Finding Family

Composer Nathalie Joachim discusses her piece, Family, commissioned by the SLSO for the orchestra and IN UNISON Chorus


By Tim Munro


In May, the IN UNISON Chorus, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and Music Director Stéphane Denève give the world premier of a new work, Family, by Grammy-nominated composer, vocalist, and flutist Nathalie Joachim. When Tim Munro spoke with Natalie by phone, she was open about how emotionally challenging and rewarding the new work had been to create.

 

How did this new piece come about?


I'm a collaborative spirit. What we do as musicians is make ourselves incredibly venerable. I like to work closely with the people I write for because it allows me to stay in a vulnerable space and feel safe.


The SLSO reached out to me in 2019 about writing a piece for the IN UNISON Chorus, Stéphane, and the orchestra. I like working with voices because they are the most incredible instruments. There are no two that are exactly alike in the world.


The original plan was to spend 2020 building a relationship with the chorus. The chorus members were excited about being a part of the process. It's not something that they do often. Many chorus members said, "It's incredible that you want to talk to us."


I knew I wanted to write something that represented them, that was centered around their story. I wanted to get to know who they were beyond their performing. That though led me to conduct a series of recorded interviews with chorus members.

These interviews offered me a space for connection that I really needed at that time. June 2020 was a tough moment for me. It was the pandemic, George Floyd has recently been murdered, and I was coming up on the first anniversary of my sister passing away.


Talking with chorus members offered me the connection I was missing in my life at the time. It was a gift. I didn't really know what I would get out of it, but they were emotional conversations: about being in the chorus, about what was happening in the world, about not being able to meet and sing and find fellowship with one another.


There were a lot of tears shed. These were sincere, intimate, heartfelt moments shared over Zoom or over the phone by people I had never met. And these conversations gave the text for my piece, Family.


What was the process of your composition?


My process is messy. I throw a lot of stuff onto the canvas, and then most of my time is spent reshaping and deleting things.


In December of 2021, I was getting close to the deadline for my first draft. I sat down and looked at the piece, and it didn't feel like it represented the IN UNISON Chorus. It didn't do them justice. I wrote to the SLSO and asked for an extension. It was terrifying, but I was proud that I trusted myself.


It was a low point. I was worn out, plus the pandemic was surging. Everybody I knew had COVID and people were getting really sick agin. I was at my family's farm in Haiti. In my gut, I was like, "Oh my God, what am I going to do?"


I just decided to spend some days really listening to all of the interviews again. Those listening sessions reminded me of the humanity of these people. That even though we are going through a lot, we are still here, there are people who love us.


I felt saved by those listening sessions. I threw everything out and started again. It was a lot of all-nighters, but I found a path forward. Working on that piece truly saved me in so many beautiful ways. Sending it in, I felt really proud, because I felt that the chorus members would be proud of it.


Can you talk a but about how those conversations became the text for Family?


One of the questions that I asked every person was, "If you had to describe IN UNISON to somebody who knows nothing about the chorus, what would you say?" Every single person said, "This is like a family to me."


I also asked everybody, "How did you get involved in music?" And every single person had like a generational connection to music, like, "My grandmother taught me how to play piano," or "My mum sang," or "My family sang in church."


Each interview landed in this place: "IN UNISON is now my musical family." I have shaped Family to paint this picture: not only of them finding family with one another, but what music has meant to their family, and what being a part of a family means.


There's something a little haunting about all that because some o the people are no longer here. Some of these generational stories have been challenging in their own way. I spoke with Preston Bosley, who was in his early 90s, and he has since passed away. Listening back to his voice still makes me emotional.

Nathalie Joachim

For the rest of the text, I went through and made note of key words or sentiments that came up regularly in the interviews to see what rose to the top. All of the text is quite literally words that they said in our conversations.


There is a moment near the opening of the piece where the chorus sings, "We're still here after all these years. I'm right here with them."


A handful of people said things along those lines. That was their response to the longevity of the chorus. They are still together, they still are showing up at Powell Hall. It was about the resilience of this ensemble.


IN UNISON is a predominantly black chorus. Everybody I talked to expressed sentiment to that, "We should be seen, and we should be heard, because we have been here for a really long time. And we're still here." That's such a deep part of our story, not just in this chorus but in this world.


The work ends with the words, "We want you to feel a part of that, because you are, you are..." Can you talk about the ambiguity of that ending?


I liked this notion of "you are, you are." That you are a living breathing being. That you, as a person—you are here. We acknowledge that and we love that. I though that was an important note to end on.


That final sentence also hints at the fact that I was welcomed into their family. At the ends of these interviews many said, "You're not just an outsider now. Because you are working with us, you are now a member of this group, a part of our community."

 

Tim Munro is the SLSO's Creative Partner. A writer, broadcaster, and Grammy-winning flutist, he lives in Chicago with his wife, son, and badly behaved orange cat.