Resonant Bodies Festival: Jen Shyu, Nathalie Joachim, and Caroline Shaw

The second evening of the Resonant Bodies Festival took place on Wednesday, September 12th at Roulette, and featured composer-performers Jen Shyu, Nathalie Joachim, and Caroline Shaw. These three women unleashed a powerful display of nuanced and articulate work, showcasing not just their music but deeply personal stories, ethnographies, and admirable vulnerability.

With the soothing voice of a yogi, Jen Shyu began her set by asking the audience to breathe with her, and to think about loved ones who are no longer with us. Shyu performed excerpts from her concert-length Nine Doors (2017), which tells the story of a six-year-old girl who was the sole survivor of a tragic car crash that killed her parents and baby sibling. The pieces explore a range of emotions: grief and loss, humor, and ultimately transformation and empowerment, as the girl learns “how to continue, and how to survive, against all odds” from powerful Timorese and Korean female legends.

Jen Shyu performs at Resonant Bodies 2018

Jen Shyu performs at Resonant Bodies 2018–Photo by Gretchen Robinette

Shyu showcased her abilities on an impressive array of instruments including the Taiwanese moon lute, Korean gayageum and soribuk drum, Japanese biwa, and piano. This diversity made each movement wonderous and engaging, as the audience was ushered between disparate sound worlds. But most impressive is Shyu’s ability to channel her voice into so many different registers. At times, her voice rang with a full-bodied and resonant quality, and at others it dissolved into a kind of mournful and devastating howling. Shyu is a master storyteller, and captivated the audience with every movement, word, and sound.

Nathalie Joachim’s set featured excerpts from Fanm d’Ayiti (2018), a project that takes inspiration from her Haitian heritage, the celebration of women, and an exploration of self. She introduced the first song she performed, “Lamize pa dous,” as a tool to ignite revolution, a song closely tied to the first successful uprising of slaves against their owners. The general aesthetic of these pieces is engaging and effective. Joachim’s lyrical, sweet vocals were often backed by a rhythmic wash of pinging electronic sounds and drums. Aside from voice, flute, and electronics, Joachim’s music incorporates recordings taken during a research trip to her family’s farming village of Dantan, Haiti. An interview with Haitian singer, dancer, and folklorist Emerante de Pradines (1918-2018) from the year before her passing was particularly poignant, and added a lot of personality to the broader narrative and themes of the work.

Nathalie Joachim performs at Resonant Bodies 2018

Nathalie Joachim performs at Resonant Bodies 2018–Photo by Gretchen Robinette

She ended her set with excerpts from Suite pou Les Cayes, which utilizes recordings taken from a church service in her family’s village. The songs are a kind of mash-up of Haitian drumming with Mass sung in creole by an all-female children’s choir. Joachim layered flute, vocals, and distorted drum samples of her own, forming a swirling beauty of a piece.

Caroline Shaw’s set was a collection of songs–some old, some new, and some freshly arranged. “Sometimes I think of music like fabric,” she explained before performing a solo version of her piece “Really Craft When You,” originally written for the Bang on a Can All Stars. The piece sews together vocals and electronics with archived recordings from the 1970s of elderly women quilters from North Carolina and Virginia. As the women on the track explained how to assemble a “crazy quilt,” Shaw looped and harmonized with certain passages. (“Do you follow a particular pattern? No, I just guess at it!”) Shaw at once evoked and emulated the quilters through sound, creating a delightful piece that was in line with the calming spirit of Bob Ross.

The other pieces in Shaw’s set made ample use of looping and layering of vocals, generally over a swathe of warm synth chords. Throughout the set, her vocals flexed between a sweet indie-acoustic sound and a more powerful and commanding tone. On some pieces such as “I’ll Fly Away,” Shaw played violin and was joined by ­­­cellist Andrew Yee. “Stars in My Crown” takes inspiration from hymns, bluegrass, and spirituals, and utilizes softly strumming cello and violin as a backdrop for Shaw’s intimate vocals. “Other Song” is inspired by the act of composing—or as Shaw explained it, “how do you find a melody, how do you find what you’re looking for?”

Caroline Shaw performs at Resonant Bodies 2018

Caroline Shaw performs at Resonant Bodies 2018–Photo by Gretchen Robinette

The mission of the Resonant Bodies Festival is to “support the growth and evolution of contemporary vocal music and vocal artists” through creating new music, expanding audience, and challenging and transforming the role of the vocal recitalist. The vibe of the whole evening was something elusive and magical. So often, contemporary concerts that strive to be less stodgy, obtuse, and stuck in the concert rituals of the past do so in an awkward or gimmicky way—but that wasn’t the case here. The Resonant Bodies Festival is the paragon of charismatic, diverse, and meaningful programming, and a celebrated staple of the New York new music scene.