,” Joachim says. Some of the songs feature spoken-word excerpts from Joachim’s interviews with musical luminaries such as Emerante de Pradines, Milena Sandler, and Carole Demesmin, and, more personally, Joachim’s own grandmother, who passed away in 2015, which Joachim says was “a loss in my musical life, not just a loss in my personal life.”

It was a loss that prompted reflection, and eventually gave rise to inspiration. “I was in Haiti in December of 2015 and it was the first time, other than my grandmother’s funeral, that I was back there that she wasn’t there, so there was this gaping hole, this voice that was missing. It got me thinking about voice, and what happens when you lose a voice, and also thinking of Haiti as a musical voice. It’s not uncommon at all to talk to a Haitian or a person who grew up in a Haitian household to hear that it was a very common thing to have music in the household, to hear their mother singing, especially in the countryside, to hear music and singing and voices happening as an ever-present thing is super common. I don’t think that’s special to me and my Haitian upbringing. I think it’s common to most Haitian people. And I associate those spaces with the female voices of my family. My own grandmother, my aunts, my cousins, my mom, specifically the female voices are a very big part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

“So I was in this space where I was thinking about that a lot and I then shifted to this idea that, ‘you know what’s really strange, other than Emeline Michel, who’s a very big female national artist for us in Haiti, I, at that time, could not name a single other female Haitian artist. The groups that have been popular big bands, mostly men, mostly male-dominated. I thought it must just be that I don’t know enough, so I sat with my parents and we made a list of who were the female artists they could remember hearing on the radio and between them they could only come up with about a dozen women. I still have the handwritten list from that evening. Each of them had an interesting story about using their voice for the betterment of the country, sometimes to their own detriment or danger.”

The commission for the project came about somewhat serendipitously. When Joachim was contacted by Kate Nordstrum, the curator of the Liquid Music series, the idea of the project was still in its nascence, so Joachim replied, as one does, with a list of her best, most ready-to-go projects. At the bottom of the email, however, she added that there “might be this Haitian women’s project I might be interested in doing.” And that little thought at the end of Joachim’s list was what Nordstrum wanted to talk about.

Of Nordstrum, Joachim is effusive with gratitude. “She has a tremendous track record of supporting artists in this way. For me it has changed my entire artistic practice and it has allowed me to discover so much more of who I am as an artist and a person, and that is a gift that is going to continue for the rest of my life.”

Other connections seem to happen at the right time as well, as when she joined Eighth Blackbird in July of 2015. Founded in 1996 and coming up on an illustrious quarter-century of innovation and excellence, the award-winning six-member ensemble often features works of living composers and views their roles as “curators, educators, and mentors,” in a way that made Joachim and the ensemble a perfect fit, or so thought composer Bryce Dessner. “Their flutist had submitted his resignation,” Joachim says, “and they were working with Bryce at the time, who knew me, and he said ‘I know who you should ask.’” Based on his recommendation, she auditioned for the group in February of 2015 and joined the group that July.

eighth blackbird

It was on tour with Eighth Blackbird, driving on an idyllic country road in Sweden when Joachim received a life-changing text. Fanm d’Ayiti had been nominated for a Grammy for Best World Music Album. The text was sent by Allison Loggins-Hull, coproducer on the album and partner of a decade in their co-founded duo Flutronix. Loggins-Hull is also a kindred artistic spirit.

“We met on Myspace!” Joachim says. “We should have known each other our whole lives. She was a year ahead and as flutists in the tri-state area, both in youth orchestras, our paths should’ve crossed but somehow they didn’t.” Seeing her music and interests online, Joachim sent Loggins-Hull a message saying, “Why aren’t we friends?!” It turned out Loggins-Hull was living only five blocks away in Brooklyn, and Joachim says, “the timing was perfect.” Joachim had started grad school, Loggins-Hull had graduated but hadn’t figured out what to do next, both loved electronics, loved flute, and both were inclined to step out of the classical music box. They met, hung out, and had their first planning meeting two days later.

These days the duo has a strong, three-pronged approach to its educational mission, including master classes and workshops for K through 12, special career development master classes for preprofessional flutists, and Real Flutists, a video series of interviews with world-class flutists. “We support each other,” Joachim says. “We publish, cowrite, create educational programs. It’s one of the most important creative relationships of my life.”

The women celebrated in Fanm d’Ayiti are also important collaborators for Joachim, albeit timeless ones. Emerante de Pradines Morse, whose voice is featured on the first track and who passed away in January, 2018 at the age of 99, was the first Haitian woman to receive an international recording contract and to travel internationally. “This was a time, in the 1940s, when women were really not welcome in these spaces. The fact that she was able to make a career of this for herself was really a form of activism in and of itself.”

In a way, Haitian music is a perfect representation of Joachim’s inclusive and diverse sensibilities. “Haitian music,” she once wrote, “is a standing representation of global connectivity.”

Joachim seems to be someone who balances the business and creative sides of things well, defining her place in the music world rather than letting the boundaries of the musical world define her. The album, which mixes spoken word, traditional songs, and original compositions, is both a claiming of her musical birthright and a delightful expression of her own, nuanced musicality. For Joachim, it was a breakthrough. “I feel this album is the first time I am standing really squarely and proudly in myself. As a Haitian-American, as an artist, as a woman of color, as a creative spirit. One of the biggest accomplishments for me on this record was that for the first time in my career I was really OK with the vulnerability of that.

The idea that I’m standing proudly as a composer on this record, when for a very long time I never felt that title applied to me simply because the world I existed in, the people who received that title did not look like me and did not create music in the way I did, so it felt difficult for me to claim that proudly and openly, but I’m doing that on this record. It felt the same way for me to claim myself as a vocalist even though my singing with my grandmother, in retrospect, was a huge part of my musical education, by the way she really drew me into this practice of oral tradition. Most of the music in Haiti is not written down in a classical way. It’s passed down through oral tradition, through many generations. Some of the songs on the record have been sung for hundreds of years, going all the way back to our ancestry in Africa. So that practice of oral tradition and using your voice for storytelling is something my grandmother was instilling in me for as long as I can remember. Yet it was hard for me to claim myself as a vocalist without worrying about being judged by what the classical world wanted me to be, or expected me to be."

“This record marks a change,” she says. “I don’t ever want to not be fully myself again. There’s no looking back.”

Joachim doesn’t know yet what she will wear to the Grammys on Jan. 26, 2020, but she says she’s looking forward to going shopping. And she also delights in the idea that Dantan, a small village with “just a church and a school and a small community of farmers,” where her father still lives much of the year on the family’s pig farm, will bask momentarily in the global spotlight. “It’s just the tiniest little blip on the southern part of the island.”

Through her educational outreach, performing, and mentoring, Joachim seems to be paying it forward, sideways, and every-which-way. And recently, she had a chance to pay it backward, by bestowing what she said was an overdue thanks. Joachim attended a Juilliard event where she ran into Joseph Polisi.

Polisi is the recently retired president of Juilliard whom she had implored all those years ago to let her pursue her interdisciplinary evenings. (An important force for decades in arts education, Polisi now holds the title of president emeritus.) “I said, ‘you were the first person to fund any of my work, to work collaboratively in this way and I hope you know I’ve made a career of it.’”

There is a New Yorker illustration of Joachim by Sarah Mazzetti in which Joachim stands center stage in a bright-blue, geometric-patterned dress. Being immortalized in The New Yorker was a “bucket list” experience for Joachim, so perhaps when she goes to the Grammys she will wear blue. But in the liner notes to Fanm d’Ayiti, she writes poignantly about the archway to her grandmother’s garden, which was invitingly covered in climbing red hibiscus, “her favorite, and a national emblem of Haiti,” so perhaps when she goes to the Grammys, she will go in red. Whatever she wears, and whether the album wins or not, it’s a sure thing her grandmother’s spirit will be in attendance, and the women of Haiti, past, present, and future, will be singing.

Lisa Houston is a feature contributor to Classical Singer magazine and San Francisco Classical Voice, and the founder of SingerSpirit.com, a website for singers.