For a long time, Nathalie Joachim’s musical worlds felt at odds with each other.
In her earlier career, Joachim, who was born in New York to Haitian immigrants, presented herself mainly as a classical flutist. She studied at Juilliard, and had an active career as a chamber musician, including as the flutist for the Grammy-winning new music sextet Eighth Blackbird.
But she also wrote and produced electronic music and thought of herself as a “closet vocalist.” Joachim regards her grandmother, who taught her traditional Haitian folksong, as her first music teacher — although she didn’t realize it at the time.
As a child, Joachim spent time with her grandmother by “telling stories through song,” she said in an interview. “It’s such a natural way for Haitian people to engage with one another. So much of our history has been passed down through song, and our music in many ways has been the protector of our history. She was bringing me into this practice, but it was really just our way of … sharing with each other in a way that felt comfortable to us.”
Initially, there wasn’t much balance between Joachim’s musical worlds so much as “compartmentalization,” Joachim said. “They didn’t bleed into one another often at all. I was just putting on a classical face, and doing everything else my heart desired.”
Some of that changed in 2009 when Joachim founded the duo Flutronix with fellow flutist and composer Allison Loggins-Hull; their music blended flute playing with electronica and hip-hop.
Then, in 2015, Joachim’s grandmother died. When she returned to Haiti, she marked the absence of her grandmother’s voice “as a critical piece of the sonic landscape.” That got her thinking about other women’s voices, how interwoven they were with the Haitian environment — and yet how few famous female Haitian artists there were.
Joachim began writing an evening-length program that combined her talents as a flutist and singer with a string quartet, electronics, and the prerecorded voices of Haitian women and vocalists, including that of her own grandmother.
The premiere of that work, “Fanm d’Ayiti” (“Women of Haiti”) by the Twin Cities-based series Liquid Music marked a sea change in Joachim’s career: It was the first time all of her musical identities fused, and the show was a hit.
Joachim approached Spektral Quartet, which had made a name for itself as a genre-hopping string quartet, to make the studio recording; that album was nominated for a 2020 Grammy, and the musicians embarked on a tour of the work that was cut short by coronavirus lockdowns.
Two years later, the tour is back on — and is now coming to Baltimore. On March 20, Community Concerts at Second presents a performance of “Fanm d’Ayiti” in partnership with Komité Ayiti, the Baltimore-based organization committed to Haitian community development.
For Community Concerts at Second, the organization that has presented free classical music concerts at Second Presbyterian Church for the past 35 years, the show is also a long time coming. Dr. Mellasenah Morris, the group’s president, remembered the reaction of the music committee when they first listened to “Fanm d’Ayiti” right after its release.
“We went nuts,” she said. “The mixture of the different elements — the instrumentals, the vocals, the electronics, the storytelling. Everything about it excited us.”
While Community Concerts at Second worked to adapt many of their 2020 and 2021 acts to a virtual format, Morris said that “Fanm d’Ayiti” was one they “really wanted to present live” because it would be “so much more impactful.”
That’s something that’s also important to Joachim, who said that the audience reaction is her favorite part of performing the work.
“Every audience connects with a new piece of it. Sometimes we have audiences that are chock full of Haitian people, and that’s a very different experience than the traditional classical audience. Sometimes we have people who’ve had relationships with elders and women who are no longer here and have really emotional responses to it. That’s always beautiful.”
The work is not without its difficulties. According to Christopher Shannon, managing director for Community Concerts at Second, the multimedia elements are complicated, but manageable. The series’ production crew became “very adventurous” during Covid livestreams, and the space at Second Presbyterian is unparalleled. When the building underwent renovations in 2004, the architects installed acoustic tiles in the barrel-vaulted ceiling specifically with the music series in mind.
Spektral Quartet cellist Russell Rolen recalled early performances of “Fanm d’Ayiti” as tricky. Though fun to play, the piece’s many intricate rhythms took some time to work out — and the group had to “shed some of their classical training” to achieve Joachim’s stylistic vision. By now, however, the group has performed it so many times that they feel “at home with the music.”
Unfortunately, Spektral Quartet announced last year that they will disband at the end of this concert season, making the current tour of “Fanm d’Ayiti” all the more singular. Baltimore is one of just a dozen cities on the tour, which culminates in the premiere of the orchestral version of the work by the Oregon Symphony.
These days, Nathalie Joachim is a lot more comfortable living in the gray zones between her identities. “I think people find difficulty placing me in any one genre,” she said. “And to be honest, it’s an awesome compliment. As artists, we are complex, because as people we are complex. I think it should be harder to put us into any one box.”
For Joachim, the same applies to musical genre — and it’s work like hers that expands the practice of “classical music” beyond the confines of a largely European-derived tradition.
“I think that probably the best byproduct of [’Fanm d’Ayiti’] for me is being able to shine some light on all the beauty there is to be found in Haitian history, their present and future — to be able to shine a light on Haitian culture.”
If you go
Community Concerts at Second and Komite Ayiti present “Fanm d’Ayiti” at 3:30 p.m. March 20 at Second Presbyterian Church, 4200 St. Paul St., Baltimore. Free, registration recommended. Learn more at cc2nd.org.