Passionate Virtuosity: An Interview with Nathalie Joachim of Flutronix

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[All photos by Erin Patrice O’Brien]

 

We at SEM have said it before, but it bears repeating.

Flutronix – the flute duo consisting of Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull – are one of the most innovative and passionately virtuosic musical acts in both classical and popular music.

The key word in describing Flutronix’s utterly original sound is “amalgamation.” Indeed, Joachim and Loggins-Hull have seamlessly amalgamated classical music, hip hop, EDM, and R&B vocals.

Flutronix’s City of Breath EP – the follow-up to last year’s essential 2.0 LP – has all the beauty, craftsmanship, complexities, and hooks that you’ve come to expect from Joachim and Loggins-Hull. The EP revisits and breathes new life into two tracks from 2.0 and features a cover of Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint, as well as a new composition, “Like a Storm,” which could be the best thing that Flutronix have ever done.

You can preorder City of Breath today (July 29, 2015) here. The EP comes out on August 13.

Joachim was kind enough to converse with us about the making of City of Breath. And please visit SEM tomorrow (July 30, 2015) for our review of City of Breath.

SEM: Thanks for chatting with me again, Nathalie. We last talked on the day that you joined Ulysses Owens Jr. for the world premiere of Ulysses in 3. Please describe the event…I’m sorry I missed it!

NJ: The Park Avenue Armory premiere of Ulysses in 3, made possible by the Armory’s “Under Construction Series,” was really a special night that resulted in an electric performance of new multi-disciplinary work. Spearheaded by jazz drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. of the Christian McBride Trio, who directed and performed in the production, the program featured my original score for voice, flute, and electronics (performed by me) and choreography by Chanel DaSilva. All of the work was inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses and the choreography of Ulysses Dove. We performed to a sold-out audience and are hoping to continue developing the production in order to stage it elsewhere in the 2015-16 season!

SEM: Let’s switch gears and discuss the new Flutronix EP, City of Breath. The vocals, with which “She Is” opens and closes, sound like an amalgamation of medieval chant and gospel. Was this intentional? And what can you tell us about how these sections were written and performed?

NJ: Allison and I teamed up with Melodia Women’s Choir on this one and loved working with them. We were originally approached by Cynthia Powell, Artistic Director of the Choir, to join them on a concert program. We mutually saw an opportunity for Flutronix to write something new including the choir, and being an all-female endeavor, we wanted to highlight the strength, beauty, and intricacy that is womanhood. This was our first time working with choir, and we were definitely inspired by their traditional church performance setting, hence the amalgamation you hear. At the same time, we wanted the voices to have an almost otherworldly and evocative quality. We recorded “She Is” at St. Peter’s Chelsea in NYC and experimented with the ladies to create beautiful textures, which resulted in the gorgeous, siren-like layers that happen throughout the piece. For me, it was a particularly invigorating experience because it was my first time singing as a soloist with choir. Overall, we couldn’t be happier with the Choir’s flexibility in working with us and are truly thrilled with the resulting sound.

SEM: How many singers (and/or vocal tracks) did you guys use to construct these sections?

NJ: We worked with about 15 singers in a very abstract manner. Allison and I had a sense of how the track would lay out when it all came together in the end, but the Choir was mostly working with an abstraction, which I think allowed them to be more free in their execution of the style and structure. We then brought the recordings back to Studio G Brooklyn, where together with Tony Maimone, we worked to find the most beautifully captured moments and placed them artfully throughout the piece.

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SEM: The vocal sections bookend a long instrumental passage. What kinds of flutes do you and Allison play? I’m especially intrigued by the “low-end” instrument…it’s almost mournful.

NJ: I play concert flute on “She Is,” and Allison plays alto flute, which has a lovely low and smoky quality to it. The alto flute is also featured in “Flock”  and Vermont Counterpoint on this EP.

SEM: What’s the percussion instrument?

NJ: “She Is” is mostly vocal and instrumental, with sparse electronic touches. The percussion sound, as well as several accompanying pulses and drones, were created using synthesizers.

SEM: What role did improvisation have in “She Is”?

NJ: Again, when we recorded with the Choir, we were working with a very loose structure. The text and tonality were locked down, but we experimented with the Choir on how those elements would combine. It wasn’t so much improvisatory as experimental.

SEM: Why was the inspiration for recording an acoustic version of “Flock”?

NJ: “Flock” was always meant to be our homage to Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint, a tour de force for multiple flutes, which also appears on City of Breath. Additionally, it was our fun/cheeky response to the idea of the flute generally being likened to the sound of a bird (i.e. Peter and the Wolf, Carnival of the Animals, and countless other classical works). We wanted our original version, which appears on 2.0 and at our live shows, to be able to rock in context with the rest of that album, so it features electronics and drummer Joe Blaxx. On City of Breath, we wanted listeners to be able to clearly draw the parallel between “Flock” and Vermont Counterpoint, so we made it acoustic and put them right next to one another.

I should also mention that we recently teamed up with publisher Carl Fischer, who will be releasing the sheet music for the acoustic version of “Flock” this summer. It was definitely important for us to give other flutists who decide to perform the piece an acoustic recording as a resource.

 

SEM: Do just you and Allison appear on the track? It sounds so rich…

NJ: Yes! It’s just Allison and me performing on the track. There are five flute parts all together (four concert flutes and one alto flute), and we multi-tracked the parts at Studio G Brooklyn. Tony Maimone and his team there are so great at capturing our sound. We are endlessly pleased with working with him, and were happy to have him co-produce on both 2.0 and City of Breath.

SEM: The track is fascinating because it highlights the flute’s potential as a rhythmic instrument. Would you please talk about this?

NJ: The flutes in “Flock” represent the flight pattern of a flurry of birds, who move in and out of chaos, harmony, and tight togetherness. The polyrhythms and accents throughout the multiple flute lines create an energetic atmosphere that is central to conveying a synchronised flock of birds. Generally, rhythm is a key component of our urban art pop sound, so we didn’t approach writing “Flock” any differently.

SEM: What composers have featured the flute in this role?

NJ: I think the question is more what composers haven’t featured the flute in this role! All jokes aside, I think the flute lends itself very well to this type of rhythmic virtuosity, and that can be seen in everything from classics like Debussy’s Daphnis and Chloe and Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring to modern interpretations like Greg Patillo’s use of rhythm flute in his work with Project Trio.

SEM: You and I both share a love for Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and minimalism. How does Flutronix’s version of Vermont Counterpoint – which Reich composed for amplified flute and tape – differ from the original 1982 performance?

NJ: Allison and I really worked to be true to Reich’s score in our performance. More than anything, I think our recording differs from other performances and recordings in that there is a keen difference in blending the sounds of two very distinct players in such a rich and synchronous setting, versus one player aiming to blend with their own sound. It was a daunting task honestly because the intonation, articulation, and emotive gestures needed to be extremely nuanced, but we are very used to performing as one, so it was also quite natural for us. We were lucky enough to record this with David Lawson as our engineer, and then completed the mixing with Tony Maimone. They both helped us achieve a seamless quality that truly represents the quintessential Flutronix sound.

[The following clip features Joachim and Loggins-Hull discussing the “quintessential Flutronix sound” in terms of their 2.0 LP.]

 

 

SEM: Why did you guys decide to cover this particular piece?

NJ: Allison and I both cite Steve Reich as a major influence to our work. I don’t know that a group like Flutronix could exist without someone like him having paved the way for us, so it was really important to pay him due respect. Also, it’s just a killer piece!!

SEM: Are the minimalists taught at Juilliard, the institution from which you received your degree? If so, how has minimalism influenced your overall sound as a musician and composer?

NJ: Yes, of course they’re taught at Juilliard – Glass and Reich are alumni after all! And minimalism marked a real turning point in contemporary music at that time, so it’s just as important to know about as any other era of western classical music. To me, minimalism came at a time where there was starting to be lots of convergence of artistic styles, particularly in New York City. It was an interesting time for music – the introduction of electronics, the rise of hip hop, etc.  If all of that doesn’t draw a straight line to Flutronix and urban art pop, I don’t know what does!

SEM: What can you tell us about “Like a Storm”?

NJ: “Like a Storm” is an extremely sentimental piece for us. In 2011, iconic American flutist, Carol Wincenc, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Flute Association (NFA). Carol was my flute teacher at Juilliard, and is still a wonderful mentor for me and a great supporter of both Flutronix and my career otherwise. I truly would not be the flutist or the person that I am without her. In honor of her receiving the award, many of her students came together to perform on a tribute concert at that year’s NFA convention, so of course Allison and I wanted to write her something special. We liken the character of the piece to that of a summer storm that you watch approaching in awe, suddenly find yourself in the midst of, and then watch as it passes, knowing that you’ve experienced an indescribable connection to mother nature. That is really the only way to describe working with someone as beautiful in spirit and in practice as Carol Wincenc.

 

SEM: What other projects are you and Allison currently engaged in, solo and as a duo?

NJ: I recently relocated to Chicago, and will be joining the Grammy winning ensemble eighth blackbird as their new flutist, while continuing my work with Flutronix. So, this summer includes lots of music learning for our upcoming season, which starts at the Wratislavia Cantans Festival in Wroclaw, Poland in September. I’m also working on a piece I’ve been commissioned to write for Helen Simoneau Danse, which will premiere at the Bates Dance Festival in July of 2016, and we’ll begin workshopping next month.

Allison is working on a new solo piece for flute that she will perform as part of Word, Rock and Sword: A Musical Celebration of Women’s Lives at Le Poisson Rouge in September. She recently gave birth to her second child and is enjoying the bliss of that with her family, but she and I are prepping for this year’s National Flute Association Convention, where we will be performing and presenting workshops.

SEM: Any live performances scheduled?

NJ: Yes! I will have my first performance since my Chicago move on July 31 at Constellation, as part of  jazz bassist Matt Ulery’s “In the Ivory.” On August 13, I will perform Danza de la Mariposa, an unaccompanied work by flutist Valerie Coleman of Imani Winds, on opening day of the National Flute Association Convention in Washington, D.C. On August 15, also at the NFA Convention, Flutronix will present a performance and a workshop.

SEM: Thank you!

NJ:  Thank you!