Defying Genre: A Conversation with Musician-Composer Nathalie Joachim

Nathalie Joachim, Photo: Erin Patrice O’Brien

December 2021

Nathalie Joachim is in New York City on the eve of premiering Note to Self, a collaboration with Sō Percussion at Carnegie Hall. She is thoughtful and excited with eyes that sparkle with creativity, a deep intellect, and a willingness to draw you in and connect. “Who knows if I’ve even had my big break?” she jokes with humility. The Grammy-nominated flutist, composer, and vocalist is one of the performance artists forming part of the Bryce Dessner Residency at Yale Schwarzman Center. This extraordinary group of visionary musicians, artists, thinkers, and doers will create new music and collaborate with Grammy award-winning writer, musician, arranger and composer Bryce Dessner ’96 over the next three years.

The Brooklyn-born Haitian-American artist is co-founder of the critically-acclaimed duo, Flutronix, and comfortably navigates everything from classical to indie-rock, all while advocating for social change and cultural awareness. She has performed and recorded with an impressive range of today’s most exciting artists and ensembles. As a composer, Joachim is regularly commissioned to write for instrumental and vocal artists, dance, and interdisciplinary theater, often highlighting her unique electroacoustic style.

The YSC team sat down with Joachim to talk about her groundbreaking work, her inspiration and what she hopes to accomplish at Yale and beyond.

How did you get your start in music? Who inspired you the most?

Music has always been such a huge part of my life, and I really credit my grandmother as being the beginning of that story. We had a unique way of connecting… We spent countless hours together in her yard in Haiti, sitting under the mango trees in her yard, singing and making up songs together. She would ask me to tell her about my day or tell her about something that was on my mind, but through song. And what I didn't recognize at the time was that, for us, as Haitian people, music was the way of preserving our history. 

Through this loving exchange between us, my grandmother brought me into this centuries-old practice of storytelling through song and music, and I credit her for igniting the young composer and improviser in me, and for being the first person to reinforce that sharing my voice, wholly and honestly, through music is something that I should always really honor and cherish.

Joachim’s most recent touring project, Fanm d’Ayiti, is an evening-length work for flute, voice, string quartet and electronics that celebrate and explore her personal Haitian heritage. Commissioned and developed in residence through St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series, Fanm d’Ayiti was recorded with Chicago-based ensemble Spektral Quartet. The work, released in 2019 on New Amsterdam Records as Joachim’s first featured solo album, received a Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album, and will make its orchestral debut in 2022 with the Oregon Symphony, where Joachim currently serves as an Artistic Partner.

Tell us about Fanm d’Ayiti and what it meant to you to honor your culture, your grandmother, and be recognized for it by the Recording Academy?

My journey to Fanm d’Ayiti started in late 2015 shortly after the passing of my grandmother. Her absence ignited a deep desire for understanding in me. In what ways did our voices connect with the voices of other Haitian women? What did our songs tell us about our past, and what might they mean for the future? So, Fanm d’Ayiti was the first project for me where I really, truly felt that I embraced my entire identity within that work as a Black woman, as a Haitian American, and as a 21st century creative thinker and artist. To not only have it be well received by my colleagues, but to get the Grammy nod was really something… It confirmed that my grandmother was right! That sharing exactly who you are, and doing so unapologetically and honestly, is the very best way to be received.

How did your partnership with Bryce Dessner come about? 

I first learned about Bryce while I was working for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus—he was commissioned to write a piece for them. I knew of him through his band The National, so I remember thinking, “I thought that this guy was in a band. And now I'm hearing some of his concert music, and it's exciting stuff!”  Soon afterwards, he was commissioned to write new work for Eighth Blackbird, just as I was joining the ensemble, and so I got to play some of his music in a chamber setting. And that relationship also evolved from the classical to indie rock. We worked together on a beautiful record with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, in which I got to sing in addition to play flute with him. 

Bryce and I share this mutual versatility, where we're not hamstrung by genre, where we are excited about all of the intricacies and technical prowess of classical music. And yet we both come from other traditions that involve communal music-making. So, when he first wrote to me about this residency, I was excited to be involved. I have appreciated Bryce's curation and his ability to have his ear to the ground and be excited about what might come next from an artist. 

Your work tends to honor truth and history. How does that factor into the work that you will be developing around your engagement at the YSC?

So much of my work now has become connected to place and honoring the history of spaces in many ways, but also to be able to transform spaces into something new. This opportunity to unveil this new iteration of the Schwarzman Center in this way intrigued me. What does it mean to actually create a piece that's very specific to the space itself? What does it mean to transform this space into a sonic environment for a unique experience here? And so, I hope to honor this place in that way. 

Bryce and I share this mutual versatility, where we’re not hamstrung by genre, where we are excited about all of the intricacies and technical prowess of classical music.

What is the relationship between your music as a creative process and social change?

As people, we are drawn to individual stories. As an artist, that is how I can affect change. I can't tell you how many times I describe my relationship with my grandmother, and the person on the other side of that conversation is like, “I have a grandmother who I'm really close to,” or, “This reminds me of my mom and my relationship…” It’s the idea of being able to connect through personal stories—as humans, we really crave that kind of connectivity. And so, for me in my work, I'm most active as an advocate and changemaker by creating and holding space for as many voices and as many stories as I possibly can… to honor what is offered to me and acknowledge that we have a shared existence. 

What has your role as an educator meant to you?

As an artist, education is one of the spaces where I can actively affect change. I'm constantly lecturing at universities, all over the country—it’s another reason why I'm excited to be connected with the Schwarzman Center, because it's a space for really incredible thinkers, active learners and educators. For me, the key to education is not necessarily to make anybody the best composer or the best flutist or the best vocalist, but in fact, to bring every single student that I work with a little bit closer to being themselves. If I can do that every day as an educator and engage people in that practice for themselves, then it feels like I'm making the world a little bit better.

What's next in terms of what we might expect from you here at YSC?

I pride myself on being someone who continues to defy genre. What's happening in this premiere at Carnegie Hall is going to be very different than what most people have heard from me before. My last record, bringing in oral histories in that way, was also quite different than what folks had heard from me before. And so, I won't pigeonhole myself into any one genre. I hope that anybody who follows my career or is a fan of my work trusts that I am a creative artist who has many mediums through which I can communicate. Whether it’s flute playing, my voice, electronics; something that's traditional or rather experimental; or something that ventures into the world of sound art, there is this trust that I will approach each project with my whole self and with my whole heart, hopefully resulting in work that really resonates. I am grateful for being entrusted as an artist in this moment to create something at the Schwarzman Center that is moving, that is memorable, and that is an offering to anyone who's willing to receive it.

Bryce Dessner Residency

Launching this spring, Bryce Dessner’s YSC residency is a multi-year engagement anchored by the renowned composer and Yale School of Music alumnus in collaboration with extraordinary musicians, artists, thinkers, and doers at and beyond Yale. As a feature of the residency, Dessner has assembled a roster of emerging creators—including Nathalie Joachim, Ash Fure, and Julia Bullock—whose music amplifies their lived experiences across gender, race, and culture. Each artist, including Dessner, will spend time on campus engaging in research and conversation as they develop new music and co-create unique artistic experiences with the university and New Haven community.