While The Jazz Gallery has postponed upcoming performances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jazz Speaks will continue to share the music and stories of Gallery performers. Today, we present an interview with Jen Shyu, who was to present her longford piece Raging Waters, Red Sands this coming weekend. Originally a Jazz Gallery commission from 2009, the work showcases Shyu’s ability to bind together diverse artistic influences i through the use of cohesive narrative. Raging Waters builds upon an ancient Chinese story to explore notions of love, existence, and universal versus personal obligation. It also draws from the words of Brazillian poet Patrícia Magalhães and the performance spans five languages: Portuguese, Tetum, English, Taiwanese, and Mandarin. Check out our conversation about the work and how Shyu sees its continuing influence on her current process, as well as a recording of the work, below.
The Jazz Gallery: You seem like an artist who has typically looked forward when it comes to your work. Is there something particularly unique about Raging Waters, Red Sands to cause you to consider going back to revisit it?
Jen Shyu: Rio [Sakairi, The Gallery’s Artistic Director and the Director of Programming] asked me last year if I would be interested in re-imagining the work. The opportunity interested me because Raging Waters, Red Sands is a really special composition. Back in 2009, we presented it five times—the two nights at the Gallery, once at the Vision Festival, an additional time at McCarren Hall in Williamsburg [Brooklyn, NY], then one more time at Bar 269. We also recorded it live at the Gallery, which was released on Bandcamp. But that was it. Then I started traveling a lot, first to China then to Indonesia, and became involved in a lot of other projects.
Raging Waters, Red Sands is a really important piece because it was one of the first times I fully integrated dramatic and narrative aspects into my work. Previously, with my band Jade Tongue, I had always written songs in a certain order and would try to create a narrative by fitting them together. This was one of the first times I had a set story then framed the songs to fit. It was also the first time I worked with a librettist. It featured a very specific libretto written by a Brazilian writer and friend Patrícia Magalhães.
The story was inspired by recent visitations to Taiwan and China. Taiwan was my place of fieldwork and inspiration for a while, from 2003, really through 2010. As for China, I went there just before Raging Waters, around 2008 or 2009. While I was in Taiwan, I studied indigenous music and folk music. I found a community of folk singers and Taiwanese yueqin, or in Taiwanese, “gwat kim” musicians and elders who were keeping this tradition alive. The tradition is called Hengchun folk song, which is named after a township in southern Taiwan. It is a very beautiful tradition and began with vocal songs they would sing in the fields. Later, musicians added instruments. The instruments probably migrated from China, but Tawainese musicians settled on their own yueqin, a two-stringed instrument with a longer neck than what you would find in China. It is also round like the moon, so sometimes they call it the “moon instrument.”