ALBUM REVIEW: Nathalie Joachim’s ‘Fanm d’Ayiti’

by Peter Tracy

Singer, flutist, and composer Nathalie Joachim. Photo by Josué Azor.

While cooking, walking, tending the garden, or washing clothes, the women of Haiti sing songs. For Nathalie Joachim, a Haitian-American singer, flutist, and composer, her image of Haiti is one of love, beauty, tradition, family, and, perhaps above all, music: it pervades the house after church on Sundays and communicates the stories and traditions of past generations.

On her new album Fanm d’Ayiti, Joachim taps into Haiti’s long musical history through original songs and arrangements of classics by some of Haiti’s legendary women musicians. The resulting compositions engage her Haitian heritage and continue these women’s messages of resilience, love, and hope.

On Fanm d’Ayiti, which is Haitian Creole for “Women of Haiti,” traditional songs are treated in a radically new way, with original arrangements featuring voice, flute, and electronics by Joachim and strings performed by the Chicago-based Spektral Quartet. Woven into the mix are recordings of a Haitian girls’ choir from Joachim’s family home, interviews with some of Haiti’s best-known female voices, and the voice of Joachim’s own grandmother. These elements come together to form something that feels both old and new—a musical language of tuneful songs, folk-style strings, stuttering electronics, and vibrant energy.

The album is set into motion with an arrangement of the song “Papa Loko,” which features fluttering string harmonics, skipping electronic percussion, and a bouncy arpeggiated bassline. This song segues into a recording of the Haitian singer Emerante de Pradines, who speaks about her feeling of unity with all female Haitian artists and leads us into the three-part “Suite pou Dantan,” a heartfelt dedication to the farming village that Joachim’s family calls home. Here, Joachim sings along with the girls’ choir over chaotically exuberant percussion, pairs field recording samples with steady drum tracks, and weaves winding flute melodies through the strings of the Spektral Quartet.

An arrangement of “Lamizè pa dous,” a song of African origin translating to “Poverty is Not Sweet,” gives way to the interlude “Couldn’t Tell Her What To Do,” in which we hear the moving story of the Haitian singer and justice-seeker Toto Bissainthe, as told by her daughter Milena Sandler over swelling string harmonies.

Side B of the album begins with an elegy-like arrangement of the traditional Haitian song “Manman m voye m peze kafe,” which feels almost like a theme and variations or a passacaglia with its continuous bassline, circling strings, and arpeggiating, marimba-like electronics. Two further arrangements of traditional songs follow: the grooving yet plaintive “Legba na konsole” and “Madan Bellegarde,” which features a contrapuntal duet between Joachim and the viola, a contemplative chorale of strings and flute, the voice of Joachim’s grandmother, and scattered blips of electric harmony.

Photo by Josué Azor.

This leads us finally into the interlude “The Ones I Listened To,” in which the voices of Haitian musicians Carole Demesmin, Emerante de Pradines, and Milena Sandler encourage both Nathalie and the listener to pursue their dreams despite hardships, and the title track “Fanm d’Ayiti,” a festive original song celebrating Haiti and its strong women, ending the album on a hopeful note.

It is important to remember that for Joachim and the people of Haiti, many of these songs are an integral part of their culture, traditions, and everyday lives. Joachim has said that songs like “Lamizè pa dous” are not only songs to sing while working, but were used by slaves to communicate with each other in ways that their oppressors couldn’t understand, much like the Negro spirituals of the United States.

In a certain sense, these songs continue to serve that purpose. Many of the Haitian Creole songs on this album were sung by women during the worst periods of intellectual repression and dictatorship in Haiti’s history as a way of maintaining their language and traditions—and it is these subtle acts of subversion that Joachim celebrates in her arrangements. On Fanm d’Ayiti, Nathalie Joachim continues the lineage of Haitian women who bring together communities, pass on their culture, and fight for justice through their music.


Nathalie Joachim’s Fanm d’Ayiti is out August 30 on New Amsterdam Records. For more information, click here.

Amanda Gookin Boldly Goes Forward (2.0)

by Dacia Clay

Amanda Gookin. Photo by Ryan Scherb.

In 2015, Amanda Gookin started a commissioning project called Forward Music Project. It premiered in 2017 at National Sawdust with seven pieces focused on issues that affect women and girls. Two years later, Gookin has returned with Forward Music Project 2.0.

True to its name, the project has taken big leaps forward. It now encompasses five new commissioned works that focus on more specific, personal issues for the composers, from body image to political oppression, sex positivity, and gender nonconformity. The performance includes electronics, video art by S Katy Tucker, and physically visceral cello playing from Gookin; the featured composers include Paola Prestini, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, Shelley Washington, Alex Temple, and Kamala Sankaram.

Forward Music Project 2.0 has an educational arm as well (Gookin is also a professor at Mannes and SUNY Purchase). Take a listen to find out more about the cellist’s latest step forward. To learn more about Forward Music Project 1.0, check out this episode of KING FM’s Classical Classroom podcast.

VIDEO PREMIERE: ‘Spirals’ by Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir

Nordic Affect (Left to right: Hanna Loftsdóttir, Guðrún Hrund Harðardóttir, Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, and Guðrún Óskarsdóttir.)  Photo by David Oldfield.

by Maggie Molloy

“Hér” is the Icelandic word for here. That idea of being present—of listening, of connecting here and now through music is at the heart of Nordic Affect’s new album He(a)r. Out now on Sono Luminus, the album is a collection of seven world premiere recordings penned by women composers and performed by women musicians.

He(a)r is an ode to hear, here, hér, and her,” writes Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, the ensemble’s artistic director and violinist. Wide-ranging sound worlds from Stefánsdóttir, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, Mirjam Tally, and Hildur Guðnadóttir comprise the album, each offering a distinct perspective on the ways in which we hear and create sound—our individual voices and the ways in which they interact.

“Spirals,” one of two works contributed by María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, circles around these themes and expands outward: dense chords, hazy melodies, and fragmented sounds from an old music box echo and grow into an immersive meditation on time itself.

We are thrilled to premiere a brand new video for Sigfúsdóttir’s composition “Spirals,” performed by Nordic Affect.


Nordic Affect’s He(a)r is out now on Sono Luminus. Click here to listen to the full album.

Women in (New) Music: Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon

by Gabriela Tedeschi

Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of the 19th century, wrote a piano concerto at the age of fourteen. But by the time she was in her thirties, she had largely given up the idea of composing.

I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea,” she said. “A woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it.”

Why did Schumann believe this when many talented and prolific women composers—like Hildegard von Bingen, Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn—had come before her? Because music by women was too often ignored and trivialized.

While women composers have made significant gains in the music world in recent years, there is still a disparity between how often and the way in which we talk about male and female musicians. Many writers and audiences still use deeply gendered language to discuss music by women, often subconsciously. Ideas that women’s talents are limited to shorter, simpler forms and emotional, but technically unimpressive works still lingers. The percentage of music by women taught in music classrooms is still staggeringly low. To many young musicians, it still can look as though women don’t really compose.

That’s why changing how we talk about women in music is so important, and why the website Music Theory Examples by Women is organizing an Edit-a-Thon to change the way women in music are representedstarting with Wikipedia.

The national Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 29. The goal is to edit existing entries and create new entries to radically update the way women in music are represented across Wikipedia—and eventually, the broader musical discourse.

Anyone anywhere can participate, but if you’d like to edit with a group, in-person workshops are being offered throughout the country. The first half of the event will focus on discussing biased writing on women in music and learning how to edit Wikipedia. Attendees will have the time to work on editing and adding to Wikipedia entries during the second half. No prior musical knowledge or experience with Wikipedia is needed.

Seattle’s event is hosted by Live Music Project Executive Director Shaya Lyon, and will begin this Saturday, Sept. 29 at 10am. Click here for additional details.

Additional workshops are being held in Boston, MA, East Lansing, MI, Houston, TX, Fredonia, NY, and Rochester, NY. Click here to learn more or register for a workshop.

Women in (New) Music: Remembering Graciela Agudelo (1945–2018)

by Michael Schell

Composer Graciela Agudelo, who passed away on April 19, was a well-loved figure within the Mexican new music community, but her work is largely unknown in the United States. This is a shame, because surveying her output reveals it to be that of a talented and forward-looking musician whose creativity has seemingly been hidden from us by a line drawn on a map.

Born in Mexico City in 1945, her full name was Graciela Josefina Eugenia Agudelo y Murguía. As a young girl, she displayed proficiency on the piano, and she went on to study the instrument in college, eventually turning to composition in her mid-20s. Despite that relatively late start, she developed quickly, and wrote a number of solo, chamber and orchestral works in an avant-garde style enlivened by an individualistic approach to national identity that avoided folkloristic clichés.

Her percussion quartet, De hadas y aluxes, is a good introduction. It comes from a long line of Latin American percussion works that originated with Amadeo Roldán’s Rítmicas 5 and 6 of 1930 (thought to have edged out Varèse’s Ionization as the first modern compositions for percussion alone) and continued through Chávez’s 1942 Toccata (one of the most popular works by any Mexican composer). Agudelo’s title refers to Mayan mythology: an hada is a fairy and an alux is a counterpart to the Celtic leprechaun. The piece rumbles through a zigzagging array of different moods, with textures built from sustained rolls and soft tamtam strokes abutting more active passages featuring mallet instruments. The first steady beat appears at 6:52 in the above track, a soft four-note march in the timpani:

It soon speeds up, other drums joining in at their own tempo, eventually turning into a cacophonous spritely dance. A vibraphone cadenza ushers in a slower, quieter section (the sprites need a breather), then at 11:10, a sudden bass drum stroke sets off a vigorous bacchanal. When this winds down, the coda emerges, based on a pentatonic theme—the only real melody in the piece—which refers back to the earlier march riff:

This piece is so obscure that it has no performance history in the United States, but I think it holds its own against many newer, better-known percussion works.

Even when Agudelo’s models are obvious, she still displays invention and craft. Her Arabesco (1990) is inspired by Berio’s Sequenzas, a series of solo pieces written for new virtuosi proficient in both traditional and extended techniques. But whereas Berio wrote for modern instruments, Agudelo applied this zeal for finding new sounds to the recorder, one of the oldest, most hackneyed instruments imaginable. At various points the performer is called upon to sing, perform glissandos and multiphonics, and even play two recorders simultaneously (one with each hand).

Like Arabesco, Agudelo’s suite Meditaciones sobre Abya Yala for solo flute explores a variety of standard and modern techniques, this time in service of an anguished nostalgia. Abya Yala is an indigenous name for all the Americas, and the movements include such suggestive titles as Curare, Guanacos, and Tacuabé (the name of the last surviving Charrúa tribesman of Urugray, captured in 1833 and taken to France where he was displayed as a museum piece). The last movement is entitled Tambor (drum), and befittingly explores a range of percussive and noise effects. In one notable passage, flutist Alejandro Escuer is heard whistling and playing simultaneously.

A highlight of Agudelo’s oeuvre is the 1993 orchestral piece Parajes de la Memoria: La Selva (Places of Memory: The Jungle). It proceeds in moment form, a succession of recollected mental snapshots inhabiting a timbre-centric world that anticipates several recent (and admired) compositions from the US and Europe (compare her bird flock at 3:02 with Georg Frederich Haas’ In Vain). Latin American rattles and drums add a touch of local color, and the music even breaks out into the briefest of bossa novas at the end, but Agudelo constructs her personal rainforest without sentimentality and without backing into full-fledged Villa-Lobos style folklorism.

Besides being a pianist and composer, Agudelo was also one of Mexico’s most important music pedagogues. She considered communal music-making to be an important socialization tool (“music-making is harmonious, not only in an intrinsic sense but also in a social sense”), and fought for musical education in primary schools. She wrote instructional books and music for students, and lobbied for the protection of Mexican traditional and art music against the onslaught of mass media. Her talents even ranged into literature: she wrote numerous short stories, recently gathered into the collection En Los Claros del Tiempo (In the Clearings of Time).

For much of the 20th century, Western art music in Mexico was dominated by the figure of Carlos Chávez (1899–1978), whose style of neoclassicism spiced with indigenous Mesoamerican elements established the first post-Revolutionary paradigm for Mexican composers. But his influence and personality was so towering that little else thrived in its shadows. By the time composers of Agudelo’s generation came of age in the 1960s, it was clear that a new and more contemporary movement was needed, one based on post-WW2 musical techniques meaningfully informed by a Latin American sensibility. It is this legacy that Agudelo—along with her contemporaries Mario Lavista and Julio Estrada—has bequeathed not only to a fresh cadre of 21st century Mexican composers, but also to all of us who enjoy and cherish new music.