It’s hard to believe that our sit-down talk with composer, flutist, and vocalist Nathalie Joachim was a mere 23 days ago. So much has changed in the world for everyone. I imagine that many of us have now spent weeks sheltering in place—if we have been lucky—in our own homes with no foreseeable end in sight in order to protect ourselves and each other from the further spread of a deadly pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives around the globe.
But I have to remain confident and believe that Nathalie’s exuberant, forward-looking attitude about music-making and her inspiring comments about how she came to follow her creative path still represent our collective future. It’s something I believed about her music the first time I encountered the debut album of Flutronix, her duo with Allison Loggins-Hull, nearly a decade ago which I then described as “a strong case for a post-stylistic, post all-powerful-single-auteur-driven music, one that allows multiple voices to share in the shaping of a music that is equally indebted to and comfortable in several musical lineages.”
At that time, and in fact until our conversation on March 7, I had no idea how Nathalie and Allison met or how they decided to make music together. It was fascinating to find out that they actually discovered each other via MySpace and that when they finally met in person they immediately decided to collaborate.
“So that day Flutronix was born,” Nathalie remembered. “Our rapport with one another was super natural. Not supernatural, but it was very natural! We just sort of hit it off. Sometimes you just meet your people and you know. And Allison was that for me. We just shared that instinct. Immediately we were like, ‘Alright, well there’s no music for two flutes and electronics or two flutes and beats. Who’s writing that music?’ Right away, we were like: ‘Alright, we better get to work, because if we’re going to play some concerts, we need some music to play.’ We started writing music right away.”
It was a sea-change from Nathalie’s experience as a classical flutist studying at Juilliard.
“If you’re a performer, it becomes a little bit harder for you to engage as a composer at this school,” she explained. “That wasn’t something that I could do within the curriculum, because I would have had to formally audition to do that. And up to that point, it had never even occurred to me to call myself a composer, even though I was experimenting with writing music. I had a deep interest in exploring different styles. I was doing a lot of song writing with my grandmother, but unless I could formally present someone with a score of mine, I just wasn’t going to be studying composition at that school, at that level. Not to mention the fact that the people who claimed that title of composer did not look like me, did not live like me, and did not write the music that was coming into my brain.”
Still, she concedes that her time at Juilliard, which began in her childhood as a student in the Music Advancement Program through the Pre-Collegiate Program and progressed through her undergrad years, has provided her foundation as a musician. No matter what genre of music she finds herself involved with (or, more to the point, what genre other people might assign to her), she acknowledged that her in-depth study of classical music “informs my understanding of every other musical style that I engage in.”
In fact, she confessed that at one point in her career an internal “obligation … to the classical world” she was feeling led her to question whether the music she was engaged in was “serious” enough. At the same time these thoughts were tugging at her, she received an email out of the blue from Lisa Kaplan from Eighth Blackbird asking her if she’d be interested in auditioning to be a member of that celebrated contemporary music ensemble. Although she was just beginning to receive commissions to compose works for other musicians and Flutronix continued to be an important focus in her musical life, she auditioned, got the gig, and moved to Chicago.
“It was an incredible experience,” she said. “But for me it was very challenging. … I was the only one who came to the group with this kind of band identity with Flutronix, if we’ll call it that. My sort of alter ego. And I’ve got this composition work that’s starting to brew and I come with this different music education background, but I also was so challenged right away with touring; you kick up with what that schedule is. Everybody else in the group, when we weren’t on tour, they were home with their families, taking a rest. Not that anyone’s taking it easy in that group, but I was just fitting in these other parts of my career in the midst of that. So I was ridiculously busy. I almost was never at home when everyone else was at home. I was really working constantly around the clock to succeed in all of these other ways. I think I didn’t realize how much everything else would take off at the same time that I joined the group.”
During her last two years with 8bb, Nathalie began developing Famn d’Ayiti, her most significant musical undertaking to date. A celebration of her Haitian heritage, this song-cycle cum sonic documentary cum concept album ties together multiple strains of her composite musical identity, merging her classical training, her singing traditional folksongs with her grandmother, and even her early explorations of audio production and sound design. It received rave review from “classical” music critics and even managed to fetch a Grammy nomination in the “World Music” category.
“It was interesting to have ended up in a category that I think no one else saw me popping up in,” she admitted. “I’m committed at this point in my life to making music that is true to me. And so I’m happy for it fall into whatever box it needs to.”
Towards the end of our hour with Nathalie, we talked about what was to be the next live performance of Famn d’Ayiti at the extraordinary Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she was also scheduled to appear on a panel about defying genre, organized and moderated by New Music USA’s own Vanessa Reed. Obviously neither of those events happened, since the 2020 Big Ears Festival was one of the many casualties of the waves of cancellations that hit the performing arts community in the past few weeks. Nevertheless, we decided to include that part of the conversation after a section break at the very end of this transcript to reflect on what might have been and what we must continue to hope will be again after we get past the current hiatus in all of our lives.
Photos and videography by Alexandra Gardner
Transcription by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: The first time I became aware of you was when, all of a sudden out of nowhere, a CD arrived in the mail of the first self-produced Flutronix album. As you might imagine, we get a lot of CDs in the mail, but I really try to listen to a little bit of almost everything that comes in. I’ll normally put something on and listen for a track or maybe sample several tracks since there’s so little time. But I was so smitten with that disc that I listened straight through from start to finish. And then I listened again and again. I still listen to it. That was ten years ago.
Nathalie Joachim: It was a long time ago. It’s so crazy to think about it. I think that NewMusicBox was one of the first reviews that we ever got. I’m certain Allison and I packed that CD up in my apartment in Brooklyn—at the time in Crown Heights. It’s amazing to think about how far we’ve come and how far our partnership has come. How much we’ve both grown since then, but yeah, thanks for that.
FJO: That album immediately captivated me when I saw it since it looked pretty different from most of the things that come our way. It sort of looked like a techno album, but at the same time, you and Allison are both holding flutes. So I really had no idea what it would be. And then I listened to it, and I still didn’t quite know what it was, since it merges some very different approaches so seamlessly. On the one hand, it’s clearly referencing minimalism, which has been an important stream of contemporary music or whatever we want to call this stuff. But it also could exist as dance music. And it could exist as ambient or post-ambient, post-Aphex Twin kind of stuff.
NJ: That’s a huge compliment. I love hearing your comments about that first Flutronix record. It’s funny because I got so many of the same comments about my most recent record, so it actually feels good to know we’ve been true to ourselves this entire time. So the concept behind it—a lot of people always wonder about our origin story. Oddly enough, we are just a year apart in age, and both grew up in the New York City area and so it’s very strange that we didn’t know each other growing up. We had never met. Usually you meet at youth orchestra or New York Flute Club or some other event that every flute kid is going to. But we just had never crossed paths.
Not to date myself, but I happened to be on MySpace when I was in my first year of grad school at the New School. I had pivoted from being a straightforward classical flutist. I decided to go to grad school for audio production and sound design because I was really interested in exploring electro-acoustic music and had no formal skills, so I found myself in a strange place in my own creative practice and my own career. I was experimenting. I certainly pivoted in a pretty distinct and deep way that I think confused a lot of my undergrad mentors and teachers. So I found myself on MySpace, and somehow sort of the way Facebook suggests friends in common with so and so, “You might know this person….” So I clicked on Allison’s photo, because it was a photo of her with her flute and I was like, “Oh, that’s funny, a flutist I hadn’t run into in New York at all!”
Then I listened to some of her music, and was just taken by it immediately: A) because it was awesome; B) because I was like. “Who is this? How is it that I don’t know about another black flutist, who’s also making electro-acoustic music that sounds totally rad? We should be friends.” And so that day I sent her a blind message on MySpace, “We clearly have friends in common. I don’t know how we don’t know each other, but maybe we should be friends.” Sure enough, she wrote me back and was like, “Yeah, that’s so strange. I never heard of you, but I love your music. It’s so awesome. We should be friends.” After a few exchanges back and forth we decided that we should get together and hang out. It turned out that we also lived in the same neighborhood, just blocks away from each other.
So we set up a hang. I walked over to her house, maybe a week later. And on that day we sat and we talked for hours about our lives, our journeys with music, where we were at, how we both came to writing the music that we had both started to write at that time. It stemmed from a deep love and interest in blending all of these genres of music that truly inspired us with our classical training. That was just not something that either of us had been able to explore in our undergraduate degrees, but it was a calling for us. And oddly enough, right at that moment, we were both at this sort of critical point where our undergraduate mentors and teachers, although they were totally supportive, were also like: “Maybe you should just consider a traditional flute career.” We had both struggled with decisions about where we should go to grad school and what we should be working on. Then suddenly we both had a deep feeling of what was right. It was against what everyone was telling us, but we both knew it was correct for us to be exploring music in our compositional voices in this way.
So that day Flutronix was born. Our rapport with one another was super natural. Not supernatural, but it was very natural! We just sort of hit it off. Sometimes you just meet your people and you know. And Allison was that for me. We just shared that instinct. Immediately we were like, “Alright, well there’s no music for two flutes and electronics or two flutes and beats. Who’s writing that music?” Right away, we were like: “Alright, we better get to work, because if we’re going to play some concerts, we need some music to play.” We started writing music right away. On that first album that we made, there was actually only one co-written piece. Most of the rep was split: half of it was Allison’s work, half of it was mine. It was interesting that we had our first foray in co-writing because I think we were both apprehensive about that. Most composers are pretty protective over their process and what they’re doing. But we were like: “Maybe we should try. Let’s just try to write one piece together. We haven’t played that piece, Brown Squares, in a really long time, but it sort of wrote itself.
Allison and I actually have really distinct styles. Our approaches to music are very different, but they interlock in a way that’s really natural and beautiful. It’s been a testament to our partnership and we’re happy that anybody loved that record and has continued to follow us, especially right now in this moment. We went from being neighbors just blocks from each other in Brooklyn and sort of basically living and working with each other constantly and my move to Chicago really changed that. Allison had her second child at the same time that I moved to Chicago, so the past handful of years has been a real transition for us. We sort of stopped our output, stopped making concerts, and took a moment to say: “Who are we in this phase of being Flutronix? What does our music mean now? What kind of music do we want to be working on and investing in? How can we reshape that? How can this partnership continue to grow and evolve?” I’m actually really excited for our next output of music which is coming really soon. I just can’t wait. It’s been a beautiful journey with her.
FJO: What’s really interesting in terms of your evolution is that you both have evolved into being really in demand composers in your own rights separately. But before we leave talking about that first album, I want to talk with you a bit more about writing pieces together. The idea of collectively writing a piece of music is really rare in so-called classical music, but in so many other genres of music, you get in the studio and that is what happens. You’re in, say, a jazz combo and you are trading solos off each other’s riffs. Or you’re in a rock band and somebody comes up with an intro and someone else comes up with the break of a song. That is the process of how so much music gets made. You mentioned that your approaches are different, but that’s true for people creating in all these other genres and that’s what makes their material stronger.
NJ: Totally. We feel lucky about that. I always think about literature. There’s nothing that you’re reading in the literary world that is not an author directly working hand in hand with an editor. Right? There’s no book that you’ve read and there’s no piece that gets printed in the newspaper that doesn’t also have an editorial eye that’s not the writer’s. Right? And so for Allison and I, we really have that kind of partnership with one another when we’re working together, not just on music that we’re co-writing with one another, but also on our individual projects. I feel really lucky that there’s a set of ears out there that I trust as much as my own. And also that I know will challenge me to come outside of myself and step outside of my comfort zone. A lot of people ask us about that or wonder how it is working with one another and I think it shows the strength of our partnership in that from day one, we’ve had a really open and honest way of communicating with one another. That shows a lot of integrity, but also a lot of care. That’s important for us in working administratively, and it’s important to us in writing and working creatively. It has become this sort of cornerstone of everything that we do together.
FJO: So to take it back before Flutronix.
NJ: Okay, oh God.
FJO: You were a classically trained flutist at Juilliard, but I’m curious about what your musical life was even before that. I know that you grew up in New York City, but I’m curious about all the music that you were exposed to and what made you want to do this sort of thing.
NJ: My answer now to this has evolved a bit, even in just the past few years, specifically after working on my last record. I was taken with music from the moment it entered my life. I started playing piano when I was four. You couldn’t tear me away from that piano. I wasn’t even very good, but you couldn’t tear me away from it. Then in fourth grade I had the opportunity at my school to start playing flute and it was much more my instrumental voice and I just took to it. A lot of people ask, “When did you know or when did you decide?” The truth is that there was no moment that I was like: “What I’m going to do is be a professional musician.” I just have never loved doing anything quite as much as I’ve loved making music. And to this day, it is the one thing that truly feeds my soul in a very essential way. So I was just curious as all get out about music, and Juilliard was an interesting musical home for me. I give Juilliard all of the credit for my musical training. But I will also say that, as any old school New Yorkers remember, there used to be a Tower Records right across the street from Juilliard, and I started going there when I was ten. My mom gave me a perimeter around the school. I was allowed go to Tower Records and to Ollie’s, which used to be an old Chinese restaurant, and Barnes and Noble. Other than that, I had to stay put in the building. So sure enough on any break during my day at Juilliard at the Music Advancement Program or in Pre-Collegiate when I advanced to that, you could find me at those listening stations at Tower Records.
They’re all gone in the United States. There’s still one in Japan, which was exciting because the second Flutronix album was actually in that Tower Records at a listening station, which was a beautiful full circle moment for me. Anyway, I learned so much about music at those listening stations. I wish I could go back and find whoever the shopkeepers were there who were curating the playlist that would rotate out every couple of weeks. New releases would come in, and you could find me in any section in that store. I would just sit and listen to entire albums because you could listen to them for free. It was before Spotify; it was before anybody was making playlists for you outside of the radio. We weren’t really deep into the age of the Internet yet, so it was incredible because I was discovering music that I would have never found on my own. And I think it really informed a lot of my understanding of music. It definitely fed a lot of my curiosity about music. It was an incredible way to excite me about the possibilities of music and to think about that happening alongside my training—formal training, classical training—at the place to be classically trained. It’s interesting now to look at my career because actually I’m clearly the product of both Juilliard and those Tower Records listening stations.
I should also say that I mentioned that my answer to this has really evolved especially after the making of Fanm d’Ayiti, my most recent record, because I truly now feel that it’s important for me to give a lot of credit to my grandmother for engaging me in a vocal practice from the oral music tradition in Haiti that’s been passed down for centuries. I don’t think that I knew that’s what we were doing. And I don’t even know that that’s what she would have called it, or that she would even have labeled it that way. But she was really the first person who encouraged me to use my voice in a practice of storytelling; that was really our way of connecting with one another. Anybody who has had a close relationship with a grandparent knows that it’s a really special kind of relationship because it’s not guided by anything but pure love. They’re not the people responsible for keeping you alive. They sort of get a second chance at enjoying a child in a new and different way, with a different sense of responsibility than their own children. So our relationship was really special. It was really unique to me, and I credit her a lot now especially for encouraging me to use my voice. That was something that I lost a little bit along the way. You go through formal conservatory training, and you’re sort of like, “Oh, I was just singing songs with my grandmother. That’s not real. That’s not Juilliard; it doesn’t seem serious enough.” But, in fact, she was really teaching me a lot of about vocal practice and a lot about improvisation and song writing. And again, a lot about history, telling stories with voices that is very important to the music history of Haiti.
I do a lot of music education work. You run into young kids all the time. I’m at an age now where I’m lucky enough to have seen some of those kids growing into adulthood now. The thing that sticks with me is that so many of them have been themselves for so long. A lot of my life has been about growing into myself. When I look at the career that I am lucky enough to have now, it feels really beautiful that I have held on to all of these pieces of my musical foundation and have even reclaimed some of them anew and in a really beautiful way.
FJO: There are so many binaries in the standard pedagogy for classical music. You’re either a composer or a performer who performs someone’s music. You obviously blew that one out the water. But then there’s this other binary that if you’re a musician, you’re either an instrumentalist or you’re a vocalist. And in some snarky corners, there are people who don’t even think of vocalists as musicians.
NJ: I know.
FJO: And yet performances by musicians playing instruments and singing at the same time happen in traditions all over the world, including the Western world.
FJO: I thought about this yesterday when I chanced upon the Flutronix video of the Eurythmics song “Sweet Dreams” which I had never seen or heard before.
NJ: Wait! What, you hadn’t even heard it?! Oh, that’s awesome!
FJO: And it was awesome. But it also got me thinking about this in terms of where you came from and where you went as a creative musician. I thought: “Okay, Juilliard-trained flutist…” You go to hear the Boston Symphony, or the Philadelphia Orchestra, or the New York Philharmonic play Beethoven’s Fifth, and it’s about them playing Beethoven’s Fifth. It’s about that piece. You’re supposedly getting the same experience wherever you are, just like at whatever McDonald’s you go to, a Big Mac should taste the same. Which is completely different from John Coltrane playing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” which is light years away from Julie Andrews singing it in The Sound of Music, or Patsy Cline singing Willie Nelson’s song “Crazy” compared to him singing it.
FJO: It’s the difference between an interpretation that remains true to what’s on the page versus making it completely your own. It’s something I wanted to talk with you about because you’ve been in this position of playing other people’s music, and then you’ve been in this position of playing your own music. And now you’re in this position of other people playing your music. So I’m wondering how thinking about interpretation and performance has evolved for you.
NJ: It’s a heavy question for me. I feel in a very good way right now in my life and in my artistic practice in that I have finally come around to really being completely okay and confident about claiming the titles that I feel belong to me. And that was very hard, specifically in a conservatory life and in a professional classical musician life. It’s just such a part of conservatory training to feel like you are executing in a way that is expected of you. And to do that excellently is such a core part of our training. Not to give the wildly insane interpretation of Bach, but to perform Bach in the way that you are expected to, to the highest degree of excellence possible for you as a performer. That’s what we’re all aiming for. And it’s unattainable because it’s never perfect, but that’s something we’re all chasing. And that’s something that’s deeply ingrained in us from the start.
It’s funny because when I first arrived at Juilliard, I knew very clearly in my mind that I did not want to be an orchestral musician. For a flutist at a conservatory, that’s a conundrum. My flute teacher at Juilliard, Carol Wincenc, was definitely a soloist and a chamber musician. You could see her soloing with orchestra. But how often do you see a flute concerto programmed by an orchestra? There are very few world flute soloists. There’s a handful of them, but there’s not a high demand for that. A lot of our very best rep is in the orchestra; there’s our place to shine. Sitting in that seat is a glorious spot, right in the middle of the orchestra, and here I was arriving on the doorstep of Juilliard, at beginning my undergraduate training, and they’re like: “Fantastic, let’s start with orchestral excerpts.” And I was like: “Okay, I’m happy to play these, but I don’t want this job. So I am just curious about what I’m supposed to do otherwise.” I spent so much of my undergraduate degree being like: “Oh, no one really knows the answer to that question.” Everyone sort of got this wide-eyed look when I asked them that question. But I wanted to be at this school. It’s so much my musical home in many ways. I was born in this school musically, so I guess I’ll figure something out.
So then you try to say: “Okay, I have an interest in writing music, but I’m a flute major. So is it possible for me to take composition lessons?” But there’s a wall. If you’re a composer, you’re expected to study an instrument. But if you’re a performer, it becomes a little bit harder for you to engage as a composer at this school. So that wasn’t something that I could do within the curriculum, because I would have had to formally audition to do that. And up to that point, it had never even occurred to me to call myself a composer, even though I was experimenting with writing music. I had a deep interest in exploring different styles. I was doing a lot of song writing with my grandmother, but unless I could formally present someone with a score of mine, I just wasn’t going to be studying composition at that school, at that level. Not to mention the fact that the people who claimed that title of composer did not look like me, did not live like me, and did not write the music that was coming into my brain. So I was very apprehensive for a very long time, even though it was precisely what I was doing. Even at the start of Flutronix, I wasn’t really okay with calling myself a composer. For a very long time you would see “Nathalie Joachim, flutist” and that’s it.
Same thing with being a vocalist. You see the beginnings of that, of me hesitantly singing on the first Flutronix record, which I was very reluctant to do, even though I was using my voice as a compositional tool and in other musical settings where I felt much more relaxed and under the classical eye, and I was doing that every day. I had this alternate persona that I didn’t talk about in my classical music settings, so I just didn’t tell people about it. I felt uncomfortable because I wasn’t studying classical vocal music. I also think anybody sees a black female vocalist who’s not a classical musician, and they’re like: “Oh, you must sing R & B, you must be a soul singer,” which was also not my tradition and not my practice, so I felt really uncomfortable claiming that.
It took a very long time for me to feel comfortable to say I am doing these things and actually I feel like my strength as an artist is taking all of these facets of expression that I have and presenting them in a way that I feel like is uniquely me. It is actually more about me being genuine in my expression. It isn’t really about me trying to recreate an expression that is anticipated or expected of me, but to absorb the musical material that is coming my way, and to engage and give it back to audiences and give it back to listeners in a way that feels uniquely my own. And that is, again, a really critical place where my time with my grandmother comes into play. That was her whole rule of engagement when we were making music, and also in Haiti: making music is about a giving of oneself. It’s not about perfection. It’s not about intonation. It’s not about anyone being a soloist or being in charge. Music making is a communal practice. It’s something that everyone is encouraged to do. It’s to the point where my family in Haiti up until this most recent album was often like: “It’s strange that anybody even pays you to make music. We all make music. Everybody makes music. That can’t actually be your job. It’s just who we are.” They feel differently now. You get a Grammy nomination, and they start feeling differently. But I that this idea that our cultural practice of music is about a lending and a giving of oneself was what was encouraged in that space. It’s very different from the classical world. And I can now say that it is something that I struggled with. I was very embarrassed about it for a long time. I was very worried about my music and my interpretations not being academic enough, or not being informed enough by classical music and that they would be laughed at or not taken seriously.
My partnership with Allison was important because we felt like we could support each other. We were going to put out this record that is completely crazy and that no one is expecting. Who knows if flutists are going to like it? Who knows if anyone in the classical world is going to like it? But at least we’re in it together. Flutronix was important for me because it was a first sort of stepping out in that way, and I think Fanm d’Ayiti is me finally feeling like I can shed what has been this veil of feeling like I needed to deliver what was expected of me, that I needed to have the classical music job that was fancy and expected of me and I needed to be seen as a serious interpreter of music. That was very separate from my heart. I was very separate from who I really was behind closed doors as an artist, who I really was in my work with Allison, and Flutronix, and what I really cared about. And where I think that my voice is most valuable. I think that there are absolutely classical flutists out there who are much more talented than me, much more adept at classical interpretation than me. I’m not too bad, but that is not uniquely why I’ve been placed here and it’s not uniquely what draws me to music. It absolutely challenges me and it informs my understanding of every other musical style that I engage in. I’m really grateful and rely a lot on my foundation, the foundation of my education that I received at Juilliard. But I think that this most recent record and this idea that once you sort of lean into being yourself, you start creating work that is much more powerful and much more impactful, and much more in line with your purpose. I feel really great about this most recent album and about Flutronix’s upcoming work for that reason because I’m finally just deliberately choosing to lean into that. And it feels good.
FJO: In terms of what you’re saying about Haitian musical practice, one of my favorite things in Haitian traditional music are the ensembles of long tubes called vaccines that each produce only one note. Everyone has a different pitch, but it’s still melodic because it’s all interlocking. This is such a different approach to ensemble music making, because the players really don’t have their own individual soloistic parts. I know there’s an extensive Haitian community in Brooklyn where you grew up, but did you get to travel to Haiti? Did you hear those ensembles? How did those sounds get in your head aside from your grandmother?
NJ: Haitian homes are full of music. You’re bound to find on a Saturday or a Sunday morning my mom blasting music and singing at the top of her lungs, like all of us. My brother used to jokingly say that he’s never formally practiced or studied an instrument, but he played the radio. I recently did a deep dive into my dad’s vinyl collection of old Haitian records that you can’t really find anywhere anymore, which is amazing, and that I now have at my home. You know, it’s so funny because it was just ever present in our home and when going back to Haiti and visiting my family there, being deeply engaged with my cousins and making music together. Some of that has seeped into my work now that you see on concert stages which is hilarious in a way.
Allison is always making fun of me; she’s always like: “Your music is deceptively rhythmically complex.” There’s always an interlocking of something unexpected with the next thing. And it’s harder to play than it seems. When you’re listening, it feels very clear. But then suddenly when you’re looking at it on a page or formal score, you’re like: “that rhythmically is not what I anticipated it being.” I think that’s very central to Haitian music, like the vaccines you mentioned. All Haitian music is about a very complex blending of rhythms and that feels natural to us. When I go back to my family’s farming village in Haiti, you could be at a family gathering or out in the yard with neighbors, and you could have a three-year old Haitian child who is able to pull off a polyrhythmic presentation of music. If you brought this to a kindergarten class in America, or I could bring this to professional musicians in America, and they wouldn’t be able to wrap their brains around it. But it’s just built into the music that we’re raised listening to and making with one another, so it doesn’t seem challenging or unusual. It’s also never presented to us in an academic way. It’s just how we make music. It’s just what makes sense. You see that in musical traditional throughout West Africa; that’s obviously where that came from.
The recordings I have of my grandmother were never intended to make it to the record. They were intended for me to continue having her voice. I knew she was getting really elderly and that I wanted to capture her voice for myself so that I could go back and listen to it. She died when she was 97. Allison listened to some of those and was like, “What meter is this even in?” And I’m like, “It makes total sense to me.” So there you have my grandmother in her early 90s singing these songs that are oddly rhythmically complex and totally beautiful, and I’m like, “That’s funny that you don’t see that as a straight approach to rhythm.” Then my voice blends with hers, and that seems completely natural for us. I love that you bring that up, but I don’t think I really recognized that until I really started to analyze Haitian music in a way that I’ve analyzed Western classical music. That came through the research and study for this album, and it’s beautiful to now be able to articulate it in a way that I never was able to before.
FJO: Before we delve deeper into Fanm d’Ayiti, I’d love to know more about the Flutronix recording of “Sweet Dreams” came about.
NJ: For 2.0, our second full length album, this idea of genre kept coming up, which is my least favorite conversation to have. What box does this music fit in? We’re always pushing back; why does it have to fit into a box? So we felt it was important for us to lean into more of a commercial side or pop side of what we were doing, because at that time we were still getting this questioning eye from classical corners. So we were like, “Alright, if making us seem like pop will make you feel more comfortable listening to it, let’s lean into it.” So we really wanted to do a cover on that record. And honestly, Annie Lennox is a genius. That song is truly amazing. It’s so long ago now, so I can’t remember exactly how we settled on it, but it was definitely the type of thing where we listened to a ton of music and came to each other with a huge list. Maybe we do could this song? I don’t know. I don’t know if that really feels like us. Then when we landed on “Sweet Dreams”; it already felt like a Flutronix track. It felt like this is totally the one. The way the synth is so critical, so essential to that song. It felt easy to fit ourselves into. And so it worked. That was another one that sort of came together really quickly. At that time, before we did it on the record, we did it at a sort of residency we had down at Pianos on the Lower East Side, where we would give concerts once or twice a month. And it was a huge hit. People just loved it. Our drummer also just knocked it out of the park. So it had to go on the record. And I do still really love it. It did turn out well.
We released that record on a label in Japan. They loved “Sweet Dreams,” but it wasn’t actually as commercially successful a song there. So they were like, “Well, for the Japanese release, we really think it’s important that you do a cover of a Japanese pop song.” And we’re like, “We know nothing about Japanese pop music.” I mean, we’d heard it, but we were a little nervous. I hadn’t really fallen in love with that much Japanese pop music. I remember that the representatives from the label had come to visit us here in New York. And they gave us dozens and dozens of Japanese pop songs. So Allison and I sat, and we were listening, listening, listening; it was trickier. None of them really came forward the way that “Sweet Dreams” did. And then we landed on a song called “Candy Candy” by a Japanese pop star named Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. It was a little bit of a stretch. But we were like, “Let’s we see how we could Flutronicize this in a way that feels really natural.” That ended up being a huge hit when we did our album release tour in Japan. It’s one of our most viewed YouTube videos. People really love that song. It’s also really interesting to go back to the original and see how we sort of did make it our own. But we haven’t done much more cover work than that. We used to have in our live sets a couple of hip hop covers, and a couple of interesting mashups. And that was fun. It’s always fun to be able to see how can we make this our own, and if there’s something about the original song that feels like it sparks a little Flutronix energy.
FJO: I love your word Flutronicize. But in addition to Flutronicizing things, which you’ve now been doing for 11 years, five years ago marked another very different landmark in your life. You made another very big decision—to move to Chicago and to become a member of Eighth Blackbird, which is an amazing ensemble that’s dedicated to playing cutting edge new music by composers, but it’s all about playing the music of other composers. It is about being an interpreter and delivering what that music is. So that was a huge shift.
NJ: Hindsight is 20/20, but at that moment in time, it ended up being another very critical moment for me. I had Flutronix going on. I had just started thinking maybe I should be writing more concert music that other people can perform outside of Allison and me. At that time, I’d been approached by a choreographer who’s now based in New York named Helen Simoneau. She wanted me to create an evening-length score for a dance work. In my thesis for grad school, I had live dance and dance for film also. So I wanted to get back to that. It was an interesting way for me to start to dip myself into scoring. And I was teaching at the Music Advancement Program at Juilliard.
But one piece felt like it was missing. Mostly because, again, I had this piece of my brain tugging at me that’s like, “Are you a serious musician still? Do you even make classical music anymore? Like who are you? Without this classical music identity, you are presenting yourself to the world as a serious classical artist. Gosh, maybe I need to be.” It was like an obligation that I felt I had to the classical world. And so, right at that moment, in my inbox comes this email from Lisa Kaplan, one of the founding members of Eighth Blackbird and the pianist in the group, asking me to audition for the group. Tim Munro had decided he was going to resign from the group and they were going to be looking for a new flutist. It just came at a moment where I was like: this is the serious classical music job I’ve been waiting for. It also was important to me because I love chamber music; being a soloist has never really been it for me. I find my heart most in making music with other people. I of course knew of the group and admired them for a really long time. Who didn’t know them in new music at that time? So it felt important to me also to feel like: could I get a job like this actually? Could I play well enough to get a job like this?
In the very first conversation I had with Lisa, I had never met her before, she told me a little bit more about what the job would entail, and that I would have to move to Chicago. And I was like: this all sounds really great. I feel okay letting go of New York for the moment. It would be interesting to live somewhere else. So moving to Chicago is not a deal breaker. But I felt really adamant that I’d be able to hold onto Flutronix, and I’d be able to hold onto this new identity as a composer that I was now claiming publicly. I just had started getting some interesting commission offers and I really didn’t want to let that go. And Lisa’s response was essentially the fact that you do all those things is an asset. That’s part of what makes you attractive as a candidate for the job. You’re going to be really busy, so you’re going to need to be great at time management. But, of course, we don’t want you to let go of those parts of your artistic voice. So I set out preparing for the audition, and a lot of that was again challenging myself to prove to everyone that I could still be an interpreter of serious classical music, to the highest degree. It also was maybe going to be my only opportunity to do that. For a flutist not wanting to be an orchestral musician, a chamber music job is you’re going to play in a woodwind quintet; a Pierrot sextet offers you an opportunity to play much more interesting rep in my opinion. No shade to woodwind quintets, but it feels sort of limited. A Pierrot sextet really also offers you an orchestral palette; it’s exciting for a composer to write in a really adventurous way. So I was excited. It was a welcome opportunity, and it came right at a moment where I hadn’t yet settled into my identity, and so I felt like if I don’t reclaim this part of myself as a serious musician, no one’s going to take me seriously ever again.
Playing with the group, it felt like it fit right away. It just sort of felt right at my audition and felt really natural to add my voice in a very classical way to that group. And so I ended up getting the job, and moving to Chicago, and it was an incredible experience. But for me it was very challenging. Most of the members of the group when I was a part of the group were founding members and that was their career. That was their job. You know, they started as students. They had been doing that job their whole lives. Myself and Yvonne, who was the violinist at the time, were the only changeovers that had happened in the group. Yvonne did this sort of pivot in her career where she went from being an orchestral musician to suddenly being a chamber musician. So I was the only one who came to the group with this kind of band identity with Flutronix, if we’ll call it that. My sort of alter ego. And I’ve got this composition work that’s starting to brew and I come with this different music education background, but I also was so challenged right away with touring; you kick up with what that schedule is. Everybody else in the group, when we weren’t on tour, they were home with their families, taking a rest. Not that anyone’s taking it easy in that group, but I was just fitting in these other parts of my career in the midst of that. So I was ridiculously busy. I almost was never at home when everyone else was at home. I was really working constantly around the clock to succeed in all of these other ways. I think I didn’t realize how much everything else would take off at the same time that I joined the group. So it came to a breaking point where in my last season of playing with the group I remember doing my taxes of all things. I remember looking and realizing that I had been on the road that last year for something like 280 or almost 300 days of the year, which was too much. It’s an absurd amount of time. I wasn’t getting enough time for myself, my family, my friends, my personal relationships. It was really hard, and when I saw that I said something’s got to give.
At the same time, in my last two years in the group, I had been building Fanm d’Ayiti and coming into myself as an artist in really a brand new way. Flutronix had started working on our upcoming work which is called Discourse, creating with each other really intentionally in a brand new way. So I looked at everything, and I said to myself, I think it’s time. I think I’m ready to let go of this job, because it feels like my last tethered attachment to an identity that isn’t entirely mine. I’m grateful to have experienced it. They’re all phenomenal players. You really feel when you enter a group like that, you’ve got to sit up a little straighter and really work hard to be at everyone else’s level and to feel like you’re delivering for them the way that they’re delivering for you artistically. So I felt challenged by it. I think my playing definitely benefited from being in that group. And I do think what was beautiful about it was that the rigor of practice and training in a chamber ensemble like that really did inform in a very strong way how I engaged in every other musical space that I was in. So I’m grateful for it.
FJO: I didn’t realize that the dance thing had happened before you joined Eighth Blackbird, but all of a sudden, after you joined the group, all of these compositional opportunities started happening. You wrote this wonderful piece for Amanda Gookin.
NJ: Thank you.
FJO: It made me wonder how much of being a repertoire musician playing other people’s music has put you in the direction of wanting to flip that the other way and be a composer, writing for musicians who give the same kind of dedication to a new piece that Eighth Blackbird does. It’s that really high level, but the other part of it is the idea that these amazing performers can do more than just perform on their instruments at the highest possible level, they’re also acting, dancing, singing, etc. It’s no longer a one person / one role thing. And that does seem to inform the kinds of work that you’ve evolved toward, pieces that are really storytelling works.
NJ: Of course, especially in interpreting such beautiful music being written today in my job at Eighth Blackbird, I gained a lot of respect for composers. You gain a lot of respect for the process. I think the thing that I enjoyed most was there was almost no piece that we played or that we commissioned in the time that I was a member of the group that was: “Okay, we commission you, composer. A year later, six months later, however many months later, this piece appears in the mail. We never talked to you. We never engaged with you, just asked you a few questions.” We were always a really a big part of the process. There was a lot of workshopping, which leads to a lot of investment on the performance level for sure. And I really appreciated that. And I do think that that began to seep into my own writing as a concert composer. I guess I would call myself a concert composer!
What piqued my interest most was this opportunity to engage with other artists in a different way. That definitely was a seed in my relationship with Allison. Flutronix, of course, and how we were writing music together. But I had never really been able to explore that so deeply outside of that, writing music of my own that other people were interpreting. I was excited by that experience as a performer, and it became important for me to have that, and that made it that much more exciting for me to want to write music for other people because again, for me, so much of my heart is in collaboration. That’s where my strength is. The idea that composition did not have to be this moment where you are delivering exactly what you want on the page and someone is just going to do what you say, but that in fact could be this exchange between composer and performer in a truly collaborative way; that was it for me. At that point I was like, “Oh, now I’m really ready to call myself a composer, because this I can do and this is attractive to me.”
Amanda’s piece is a really interesting moment for me compositionally because she’s of course a friend, and that was a piece that I was able to workshop with her in a very personal way. Working in that way also removes the pretension behind the composer being this elite god person that creates this beauty and wonder and us lowly performers are just here to service your vision and your mission. It became I can be this because this is about working with someone whose artistry I value, whose interpretation I respect, and so let’s please work collaboratively to come together. That piece is called Dam Mwen Yo which means “these are my ladies” in Haitian Creole, and that was also a seed; that was the very beginning of what Fanm d’Ayiti became ultimately.
I love that it’s being performed so widely now. There are a lot of cellists performing it now beyond Amanda, and I love that because that piece was the first moment of me also bringing in a piece of myself that was unexpected in that space. Working in this way that felt very familiar specifically to Haitian music with another artist, another musician, but also removing myself from it. That I could have this collaborative experience, but not have to be the central voice of it was amazing to me.
I now have a string of works that have come out of that practice and that tradition. I wrote a solo violin and electronics piece for Yvonne called Watch Over Us, that premiered this past summer. I have a new cello piece for Seth Parker Woods called The Race: 1915 that he’s premiered this season and has been touring. I have an upcoming work for the Lorelei Ensemble, which is an amazing vocal ensemble. They are commissioning myself and Ken Thomson, and Jason Treuting from Sō Percussion. We’re all going to also be performers, so that feels like another very interesting way for all of these voices to come together in a very special and cohesive collaborative way.
I’m also writing a piece for Sō Percussion. We had just had our first workshop. That is actually going into this space of using my voice electronically. It’s also a way for me to explore my own voice introspectively, like what does my voice mean to me? How does it play into my life on a day to day basis? But performed by four percussionists. I cannot wait for that piece to come together. I’m so excited after our first workshop working with one another. And there are a slew of other commissions coming up. Duo Noire is a guitar duo that I’m writing a piece for right now. And a handful of other commissions some that I can talk about, some I can’t, but there’s a lot coming up, and what I love about it most is that all of these musicians are so eager to collaborate with you in this way, are so generous to collaborate with you in this way. That feels quintessentially like part of my roots as a Haitian artist, as a Haitian musician, of making music in that way. It’s about me giving of myself, but also about them giving of themselves to this process and to see that be able to play out in a concert music tradition and practice is so up my alley. It’s so where it’s at for me. And it feels amazing.
FJO: So Fanm d’Ayiti—
NJ: Yes. Here we are.
FJO: I know you said that you hate putting labels on things and so do I.
NJ: I know.
FJO: But to think through how others might label it for a moment, you could look at it from the classical music end of things and say it’s a song cycle. Or you could look at it from a pop music side of things and say it’s a concept album. When I first heard it, what I thought it was it’s kind of both and neither, and yet something else. It’s a sonic documentary; it’s really a new kind of form, although Germany has this whole tradition of Hörspiel, sonic documentaries created for radio, which is another thing I thought about the first time I heard Fanm d’Ayiti.
NJ: It’s funny that you mention that. I just did an interview this morning with Doyle from Spektral Quartet, and he also described it that way. He’s like, “If you’re an avid podcast listener, this is a great inroad to music because it’s sort of like a transition if you’re into that kind of radio storytelling. So it’s the second time today that it has been described like that which is fantastic. But I think the highest compliment somebody can give your work is to say that you have created something that doesn’t sound like anything else, which I don’t know that I was aiming to do, but I know isn’t easy to do. I feel really grateful that that has been a common response to the work.
This project to me is so deeply personal, but also the first time that I’ve done a project that has really been rooted in research and history, heritage and also the handling of narratives that are connected to me, but are not my own. So that came with a deep sense of responsibility to the cultural history, the music history, the social history, and the political history, and to honor that. I think that to choose to step into that space is to take on an enormous sense of responsibility within the context of a creative practice. Much of my process in building that work was to allow myself to be with the material and to really, in a true way, allow the material to tell me what shape it needed to take. Some of this actually came from working with dance, which is much more flexible. Dance is similar to theater in that like there’s a ton of workshopping. I think compositionally a lot of people really think linearly, like this is the form that this piece will take, and it’s a journey getting there and shaping it there. I think that for so many composers, and for me definitely in my own practice before this point, I was very sort of like, “This is what this will sound like.” But it’s not really about the finished product. The premiere of the work is the beginning of the life of the work. It’s not the end of the life of the work which is different for us, you know, as composers, as musicians. We sort of look at the premiere of the work as being the thing we had been working towards, and here we are. Working with dance really taught me to separate myself from this deep need to know what the work is before I start. That was critical. It was essential for me to enter these spaces, to go to Haiti, to enter these conversations, to be recording oral history, to be making field recordings, and absorbing the space, the material, the history, all of the narratives as an observer, and to see what came from me in that—to really allow myself, in being the composer of the work, to truly just be guiding these things into the spaces that they’re already drawn to be in.
So in that way I think by accident I was able to create something that feels really organic, that does really allow each of the components to shine in the way that they really told me they needed to shine. Not that I was like: okay, as composer I put you here in this space. Nope, I don’t like that. I don’t want that. It was really about receiving and being completely open—eyes open, ears open, heart open—in the process. And we landed on this record. That’s where that came from.
FJO: And you landed on a record that was Grammy nominated.
FJO: And, of course, the Grammies are awards from the commercial record industry which is all about putting music into separate categories. So, of course, whether or not you and I like labels, anything considered for a Grammy has to be labelled.
FJO: The only term I can think of that is even more ridiculous than “Contemporary Classical”—which is a bit of an oxymoron since classical implies the past—is “World Music,” because isn’t everything we do from this world? Otherwise it’s from outer space, right?
NJ: It’s a mess.
FJO: So how did you feel about being put there?
NJ: I feel like particularly in America we seem to be absurdly attached to needing something to fit into a box. If we cannot put you in a box that makes sense to us, then we don’t really know what to do. If we cannot put you in a box that already exists, if you attempt to challenge the boxes that are there, we become very frazzled, not just in the arts, but in every aspect of society. That’s why census forms exist. We’re going through this as a culture right now. We don’t know how to function if we can’t put you into a box. And once a box is created, we’re good with the box. There’s that box. And then lo and behold, something else comes up which actually this doesn’t fit into any of these boxes. What if there isn’t a box at all? Why does there need to be a box?
We had a million conversations about this. There are boxes for iTunes. There are boxes for playlisting and streamability on Spotify. There are boxes for the Grammys. And honestly, this record ended up in a different box for each of those platforms, if people go and start looking pretty deeply. Most people aren’t looking that deeply. But definitely when I was in talks with New Amsterdam, we had many conversations with Spektral Quartet about this. I was pretty adamant, not for the Grammy specifically, that it not land in the classical box, because for all intents and purposes, it just wasn’t going to look like anything else in that box at all. Now, “World Music” is a troublesome box because nothing in that box looks like the other thing, but at least there isn’t an expectation that anything in that box will look the same. Right? So to me, it was the lesser of two evils in a way because “World Music” is a problematic category. I love every single album that was nominated in that category and felt really lucky to be nominated alongside a bunch of exceptionally talented artists, each of whom could fit in a lot of other boxes that were available, but somehow we all ended up in “World.” It’s not even apples and oranges at that point. You’re talking about dragon fruit and passion fruit next to one another. These are two very different things, and throw in a tomato and there you go. So it’s hard, but at least in that box it wasn’t going to be expected to look like the other things in the box.
I knew we didn’t stand a chance at that in the “Classical” box because there’s no one who would look at this record and say, “That’s a classical music album.” That’s unfortunate because I do think it’s very clear that I am astudent of classical music. That is a big part of my lineage and my history and I think that that comes through on the record. I think it’s very clear that this Haitian record does not sound like any other Haitian record that I’ve ever heard. I don’t think that there is a traditional Haitian music artist out there who would look at this record and say, “Oh, yeah. That’s very clearly Haitian music.” I think they appreciate it and they see the influence and the connection to the history and the lineage, and the paying of respect to a tradition that has been totally turned on its head. But something told me that it would get less curious looks in the “World” category even if it sort of hurts my heart that that category exists.
FJO: Well, it’s weird because I know that you’ve been performing Fanm d’Ayiti around the country.
FJO: And it’s a score-based piece that includes a string quartet.
NJ: Um hm.
FJO: And there aren’t any wild improvisational things happening in it. So all those things make it seem like it is in fact “classical music.”
NJ: That’s true. I completely agree with you. Maybe part of it is tied to this idea of stepping into my own identity and understanding that there is a whole set of expectations that for the classical community potentially this album doesn’t meet. What I think is true is that the album has been accepted and received very positively across genres. Throughout the classical music community, it’s gotten a lot of great praise from some of our most important critics, which is really beautiful. It has been very openly received by the Haitian community, by people who have really devoted their lives to celebrating and practicing Haitian music. And that feels really good that they don’t feel excluded from the reception of the album. I think that’s really great. But I had my reservations about how that would pan out. I really did. So much of my career has been spent in classical music, so it was interesting to have ended up in a category that I think no one else saw me popping up in.
It also is interesting looking forward. We recently performed the work at the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland. During a Q and A session with some students there, a student asked me very squarely, “Now that you are nominated for ‘World Music,’ do you think you’re only going to make Haitian music from now on?” And my answer was: Of course not. Do I think I am never going to make Haitian music again? No, I mean, I might. I very well may. Do I think that there will be other ways for my culture and my heritage to intersect with my artistic practice? Absolutely. Am I only going to be making vocal albums in Haitian Creole for the rest of my life? Absolutely not. Who knows what category my next album will show up in? It may be that the next one shows up in “Alternative.” I don’t know. It might show up in “Classical.” It very well may, you know. I have no idea, but I know that I’m committed at this point in my life to making music that is true to me. And so I’m happy for it fall into whatever box it needs to.
FJO: Of course, one place where you don’t have to worry about what box you’re in is the Big Ears Festival happening in Knoxville later this month. I still treasure my memories of performances I attended there a couple of years ago of Roscoe Mitchell, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Rhiannon Giddens, and so many others. And there was a huge audience for all of these performances.
NJ: It’s awesome.
FJO: I’m thrilled that Fanm d’Ayiti will be presented there. Is this your first time performing at the festival?
NJ: No, this will be my second time at the Big Ears Festival. The first time I was there with Eighth Blackbird and we did a performance with Bonnie Prince Billy. We also did a sort of pop-up performance with Philip Glass and Nico Muhly which was amazing. That those were even happening at the same time was very awesome. I can honestly say that this particular festival line up is so exciting to me. I don’t know if I’m more excited to be included in the lineup, or if I’m more excited to just see all of the other shows that are happening that weekend. Ashley Capps, who runs the festival, has done an incredible job of turning his nose up at this box question, of being like: Who cares? It’s all great music. Let us all gather in a place to listen and receive excellent work all around.
What better experience than to be able to say, “I’m going to go to every concert I ever wanted to go to in just this one weekend!” That feels incredible to me to have the opportunity to do that. I’m staying for the entire weekend. I only have performances or engagements for a couple of the days, but I already knew that I wanted to be there for that because it speaks to my soul. It brings me right back to those listening stations at Tower Records. Having an opportunity to be there and receive all of this awesome music in one space is just like a gift.
FJO: I know that you’re also going to be on a panel that our own Vanessa Reed is moderating about navigating a career that spans many different musical approaches.
NJ: I’m going to be a part of a few panels. And I’m excited about the one you’re talking about, which is going to be hosted by New Music USA. I think it will give us an opportunity to talk about what it means to be “genre defying”. I sort of hate when people say that a little bit. It rubs me the wrong way. But what it means to be an artist participating in as many musical forms as we see fit—I love that. Again, it feels like a celebratory moment to be able to sit on a panel like that in this moment in my career where I’ve really become excited about celebrating who I am. One day you’ll find me in a Flutronix box. The next day you’ll find me in a Haitian box. Then the next day you’ll find me writing a piece for percussion quartet. That’s exactly the life I’ve always wanted as an artist. And it feels really good to be able to claim that and to also have space to talk openly about that.