Jen Shyu is a fixture in the jazz and improvised music scenes, and dexterously wears the ever-multiplying hats of multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, dancer, and scholar. She has been prolific in creating and releasing her own solo and group work with her band Jade Tongue, as well as singing and playing on projects led by other musicians—Steve Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and John Hébert, to name a few. Jen is a Fulbright Scholar, and has done extensive research throughout the world, and Indonesia in particular. Read our 2014 Jazz Speaks interview with Jen to discover more about her exploration of a number of Asian musical traditions through fieldwork.
At The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, January 21st, Jen will present her latest project, Song of Silver Geese. Song of Silver Geese, composed by Jen and co-directed with Satoshi Haga, is a full-length multilingual ritual music drama, influenced by music and folklore, and sometimes Jen’s own fieldwork, in Korea, Taiwan, Timor, and Java. Commissioned by Chamber Music America, it was premiered at Roulette in March of last year, and performed in a number of different configurations since then. This Saturday at the Gallery, Jen and her cohort will perform Song of Silver Geese in its entirety. On top of Jade Tongue (Chris Dingman on vibraphone, Thomas Morgan on bass, Dan Weiss on drums, and Anna Webber on flutes), there will be a string quartet (Christopher Hoffman on cello, Mat Maneri on viola, Erica Dicker and Jen on violins), dancer-improviser Satoshi Haga, and Jen herself singing, dancing, and playing piano, gayageum, and Taiwanese moon lute. All proceeds from the performance will go to the ACLU in solidarity with women who will be marching earlier that day.
We caught up with Jen on the phone to talk about this performance and what it means to be having it on the same day as nationwide protests in response to the President-Elect’s inauguration. Our conversation very quickly plunged into the depths of Jen’s expansive creative and activist world—her future premiere of a solo piece based on distillations from Song of Silver Geese at National Sawdust on June 29th, 2017; the history of the circuitous and complex relationship between dance and music in her work; the tough choices she was faced with as a young artist; her involvement in community building and activism through creativity and improvisation, particularly in this moment in the nation’s political landscape; and the power of encouragement to offer creativity to the world.
The Jazz Gallery: What has your experience been with dancing?
Jen Shyu: Well, I was in ballet school from age six to high school. I want to say fourteen or fifteen is when I had to stop because I was focusing on piano at that time. When I got to college I started taking modern. At Stanford, I had this amazing teacher named Robert Moses who still teaches there and has his own company. Amazing. He’s one of my favorite dancers ever. And then I learned some tap as well. But the great thing from Stanford was that I took this contact improv class. And, even in childhood, my first experience with improvising was through dance. I would just choreograph, make these dances in my room, when no one was looking. And I didn’t do that musically at all. I wasn’t improvising at all musically, which is a very funny thing. Even when I was at home alone, I was really scared of improvising with music. Because at that time I was training so hard on a classical path. I even studied opera later with a great teacher Jennifer Lane at Stanford, even though singing was just fun for me, starting out. My parents weren’t pushing me into the career at all, but my studies with these teachers were very serious, so it felt like I was training to be a concert pianist. Ballet was always there because I loved it and I didn’t want to quit. Even though my piano teacher said, “You have to focus!”
TJG: And you didn’t feel the pressures from the dance side?
JS: Well, my piano teacher—he was a fantastic, I’m still in touch with him, I just saw him in Champaign in November—his name is Roger Shields. He’s a master teacher. He was just amazing. And he was telling me, “You can’t be a jack of all trades, you have to focus.” And I remember having the crisis—I think it was in high school—because I wanted to be in this musical, but I had to prepare for this piano competition. And I just remember being in the family room, crying, because my parents were saying, “Maybe you have to choose.” They weren’t pressuring me so much as knowing that logistically, it was impossible to be in two places at once, and they were the ones driving me everywhere, so they were thinking about it more than I was. And I was crying, “Nooo, I don’t want to choose.” It was hilarious! I mean looking back at this young age, having a crisis. Hilarious. But I remember crying, sobbing, and it was a really traumatic moment.
TJG: And what did you choose?
JS: I didn’t do the musical. I ended up focusing on piano. And it was for a competition. And I made the finals. Which was a big deal. Because when I was little I got sixth place or something. But then when I was older, this was fourteen or something, and I made the finals, I felt that was a big deal even though I didn’t get any further, because these other kids were crazy. All they did was practice, they didn’t do anything else. They didn’t go to school. It was an international competition. And so to get to the finals for me was a big honor. I did not practice an inch of what those kids practiced.