Written by: Paul Gleason
An internationally acclaimed flutist, singer, and composer, Nathalie Joachim is the co-founder of the utterly original urban art pop duo, Flutronix.
In collaboration with her Flutronix partner, Allison Loggins-Hull, Joachim blends disparate styles – classical, hip-hop, EDM, jazz, and soul – to make music of technical sophistication, emotional power, and sheer intelligence that’s quite simply nothing like most listers have ever heard before.
Indeed, Flutronix’s sophomore album – 2.0 – is a testament to the duo’s rare ability to make the experimental accessible. It’s also one of the best records of last year.
Joachim recently turned her attention to Ulysses in 3: Variations on Ulysses Through Word, Movement and Music – an interdisciplinary production, which is the brain-child of multi-Grammy Award Winning drummer, Ulysses Owens Jr.
In Ulysses in 3, which premiered last night (April 8, 2015) at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, Owens Jr. amalgamates the work of under-celebrated choreographer Ulysses Dove, selections from James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, and Owens Jr.’s own compositions to explore the melding of art forms inspired by the name “Ulysses.”
Joachim contributed to the project as a composer and as a performing flutist, collaborating with such talents as Owens Jr., choreographer and dancer Chanel DaSilva, dancer Antonio Brown, choreographer and dancer Michela Marino Lerman, and artist Garry Grant.
Please enjoy SEM‘s interview with Joachim, in which we discuss all things “Ulysses” and Flutronix.
SEM: Where was last night’s performance held?
NJ: The Park Avenue Armory, which is a really gorgeous historic building here in New York. It was an armory, and now it serves as an artistic home for a wide variety of projects – everything from literary, to dance – it all happens there.
This particular project is happening through their Under Construction Series, which is an artist-in-residence that they have for artists to come in and get to curate and develop new work and be able to have a home and a space to do that. Ulysses Owens Jr. is one of their artists in residence this year through the Under Construction Series, and this project has been one that he had been developing in his own mind for about a year now. This was his opportunity to have a space to really bring it to life.
It’s been a really big honor to be able to have the Park Avenue Armory to be our home for this project. As artists living in the inner city, one of the difficulties is having access to space and resources to put on especially an interdisciplinary show like this. This was a really wonderful opportunity and a great way for all of us as collaborators to have a shared creative space. We’ve been developing the project there since November of 2014, and of course these past few days here have been really chock-full of our five-hour rehearsals.
It was a great place for the choreographer, Chanel DaSilva, to be able to bring the dancers to really work through the choreography over time. It was a great space for me to be able to go and write and be immersed…It is really wonderful venue particularly for the Joyce novel – it is an inspiring old place, it was really inspiring to be working there.
SEM: I am fascinated by how a novel like Ulysses can inspire music. Can you talk about your experience reading the book and the kind of effect it had on you?
NJ: The book was a heavy undertaking, that’s for sure (laughs). I think it’s one that a lot of people read academically, so it’s not your average Winter-Fall read for most people. But to me, the language is really beautiful. There are so many gorgeous moments in his use of language, and of course, sometimes to have to decipher what is in the mind of characters and what is happening externally with that stream-of-consciousness that happens throughout the book…
But I was most taken by how much music is actually incorporated into the book. There are so many places throughout the novel that are really musical moments or alluding to music not only historically, but also to the music of the time, so I was inspired by that. His writing is rhythmic in nature – it’s poetic. It was very inspiring in terms of its relation to music in particular with a lot of Ulysses Owens’ work. He’s a percussionist, so obviously the rhythm is really key to what he does. But also with Ulysses Dove’s work with choreography work with music that is highly, highly rhythmic. That is a key component among the three – that rhythm was intrinsic to all three of the Ulysses that we had in mind when developing the piece.
Reading the novel – it’s heavy – but if you get into the beauty of the language, you quickly understand why it is such a classic and why it’s hailed, because the imagery is gorgeous, and the journey that you go through in the novel is highly musical.
SEM: Music was Joyce’s second art. He had a great tenor voice, and he had bad eyesight and was nearly blind by the time he wrote Finnegans Wake. So music is really part of his compositional method.
NJ: That clears up a lot, actually. It makes a lot of sense – his writing style makes a lot more sense.
SEM: Please talk about the other two Ulysses that contribute to the performance.
NJ: Ulysses Owens Jr. is the jazz drummer who is directing the show, whose artistic creation this was. Obviously, growing up with a name as epic as Ulysses…I mean, it’s certainly not John (laughs). It was something that was important for him to connect to and to carry that name. That name carries a lot of weight whether you’re intending to carry the weight or not, it comes with the name. So I think through time, he tried to identify with as many aspects of the name as possible and learning more about it and understanding how others have explored the name. The Joyce novel, of course, is widely known, and that was one he took a real liking to. And then he also took a real liking to the work of the late choreographer, Ulysses Dove, an American choreographer whose work is highly rhythmic and makes a very strong statement. And also the strong sexual undertones the Joyce novel has as well.
So then Owens wanted to bring his own rhythmic work as a musician and try to blend it and see where he where the overlap was among himself, Dove’s choreography, and also the novel Ulysses. That’s the inspiration behind the piece – he wanted to be able to explore variations on the related themes between Ulysses Dove and Ulysses the novel through word, movement, and music.
It is an interesting concept. The whole spin on it is interesting especially because the artist themselves – Joyce and Ulysses Dove and Ulysses Owens – are all unique in and of themselves and make a grand statement each on their own.
So to be brought on as a collaborator exposed me to quite a lot. I composed most of the score for the performance, which gave me the opportunity to delve into the James Joyce novel and also to explore the work of Ulysses Dove and research it, too. I was very happy to brought on as a composer and performer for a bit during the concert. The whole project was eye-opening and enabled me to expand my knowledge of all the artists. So I’ve really looked forward to it the performance.
SEM: Was last night the world premiere of the piece?
NJ: Yes it was! We were there last night at The Armory just for that night, but like I said, it is part of their Under Construction Series, so what we’re hoping is that this will continue to be developed, and it will hopefully be staged elsewhere in the coming season.
SEM: That would be great, and also a release of that would be great – has there been talk of that?
NJ: We haven’t talked about it, but I know I’ve poured my heart into a lot of this music, and there are actually a couple of sound art pieces that I created using excerpts from the text of the book. It would be really interesting to put that together, but we haven’t spoken about it yet. Hopefully, though, we’ll put it out in CD version of that.
SEM: Can you describe the structure of the piece?
NJ: We wanted the evening to have a cyclical feeling to it. That is, of course, inspired by the novel predominantly. We wanted it also to have a sense of…it opens with a cathartic procession of all of the artists entering the stage. We wanted it to show the different facets and the Jekyll and Hyde nature of each of these artists. There are sides of them that are…very primal. There are sides of them that are very esoteric.
We wanted to be able to show each of those characters in a seamless evening. The show runs for about an hour, but each scene blends right into the next. So you get to see, again, the procession of the artists, entering the stage, and then as the evening develops, you see scene-by-scene a different emotion or character explored.
We have a fantastic team that came together for the evening. You will see, of course, Ulysses Owens performing on drums both improvisatory and parts of my composition. He is also performing as part of a jazz trio, so there will be a little bit of infusion of jazz, which is really Owens’ wheelhouse. The choreography was done by Chanel DaSilva, who is also a Juilliard graduate – Ulysses, myself, and Chanel all met at Juillard.
Chanel has been working with the lead dancer, a young man named Antonio Brown, and she is also working with a star tap dancer – Michela Marino Lerman is her name – and she is an amazing tap dancer. She’s going to be bringing a lot of the rhythmic element as well.
For the two final pieces we have the actor, Frank Harts, as the storyteller, the narrator who helps to connect the different scenes throughout the evening. He, of course, is drawing a lot from the novel. There are actually a couple of monologues created that started in the text of Joyce’s novel but have developed into larger monologues.
Then, Gary Grant is an abstract artist, a visual artist who helped to create several sculptures that will be displayed in the exhibit as audience members are entering the space, but then also those sculptures then get carried in to be the scenic elements for the stage. There is, in fact, one gorgeous sculpture that will serve as the centerpiece on the stage throughout the show.
SEM: What is the sculpture of?
NJ: The sculpture is the shape of a man’s body. It’s kind of shaped like a mannequin but really gorgeously gilded and painted and makes a powerful statement on stage. It’s interesting because, like I said, the art pieces go from being a gallery piece as the guests enter to then becoming part of the scenery, both the dancers and the musicians interact with the art pieces throughout the evening.
It’s a variety show of sorts, but the cyclical nature of it is really key, so we end where we start and bring the audience into the nature of going through a day or a journey with us as the James Joyce novel would.
SEM: It sounds incredibly exciting. I wish you the best of luck with all of your performances.
May we transition and talk about your 2.0 Album? It brings in a lot of different elements. Can you tell me about the track, “Flock”? I heard a lot of Philip Glass, Steve Reich…were these guys inspirations?
NJ: Yes, definitely! Though Steve Reich has a piece called Vermont Counterpoint, which is for eleven flutists but can be performed by one flutist with ten recorded flutes. That’s a piece that Allison and I both love. It’s a real challenge, but it’s also this beautiful work with tons of layers of flute.
We were put to task to create an ensemble piece, and we wanted to do our own spin on Vermont Counterpoint. If Flutronix wrote Vermont Counterpoint, what would it sound like? The reason why it is called “Flock” is because the flute is often likened to a bird, and we wanted to make it not your average bird. We wanted to represent a wild and rockin’ bird (laughs).
I’m glad that you heard the influence of Steve Reich; we definitely hoping to pay homage to him with that piece. It is one of the more popular tracks on the album. We are actually now releasing the sheet music for that piece for flute ensembles to be able to perform. Our upcoming EP – we have an EP coming out in late summer – we will be releasing an acoustic version of “Flock.” You’ll be able to hone in on the flute parts – there are five flutes altogether: four concert flutes and an alto flute. And there will be our recording of Vermont Counterpoint as well.
SEM: Why did you cover “Sweet Dreams”?
NJ: We wanted to do a cover, and “Sweet Dreams” is just a classic song that is timeless. It’s a song that you could ask anyone of any generation – everybody knows that song, and everybody loves that song. So it was a pretty clear choice for us as our first cover ever. Also, the title of that song was telling in a way because we really putting out our second album was really a sweet dream for us (laughs). And we’re huge fans of Annie Lennox, and there couldn’t have been a better song for us. We hope we did it justice.
SEM: Speaking of great singers, your voice is also amazing. I hear a lot of Erykah Badu in your voice.
NJ: Yep – I get that a lot, which is nice (laughs).
SEM: How did you learn how to sing? Did that happen at Juilliard, or is that something you’ve done your whole life?
NJ: I didn’t study voice formally at Juilliard, but it has been something I’ve been doing my whole life. I’m lucky in that the flute – I find – is closely related to the voice in terms of sound production. For most wind instruments, they’ve got a mouthpiece or a reed, or something like that. But playing the flute, there is no barrier between you and your sound.
I started playing flute when I was nine, and I’ve been singing just about as long. And I’m humbled that people liken me to Erykah Badu. She’s definitely a HUGE inspiration – she’s a hugely talented woman who has a strong voice not only in terms of her voice, but also her character.
What I think is great about her voice is that it’s not what you would you think of as “traditionally” beautiful voice, but there are so many gorgeous colors to it, and it’s just naturally her. I think that that’s what I try to invoke in my own singing – what comes to me naturally and exploring different facets of my voice that are maybe not “traditional” but give you a sense of who I am personally.
SEM: What was the inspiration to combine the electronic dance beats with two flutists?
NJ: Whenever people ask me that question, it’s sort of funny that I didn’t see Flutronix coming in my life. I have always been a lover of different styles of music, but when I was 11 and 12, I was practicing flute constantly but also listening to tons of drum and bass music, a lot of electronic music: Aphex Twin, Björk, Underworld…
It was the kind of thing where I’m sure my parents were like, “I’m not sure what’s going on in that room, but something’s happening.” It’s so funny because here we are years later, and Flutronix seems like a natural progression of a kid that was versed in that kind of music.
Allison and I met by chance. I got her music on MySpace seven years ago now. She was also experimenting with electronics, heavily influenced by jazz and wind. I took to her music right away, and I ended up shooting her a message saying, “You’re also a flutist, and you’re making this great music – we should link up.”
It turned out that she actually lived five blocks away from me. Which is funny, because the flute world is big, but it’s also pretty small, and if you’re a flutist that grew up in the Tri-State area, it’s odd that just being a year apart we hadn’t run into each other at a competition or whatever. We just hadn’t met each other.
I just randomly found her on the Internet, and we found out that not only had we both grown up here and grew up playing the flute at the same time, but we also lived in the same neighborhood.
We ended up getting together about a week later. I walked over to her house, and we got to talking about our experiences with the flute as classically trained flutists as well as our love for all these different genres of music. We started to think about how we could bring this all together, and that day, Flutronix was born.
We now have our urban art pop sound, and our influences come a lot from hip-hop and R&B. The art comes from our strong classical training – we’re flutists of 20+ years now, so we really have a strong love for classical music. We have a lot of our training to thank for our ability to create. The pop influence comes from anywhere from electronic music to Eurythmics (laughs).
That’s our goal: to blend all our sounds – because it’s all just music that we love, so why not?
Featured image by Arthur Moeller
All photos of Flutronix by Erin Patrice O’Brien
Photo of Ulysses Owens Jr. by Hollis King
Photo of Ulysses Dove teaching by Gilles Reichert
Transcription by Katie Gleason