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.
TJG: So it was worth sacrificing the musical.
JS: Yeah. Well, I mean, I was grateful for that moment. Because I did this symphony performance—it’s on YouTube, you can watch. That was my peak; that and then the year after, when I did this other piano competition, the Stravinsky International Piano Competition. So I’m really glad I went through that. Because at that time I was maturing musically. I had figured out that you can connect your emotions to your playing. That was a big turning point for me, in piano.
TJG: And so it gave you a chance to develop that. And when did you start incorporating dance then later into your own work?
JS: It was kind of divided. I didn’t mix the dance in until after Stanford. I moved to San Francisco, and I was asked to join this collective called the Red Jade Collective. It was an amazing collective—a Japanese Taiko sensei Melody Takata, a Chinese American dancer Lenora Lee, and her partner at the time, a Filipino percussionist named Jimmy Biala, and a Mescalero Apache-Irish-German bass player John-Carlos Perea. And so the five of us had this crazy collective, led by the dancer and the percussionist. It was an amazing, beautiful, changing experience. And I think it really shaped the way that I think and work with an ensemble, even today. We would do these long rehearsals. We’d bring food, we’d play, and we’d just rehearse all day—hanging out, writing, trying things out, teaching each other. It gave me the freedom to not only improvise vocally, but then also to improvise movement-wise, which was all scary, because when you’re trained classically in any form, improvisation is always scary the first time. But that was a beautiful thing.
And then I did a gig with a different group. I was asked to sing and play violin and dance with a saxophonist named Doug Yokoyoma. He asked me to sing and play violin and dance on his gig. And so we did a performance at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. That was my first time performing in that way. A mentor of mine, John Jang, was in the audience, and we hung out afterward. And he said, “Jen! I had a vision. That’s what you’re going to do. Later. You’re going to bring it all together. You’re going to integrate everything!” At the time, I was just experimenting, thinking, “Oh, this is just because it’s what Doug wants,” or, “It’s a one-off thing.” John is one of these icons of the Bay Area community—Asian American jazz musician, activist—and mentors me to this day. That kind of encouragement was just so important at that time. Because if he didn’t say anything, I maybe would have never done it again, who knows? But for him to encourage that and not say, “That was weird,” but to say, “That’s your future,” that was really great.
When I moved to New York, I started singing with Steve [Coleman] right away, and that was just vocal. He had me play violin in the beginning, but I felt really uncomfortable, because I felt, “I need more time at the violin in terms of improvising at a high level, so I’d just rather focus on the voice right now.” Because even through I was just beginning to delve into improvising and the language of that whole thing, which was all new to me. So I thought, “Maybe one thing at a time.” My philosophy during the Steve years was a little more strict. I thought, “Let me work seriously on this, because I’m in New York!” I had always dreamed of being an artist in New York since I was little.
TJG: Yes, time to get serious!
JS: Right. But what’s funny is that now, since I went to Indonesia—their philosophy is you just do what you want, you do everything. You’re at whatever level you are, but you still do everything. Because, we’re just making music here, we’re not trying to prove anything. Their philosophy is you give what you give, it’s really an offering. The whole way the gamelan works, it’s like a community, everyone has to work together. If one person tries to shine it doesn’t really work. Everyone shines together. You’re serving a higher purpose, you’re not worried about your own selfish ideas. And so now I’m there full throttle—I haven’t really shed improvising on violin yet, but [on Saturday] I’m just going to do what I can and contribute to the whole thing. And practice when I can and catch it up to the voice. It just opens everything up, when you allow that, and you don’t have this very militant energy. That’s what I want to express—the idea of offering. It’s just an offering. So now I’m back to the more flexible and broad way of looking at things.
TJG: Which is very demanding, it seems, too, even if it comes from this different space, because you incorporate so much into every offering.
JS: But that makes it an endless wonderful journey of always trying to strive for developing more and deeper. But it does get a little crazy. I live in a co-op, so I can’t play at all hours of the night. At 11 P.M. I basically have to stop making significant noise. So sometimes I’ll go, “Oh my god, I have an hour!” So I can do five minutes of everything.
Another interesting anecdote, and I don’t think I’ve talked about this much—when I was learning the moon lute from these elders, this particular elder, her name is Chen Yin, and she was one of my main teachers. Her advice was just to practice the lute five minutes a day, that’s all, just five minutes a day, and then that’s it. But the important thing was every day. I love that. She was a farmer. She wouldn’t call herself a musician, she would say that she sings these songs. She just lived, and incorporated it into her routine. Trained as an opera singer, you become very, “Oh, I have to protect my voice.” And then you go to these villages and they’ve been farming all day, and now I’m asking them to sing for this recording, and they go, “Well, let me eat and drink a little and then I’ll be able to sing.” So I have these videos—my favorite singer, her eyes are all red, because she’s a little drunk. But they say they need to be a little tipsy to deliver.
TJG: You have decided to donate the proceeds from the performance on Saturday to the ACLU. What inspired you to do that?
JS: Well, it’s funny, because I booked this gig with Rio back in October, just—OK, we’ll do January 21st, cool. And then the election happened, and they scheduled the Women’s March on Washington to take place the day after Inauguration. So I thought, “Damn, should I cancel?” So I emailed Rio, “I feel weird about this, because I would have wanted to go to D.C. and march.” At that time I didn’t predict that these marches would be planned all over the country. Rio said, “Well, the way I look at it, there are different ways that we can all contribute, so maybe a portion of the proceeds goes to the ACLU,” or something like that. I was already a member, since I joined after the election, so I thought, “Hey, that’s a great idea.” Instead of a portion, I’m just going to give all the proceeds, my guarantee included. I feel like it’s the right thing to do. And if people who maybe can’t go to D.C. or maybe have to work on the Saturday, maybe this is a way that they can participate. I like ACLU because it’s non-partisan, and it’s trusted. It’s been around for a while and they’ve done amazing work. I believe in what they do. And I feel like to give to them is worthwhile because they can pull the strings to make the change. I’m not a lawyer, I certainly can’t directly do what they do. So I’d rather help them do what they do.
TJG: And in a way it’s nice that you can do this through your own work.
JS: Definitely. I have this 50-State-Tour idea, that I’ve started to do this past year—performing and teaching workshops, for non-artists and for people from different places. A group of strangers, doing this creative stuff together—writing together, moving, singing together. I need to focus on this. I was already doing this, and I had these plans, I got a MAP Fund grant to do it. But in light of the election, I felt, “I have to do this as fast as I can, now now now!” Get into every state, all these small towns and schools. The goal is in every state to do at least one school concert and workshop, in a middle school, high school level, especially for schools that don’t have arts funding, which many of them do not, or girls’ schools; then do a normal performance at a normal venue, to kind of recoup the funds; and then this is the most exciting part—a concert and workshop in someone’s house in the community. A potluck lunch kind of thing, where people bring all the food, everyone’s favorite home recipes, and then I do the workshop with everyone. I might perform for twenty minutes, but the focus will be on having them perform. We’d be our own performance. It would be a three-hour process, starting and ending with food. And then in the end would be a discussion.
What I’ve been doing, when I do workshops, I have everyone, at the end, talk about something they did in the last three hours that they’ve never done before. I mention at the beginning that the whole purpose of this is to let you experience something you’ve never done before. And it’s amazing, that last discussion is so great. And that’s exactly what we need to be having, is discussions. It’s uncomfortable for many people to get out there and just improvise in front of strangers. Especially non-artists. But they often have the most to contribute, because it’s their eleven-year-old dream, and everyone gets to enact that, at that moment, and they should. I always tell them afterward, “That piece of you is never gone, so you just have to take the time, and not forget that it’s there. And even though it’s not your profession, it’s something that is the greatest joy, and will give you the greatest satisfaction.” Sometimes people just need someone to say, “Yeah, you should do it,” and then they realize, “Yeah. This is what life is about.”
Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue perform Song of Silver Geese at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, January 21st, 2017. The piece is co-directed by Shyu and Satoshi Haga, and features Ms. Shyu on vocals, Taiwanese moon lute, gayageum, piano, dance, and violin; Satoshi Haga doing improvised dance; Erica Dicker on violin; Chris Dingman on vibraphone; Mat Maneri on viola; Christopher Hoffman on cello; Thomas Morgan on bass; Anna Webber on flutes; and Dan Weiss on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. All proceeds will be donated to the ACLU in solidarity to women who will be marching earlier in the day. Purchase tickets here.