Resonant Bodies Festival to bring array of experimental vocal music to Chicago

Wed Apr 04, 2018 at 12:01 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Flutist Nathalie Joachim will perform excerpts from her “Fanm d’Ayiti” (Women of Haiti) at the Resonant Bodies Festival this weekend at Constellation.

The phrase “resonant bodies” can mean many things—the sound of two hands clapping, two feet tapping or an operatic soprano sending a high C soaring into the stratosphere.

At the Resonant Bodies Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday at Constellation, the focus will be on the voice–“experimental vocal music,” to be precise. An annual, high-profile event on New York’s new music scene 2013, the festival’s local debut will feature nine ensembles with Chicago ties, three per evening. This is Resonant Bodies’ first U.S. festival outside New York.

“I moved to Chicago in 2009,” said Lucy Dhegrae, a vocalist and the New York-based founder of Resonant Bodies who lived in the Windy City for more than a year before marrying and moving with her husband to New York in 2010. “I got to know a lot of the singers in Chicago. I was blown away by the talent and music there.  And it’s grown since I’ve left. It’s become sort of this center of contemporary vocal music.”

In New York, eager audiences turned out for Resonant Bodies festivals that featured well-known sopranos Dawn Upshaw and Lucy Shelton as well as the sounds of “folksy screeching and glacial silence,” as the New York Times once put it. After three successful years, the festival was ready to explore the sounds of experimental vocal music beyond New York.

“We got a grant in fall 2016,” said Dhegrae, “that had seed money for us to expand to three locations—Chicago, Melbourne, Australia, and Los Angeles.” A few Chicago foundations added their support, and Constellation, which presents contemporary chamber music one Sunday evening a month, signed on as the festival venue.

“Constellation has a following, which is good for us,” she said. “It’s a home and haven for artists.”

The focus for Resonant Bodies festivals is resolutely local, though Dhegrae stretches the term a bit.

“As we go beyond New York, that’s really important to me,” she said, “to bring together a geographic snapshot of what’s happening in contemporary vocal music. We have people who live in Chicago, and people like Tony Arnold who went to Northwestern, so she was based in Chicago for a long time. ICE was in Chicago for quite a while. Sophia Burgos is living in Europe now, but she was born and raised in Chicago and I don’t think she’s ever performed there.”

The festival’s comprehensive website,, includes detailed biographies on all nine featured artists and snippets of their music.

Among the festival’s highlights are Ensemble Dal Niente sharing a program with Arnold and members of ICE on Saturday. On Sunday flutist Nathalie Joachim, a member of Eighth Blackbird, will present an excerpt from her own large-scale composition exploring the history of Haitian women in songs and spoken text.

Joachim, a Juilliard graduate and cofounder of the urban art pop duo Flutronix, was surprised when Dhegrae contacted her about her vocal music.

“Most people know me primarily as a flutist,” she said, “and then also a composer. This vocal side of me is something I’ve only recently been embracing, so I was honored to have her reach out to me.”

Flute was the focus of Joachim’s formal training at Juilliard, but singing has been always been important to her. She sang in choirs as a child, and though born and raised in the U.S., spent extended periods in Haiti visiting her grandmother.   

“My family is from Haiti,” said Joachim. “I credit my grandmother with my vocal training, especially in Haitian folkloric style. Singing is very much part of the cultural landscape in Haiti.”

Joachim will present an excerpt from her evening-long Fanm d’Ayiti (Women of Haiti), a commission from the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series, which had its world premiere last month. Written for voice, flute, string quartet and electronics, it was inspired, said Joachim, by some of Haiti’s iconic yet rarely celebrated female artists who urged the Haitian people to fight for their rights and social justice. It includes recorded conversations with the women as well as Joachim’s arrangements of traditional Haitian music and her own original music.

The festival opens Friday with Louise, a solo created and performed by Jenna Lyle, a Chicago-based composer and performer who appeared at the 2015 Resonant Bodies Festival in New York.  Inspired by the black, large-scaled sculpture of Louise Nevelson, it’s a reworking of an earlier piece Lyle created for five dancers equipped with body mikes.

“I didn’t want this to be solely my body holding positions,” said Lyle. She came up with the idea of a costume that would create its own sound and found a black, denim-weight fabric of polyester woven with cassette tape invented by artist Alyce Santoro. Designed by Scarlet Le, the costume can serve as a skirt, a rug or an all-encompassing tent; Lyle will activate its sound with a Walkman. The piece also includes live video projections, and the costume includes two black organza panels that allow light to pass through, triggering what Lyle calls “an optical Theremin” under the fabric. 

“For many years I’ve been very obsessed with textiles and these amazing, rich sound textures you can get out of fabric.” said Lyle. “I’ve always been attracted to sounds that are a bit crackly.

“Of course, Resonant Bodies is about the voice. As a vocalist, I tend to use my voice as a vehicle for sound discovery rather than mastery [as an instrument]. So it’s been a fun process, making a counterpoint between my voice and the sounds of the textile. How do I vocalize when I’m moving and how does the movement change how my voice works?”

The Resonant Bodies Festival takes place 7:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western.

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