This week, The Jazz Gallery is proud to welcome Jen Shyu back to our stage to present two of her ritual music dramas, Nine Doors and Song of Silver Geese. Both works reflect Shyu’s extensive field research into music from across East and Southeast Asia. We spoke with Shyu about the myths and storytelling traditions that undergird these pieces, her process for synthesizing her diverse sources, and the relationship with her Biwa, a Japanese lute.
The Jazz Gallery: In addition to the true story of the “Phone of the Wind,” a phone booth in the backyard of a Japanese gardener, which Japanese citizens have been using to communicate with their departed family and friends, the two main threads of Nine Doors are the Timorese Wehali Kingdom myth of Ati Batik and the Korean legend Baridegi. What is the resulting work about and what insights do traditional mythology offer us in our turbulent times?”
Nine Doors was inspired by the death of my friend Sri Joko Raharjo “Cilik,” who was a young master of the Javanese shadow puppet theater tradition called Wayang Kulit, killed in a car crash along with his wife and 11-month old son. The main story follows Nala—his surviving 6-year old daughter—who is given guidance by the powerful woman warriors Ati Batik and Baridegi and their respective myths. Within the piece, Nala draws wisdom and insight from them about how to carry on and be strong as a woman shouldering an enormous burden. She’s just a 6-year-old girl, so how is she going to go forward having lost her family? Though it is Nala receiving this guidance, the audience is receiving it too. Of course, it’s all abstract and I’m not telling the audience—I don’t do that. But the intent is there. I prefer abstract myth anyway, and letting the audience receive what they receive.
TJG: What is the difference between this work and the material from your last album, Song of Silver Geese?
JS: To this solo version, I folded in the “Phone of the Wind” story from Japan and a lot more material in English. I ended up translating a lot of the stories of Ati Batik and Baridegi in my own way. But of course, I couched them in Korean and Timorese rhythms. I was just looking for what was the best way I could tell the story in English and still keep the essence of the materials that I was dealing with. The larger structures, however, are the same between this iteration and the original Song of Silver Geese.
TJG: How did you come to know about the myth of Ati Batik?
JS: I was attracted to the story of Ati Batik because it was so ancient and not that well-known. Even in Betun where it came from, now in West Timor, the people who can tell the story are few and far between. This past September and October, I was there for 5 weeks, just living in the heart of that area, what used to be the huge Wehali Kingdom but is now focused in a little town. They say, yes, this used to be the heart of Wehali. The customs are still very strong and the general summary of the story is known. However, the number of people who can tell these types of stories, called “Ai Knanoik”—we really found only one person who really, as you say, spiritually received and channeled the story, whereas other storytellers we recorded knew the story, but it was clear that they had just memorized it. It’s a different thing.
What’s amazing about the research of these traditions is that you can only find out these things by going to the place. The original source where I found the story was in a book by Tom Therik, and the story was transcribed in the original Timorese language, Tetum Wehali, and then translated to English. So of course, when I went back there, my guide and assistant Desri Yulita Taek- a local and a friend of another researcher colleague of mine—and I went looking trying to find the speaker, the orator of the story that we found in the book. But of course, the orator had died already. His family members didn’t know the story. So we just had to go out and search [laughs]. And what we learned just from talking to people was that, oh yes, this tradition is not memorized. If you really can speak this type of storytelling, it’s something you can only receive.
Our main source for these stories was Petrus Tahu Nahak, or Om (Uncle) Piet as my host family called him when they introduced him to us. And the story was that one day he started to talk gibberish to himself and his wife at the time was totally confused—what’s going on? And after some time, maybe a few days, though I can’t remember, he eventually fell dead – it looked as if he died, but his pulse was still going. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him. He was still alive, but just wouldn’t wake up. It was like a coma, but he had no symptoms and no sickness. His wife took his body back to his family, which is near where I stayed, and just returned his body not knowing what to do.
He was in this coma for two weeks. What he told us later was that while he was in that coma, he sat before what he called Arwah, what we could call ancestors. And he just sat before these ancestors and received these stories from this tradition of storytelling. But he had to promise, before he came out of it, that he would never tell the story without invoking them. He would only speak what they spoke to him. He told us this – that whenever he tells the story, he is not speaking – he is merely listening. He patted the top of this head just above his forehead when he told us this: “Arwah sits here.” And so Arwah just sits on his head, telling the story, and when they leave, Om Peit stops speaking.
I saw it one time. We invited him to come over to my host family’s home, and we set up the porch to record him. He came over at around 9pm and told stories for over 3 hours. That’s when I had just started learning the language of Tetum Wehali formally, so I couldn’t understand a lot at the moment he was speaking. There was a crazy moment at the end when I was sitting next to him holding the videocamera and he was speaking, going, going, going, and when suddenly in mid-sentence, he grabbed his glasses, held on for a second holding his breath, and then looked at me and said “Cukup.” In Indonesian, that just means “That’s enough.” [laughs] It was so crazy! It was almost like he wasn’t done, but he got some kind of signal that it was time for him to stop talking. I love that! Very rare experience.
TJG: What kinds of things does this legend touch on?
JS: I think, in the Ati Batik—or her other name, Ho’ar Nahak Samane Oan—story, here’s this young girl doing her daily weaving thinking she was an only child, when this sacred bird comes and tells her, “Stop weaving. I have to tell you something, I have to tell you the truth.” Her brothers have been enslaved by a rival king, so she decides to rescue them by dressing as a male king and cock-fighting with that king who is keeping her brothers. And to me, that’s just so feminist. How can this old story have such a progressive message in it?
And the symbolism of throwing away her weaving stick to save her six brothers—I think it’s a beautiful symbolic gesture. I think every story is different. It’s hard to speak in generalities, but I know for this particular story, it is about women triumphing over impossible odds. The same is for Baridegi, who becomes the first shaman by overcoming her father’s abandoning her as a baby for not being born a boy, for her to rise above heavy bitterness and saving his life.
And I mention the different perspectives when I sing this story: is this blind filial piety? You could look at it as no, it’s selfless love and magnanimity, and that’s how she gains her shaman status. Or you could look at it as, oh, it’s just Confucianism, it’s the oppression of the daughter under her father. So it’s not black and white, but what I do admire about that character is her fearlessness, her going into the World of the Dead and getting that elixir and not giving up when her father is dead and just pouring that elixir into his mouth. Very generally, never giving up and believing in the mystical. It is that leap of faith and true belief and the knowledge that the path one is forging is the right path.
Things seem to happen that way. The reason why I’m travelling to Taiwan now is for family, but as it turns out, now I’m going to go to Japan while I’m there because of my biwa that cracked a few days ago, from the dryness and the cold. Now it’s getting fixed—luckily I have this mystical violin repairman named Gregory Wylie who plays shakuhachi [a traditional Japanese flute] and does martial arts- but since Japan is so close to Taiwan, I’ve arranged to hop over and stay at my biwa teacher Arai Shisui’s house and also buy another biwa from her.
TJG: How did the biwa find its way into your life?
JS: Very strange, mystical things have been happening in my life around this biwa. I first got interested in studying it when I was in Taiwan and I heard a recording of Kinshi Tsuruta, who was famous for introducing the biwa to the West through the [Toru] Takemitsu piece, November Steps. That was her.
So that first time I heard this instrument and her singing was way back, 2007, 2008. But then I had my first gig in Japan last February at TPAM (Tokyo Performing Arts Market). I was invited to perform my older solo piece, Solo Rites: Seven Breaths, and I arranged two weeks extra not just to study Japanese language from a private tutor, but also I was determined to find a biwa teacher, and because I had already heard about the Phone of the Wind story, I was determined to meet that gardener, Itaru Sasaki.
And for all of these things, I was just determined. I thought, after the gigs, I’m going to hang out for two weeks, and these things will come to pass. And sure enough, they did! When I visited the gardener and his wife way up in the northern Iwate Prefecture, he gave me permission to compose music to his Phone of the Wind poem. I’ve just thrown myself into the thing ever since I moved to New York in 2003. But especially since I went to Indonesia in 2011, that’s just the path I’ve chosen. And it’s a little scary. But the more I go along, I’m reassured—yes, this more difficult way is the right way for me. I did find the biwa teacher, I did get to meet the gardener. Mysterious relationships and lucky connections.
That was in February 2017. Then I went back to the Bay Area for a residency in March, at the Montalvo Arts Center where I would focus on the Nine Doors premiere scheduled for June 2017 and creating that performance. While I was in Japan, I was emailing a great koto player, composer, sound artist, friend and mentor of mine from early on — who had just come back from a Fulbright, who said, “Oh, I have an old biwa waiting in San Francisco in a shop, and if you want, I can sell it to you for three hundred bucks.” And I asked her, what kind of biwa is it? Cause there are a number of types. She wasn’t sure but said there were four strings, so my teacher convinced me to get it and at least start practicing the fingerings, to build up the necessary left-hand calluses.
Luckily, since I was doing that residency in the Bay Area, I was able to go to that shop on my way down to Montalvo, but realized when I picked it up that it was a different kind of biwa than what I was learning. This one was the Chikuzen-biwa: much smaller, and you do not slap the wood with the plectrum. Whereas, the Satsuma-biwa that my teacher played is a much bigger instrument, has a rounded top, and part of the aesthetic is that you slap the wood. Totally played a different way. And I think what stopped me from buying one when I was there in Japan during my first visit was the sense of, maybe I should wait. I just started learning, maybe I’m not ready yet. I just had this feeling to be patient.
But I was there in California and realized that the biwa was necessary in Nine Doors, and I thought, damn, I think I need to go back to Japan and get a Satsuma biwa. This Chikuzen biwa had 5 frets, not 4 like my teacher’s, and I could not practice the right-hand plectrum stroke. So I look at my calendar before the June 29th premiere, and there were these gigs, one with Steve Coleman and one with Bobby Previte, but I thought, you know what, there’s a window of 10 days when I can escape and go to Japan, stay with my teacher, and buy one of her biwas. So I text my partner on a Monday mentioning these crazy plans to go to Japan, and literally the next day Tuesday, my Korean friend who is a curator invites me to go to Korea in that exact time frame to do a cool gig collaborating with Korean and Indonesian artists. So of course I said yes, and transited through Japan, was able to stop there, study with my teacher, buy the biwa, and do the gig in Korea! The festival covered the ticket. And that’s the beginning. There’s something about this biwa that just makes things happen [laughs].
And so this crack that just appeared, that was totally scary. I had done a gig at Owl Music Parlor on the night of January 4th, the blizzard day, and the next day, I just had my biwa sitting out and my place is well-heated, but of course I didn’t think about humidity. So I came back that night and it had a huge crack all up the right side! Horrifying. So I brought it to Gregory- now a biwa repairman—who says, “Hey, I bet if I put it into my humidity-controlled apartment, I can close up the crack.” But meanwhile, while I’m in Taiwan [for an upcoming family trip], I’m going to take a three to four day trip to Japan again and buy a new biwa. ‘Cause I realized, it’s nearly impossible to get them in the US. So I better have two and not just one for when I have back-to-back gigs and something happens. I already have 3 moon lutes and 2 gayageum – why not have 2 biwas? That’s the minimum for now…I will keep collecting as I can afford and can return to these beautiful countries.
That’s a long way to say, these are lessons of true belief. They just lead you down a mystical path. And I feel like with technology, the immediacy in our world and easy access and ability to control and know things—we’re losing that sense of letting things happen organically and being at the right place at the right time.
TJG: Nine Doors initially was conceived as a work involving yourself, dancer and choreographer Satoshi Haga, your group Jade Tongue, and the Mivos Quartet. Were there any challenges or unexpected discoveries in adapting this work for solo performance?
JS:The process of creating Song of Silver Geese was really beautiful because it was just Satoshi and me, just working many hours of the day, from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., three days a week, for about 3 months. What we did was first talk a lot about these real life and mythical stories I brought in, and he also had very personal stories about his family and loss, so he wanted to bring in his own experiences as a choreographer and performer in the piece. We spent the first couple of times talking, but then, we would improvise for 8 hours and document it. We would often watch what we did at the end of the day and—it was that same kind of mystical thing—we didn’t decide a lot until two weeks before the premiere, March 28, 2016.
He kept asking, so, Jen, where’s the music? [laughs] and I would say, well, you know, it’s percolating. I really didn’t write out any music until 2 and a half weeks before the 1st rehearsal with Mivos Quartet and my band Jade Tongue. I probably won’t do that again because I was highly stressed, but what that allowed was consistent performing of the piece. “Performing” the piece in rehearsal, we could feel out how the story would be told, and how the individual myths would all fit together. It was through that organic process and not until March that I discovered a key link between these stories. In the myth of Baridegi, she takes an elixir to her dead father and resurrects him and I realized, oh, Baridegi is going to give this potion to Nala, who will then take it to her family members who died in the car crash. And that’s how I wanted it to end—I wanted it to end on that note of hope and total belief in crossing that line, and being able to communicate with the dead while you’re alive. Those discoveries just wouldn’t have happened if I [chuckles] just wrote things out and had a script. Again, this is the beauty of improvisation—through that process, we discover the true feeling of it, and how it’s going to progress in that moment.
Going into the solo process, the main things I focused on were fleshing out the story. And again, a lot more in English, because I don’t like subtitles and program notes so much. I just think that there are more direct and creative ways to convey meaning to the audience. This is definitely one long journey, and this is just a step along the way in the experimentation that I’m doing. And so then I thought, there are such great narrative structures already in Pansori, the traditional form of Korean storytelling, so why don’t I try using those rhythms in this Wehali story and see how it goes? Why not? I felt it worked really well because in Pansori, these rhythms go from slow to fast, and there are certain rhythms which are always unsteady and denote traveling, a change in scene. And the slow rhythms are clues when the storytelling is getting very scenic, descriptive and poetic, or if it’s a sad tragic theme. And then it gets progressively faster, reflecting the dramatic action. These are cues as to where the storytelling is going.
TJG: Do you feel that there is continuity between these sorts of folk traditions and contemporary techniques and performance of improvised music?
JS: Everyone comes from somewhere and that has an influence. To me, it’s completely organic. These very old stories and these rituals – you know, in Korea, when I was introduced to the East Coast Shaman family of Kim Seok Chul by a great Australian drummer Simon Barker, I learned that they have 24-hour rituals, and they also have 3-day rituals and so on. I think just checking out that whole vibe is transformative, where the singer and the drummer are playing to an empty tent because it’s 3 A.M., and everyone in the village has gone to sleep. It’s just me and two other researchers who are there. And that – that is so deep. Usually, around 1 A.M. to 4 A.M., one of the shamans Kim Dong Yeon is singing a ritual non-stop for no one except the spirits of the village. And she is going all out, singing and crying, totally inside of the story. That just affected me so much. Sometimes the villagers just bring in their sleeping bags and sleep in the tent while the ritual is going on. I saw that many times.
We just don’t see that here. That’s not the way we consume music, that’s not the way we go to concerts. I love that sense of no boundary between audience and performer. And jazz has often broken the divide but nowadays seems pretty tame. Just look at some of that Sun Ra or Art Ensemble of Chicago footage, and now what a typical jazz school performance looks like. “The last tune we did is so and so, by so and so. And the next tune we’re going to play is blah blah…” Where is the magic? How did we go backwards?
And so I just thought, in these ritual contexts, there’s no separation. It’s just very boundaryless and beautiful, and this is an opportunity to play with bringing those elements into this context. Creative music is the best outlet for me to create what I want to do and experiment with, and it’s amazing that spaces like the Jazz Gallery are completely open to these spiritual, non-commercial ventures.
Jen Shyu presents Nine Doors and Song of Silver Geese at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, January 24, 2018. The performances feature Jen Shyu: Composition, vocals, Taiwanese moon lute, Korean gayageum and soribuk drum, Japanese biwa, piano, dance, sound design, choreography, Timorese gong and Korean gong (gwaenggwari); Alexandru Mihail: Director; Kristen Robinson: Set & Props Designer; Solomon Weisbard: Original Lighting Designer; Naoko Nagata: Costume designer; Danang Pamungkas: Javanese “Bedhaya Pangkur Tunggal” choregraphy; andSatoshi Haga: Co-director with Shyu of Song of Silver Geese (2016). Song of Silver Geese also features Mat Maneri on viola and Dan Weiss on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.