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Jen Shyu performs Raging Waters, Red Sands at The Jazz Gallery in December 2009. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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.”

So, that was one of the main things I studied in Taiwan, as well as meeting my dad’s relatives and getting in touch with my ancestry. My travels between the United States and Taiwan were over six or seven years and also allowed me to strengthen my language skills in Mandarin.

Then in China, my research was pretty condensed to two months, and I specifically focused on two different singing traditions. One was kunqu, which is a form of Chinese opera. Some might think that kunqu comes from the Beijing opera. When I first started learning kunqu, I too thought it was like Beijing opera. However, once I started learning Beijing opera a little more, I began to realize the two are very very different. They say kunqu is a lot older and softer. The other tradition I studied is called Shuo-chang. My teacher was a virtuoso in both so I studied both traditions with him. His name was Zhang Wei Dong and he was really amazing.

During the two months I was in Beijing, a few strange things happened involving water, which also guided the idea of presenting the story of Raging Waters, Red SandsFirst, in Beijing, there was a huge flood. During the storm, a friend—an amazing guqin [a plucked seven-string Chinese instrument] player named Wu Na—and I were doing a performance together. After the performance, during torrential rain, we drove Mr. Zhang home. He lived in a rougher neighborhood where apparently the sewage system was in rough shape. There was so much water on the ground when we brought him there that it was practically up to the car door handles.

A second strange event occurred on the day I left Beijing and went to Taiwan to do two weeks of performances. I had already been studying Taiwanese folk songs for a couple years and was beginning to make my own arrangements of them. Actually, one of the arrangements is in Raging Waters, Red Sands. It is the only piece of music not in Portuguese.

While I was in Beijing, I stayed at Wu Na’s apartment owned by her aunt. When I arrived in Taiwan, she called me in a rage telling me that on the day I left, her whole apartment flooded and all of her stuff was ruined and asking me what I did to it. I told her I left the apartment clean. It turns out the pipes in her apartment were extremely old and burst and flooded the apartment. For the whole time I was there, there was no indication there was anything even wrong with them. It wasn’t until after I left. Things were ultimately fine between Wu Na and me, but it gave me an idea of a character.  I thought at that time, wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a woman who travels around and causes flooding somehow.

While I was studying the Shuo-chang tradition in China, one of the other students was named Liu Yu. Apparently, he was named after Yu the Great, an ancient ruler of China. Yu the Great was famous for saving China from flooding. The story goes that he was an engineer who was able to create waterways to allow the rivers to flow down into the ocean properly. After the call from Wu Na, while I was still in Taiwan, my guide and friend was helping me go around and connect with the elders. At one point we ended up at her friend’s home. The friend served us a tea named after Yu. I mentioned to her I had a friend named Yu also, and she suddenly spoke bitterly about how Yu the Great was known for deserting his wife. Apparently, this great emperor married a woman, impregnated her, and then only five days after their wedding, he left her for an indefinite period of time to save China from flooding. This really struck me and led me to look up this story about Yu and this woman, which remains in the history books. And this created the idea of the rage of the abandoned life causing the flooding in our story.

The story itself is kind of abstract, but those are the elements that really inspired the work and it was great to get the commission from the Gallery to present it.

TJG: You mentioned Shuo-chang, a form of traditional storytelling through song. At Stanford, you majored in opera, another form of expressing a narrative through music. And, of course, in many ways, jazz developed from the roots of the African oral tradition. Do you see all three of these as connected?

JS: Absolutely!  I think what I have been drawn to throughout is that all these traditions involve speaking and singing or just involve storytelling by really focusing on the voice.

Shuo-chang literally means speak-sing. My cousin’s friend who knew I was interested in combining storytelling and singing told me about the tradition and recommended that I go to China to study it. Shuo-chang pieces are songs in a long-form tradition. There is no pattern in the singing. There were long melodies behind the word and text but inside, as I found out in my studies, there are riffs—instrumental riffs. The tradition itself differs across regions in China. I mainly studied Beijing Shuo-chang, which is a little different from what is in the neighboring city or province. In Beijing, the singer stands and plays a percussion instrument which is two-sided. The singer flicks their nails on the instrument to give rhythm and accents. I didn’t really learn that part fully since I was so focused on singing but hopefully, I can learn it in the future. The singer is also accompanied by a different person playing a three-string instrument called a sanxian and there are also repeated riffs which go between the vocal phrasing to help move the story along.

The Beijing Shuo-chang tradition is beautiful to me because it presents a long-form and you never hear a set pattern. It was the irregularity which initially really turned me onto the tradition and also what I love about jazz improvisation without form.

My opera studies were different. What I studied at Stanford was straight up Mozart, arias, Webern, and other beautiful music, but none of it was improvised. But after graduating, I became very interested in improvising. It was and still is, just much more inspiring and it led me to creating my own music. Interestingly, opera is still linked to my jazz work, of course. I think when improvising—for instance, a duet with Ben Monder or Tyshawn Sorey—I will create a very operatic story for myself. While I don’t really use the opera “voice” as it was never natural to me, in terms of added melody or theatricality, for sure that comes into play.

And then, to add to these connections, later, I also became impressed with the Korean story-song tradition. It is funny how sometimes these types of music connect. One time, I played recordings of the Korean tradition for my Chinese friend Liu Yu, who was also studying Shuo-chang. He instantly thought it was like a Korean version of Chinese Shuo-chang, but with completely different notes and scales. The similarity lay in how it followed the patterns of how people talk, that both were non-rhyming but used very poetic prose.

TJG: You have traveled quite a bit since 2009 and your life has changed in the past decade, including your dad’s passing. Do you think these changes will impact your current performance compared to its initial presentation?

JS: Yes, it will be interesting.

For one, there will be a different dancer this time. Sadly, Satoshi Haga, the original dancer emailed me a week ago to tell me that he would be unable to perform because he is super busy. So, I had to find a different dancer. The new dancer, Wayson Poon is from Hong Kong and is fantastic. I have watched videos of him and we have Skyped, but actually have not met him in person yet.

I was introduced to him by the Asian Cultural Council (ACC), which was also the first foundation to support me in my travel studies to Taiwan. Big family! Once you get a fellowship from them, you are in a huge family of artists across the world. ACC is very selective in giving fellowships, so I am sure he is even more amazing than in his videos.

Wayson will be playing the role of the emperor. Satoshi and I created that role as a character suppressing raging waters. But, he also will represent the flooding itself. I think it will be significant because of the way our climate has changed compared to ten years ago. Over the past decade, I have become much more invested in efforts to address climate change.

And then, with my dad’s passing, we’ll see how it will influence the presentation. I am sure though it will enter into the music somehow since much of the work is improvised and it influences my technique. There is a lot of improvisation on the piece, including the whole middle section being improvised. So, it will be very interesting.

TJG: Looking at the piece from the opposite direction, how do you think Raging Waters, Red Sands has influenced your work since you first presented it?

JS: Raging Waters, Red Sands was the beginning of using a storyline or narrative through my work. It was also the first attempt at including dance in my work to move a plot forward. Both are things that have continued in my work to some degree since then.

Additionally, it is interesting because the vocal parts are in Portuguese but the storyline is of course about the Chinese emperor and how he abandoned his wife. I think this was my first attempt at transcending culture and whatever genre or category limitations some people place on art. I decided to go in a different direction and do something else. Instead of a Chinese story told in Mandarin, I was going to create a work in Portuguese about a Chinese emperor.

Then there is the Taiwanese folk song from Hengchun right in the middle of it that I thought captured the agony of an abandoned wife with child and also the strength and rage and paired with a song that was about the hardship of their everyday work. The lyrics mean, “The first hardship is the axe and the knife— and the second hardship is the basket and rope: “poor mother and poor father, there is nothing we can do.” That attitude of what she must be feeling. I thought it was interesting to put the folk song there. It doesn’t make sense storyline-wise, but vibe-wise, I thought it fit perfectly. And since then I kept just going further and further into mixing various different things together to create something else that is new.

Why not arrange a piece [Song of Silver Geese (Pi Recordings, 2017)] about a Timorese Wehali Kingdom story in the Korean traditional shaman music structure with Korean vocal techniques, but using a totally different language called Tetum Wehali from Timor? Merging these languages and cultures was a gradual experience, and I think Raging Waters, to me, was my first effort at doing so. It not only proved to me that different things could be combined in this way but that people would also respond to it.

I think it is a very important piece. I think it was my second commission. I can never say enough about how much The Jazz Gallery has supported my work. If anyone would be watching it they may say “that’s not jazz” but the Gallery has provided real unwavering support of my development as an artist.

TJG: As you had mentioned, the text for Raging Waters, Red Sands is based upon a traditional Chinese legend mixed with poetry in Portuguese. Since it was the first of your projects to combine different cultures in this way, what inspired you to use Portuguese as the language to incorporate into the piece?

JS: At the time, I had been going to Brazil as part of Steve Coleman’s band. At the time, he was performing a lot with musicians in Brazil. While I was there, I studied with an amazing dancer with her own technique named Rosangela Silvestre. I was very influenced by her work and by Patricia’s poetry. I spoke Spanish already, which is very similar to Portuguese so it was pretty easy to pick up the language conversationally.

But I don’t know if I thought too hard about where and why Portuguese fit into the piece. I think it was less of a conscious decision and more because I was working in Portuguese at the time, in love with that language, and improvising a lot in that language. And I was working with Patricia as well. I think it was something that in my mind her poetry sounded like something like I was researching. If I sang with a traditional Chinese technique, it would sound very pentatonic and I wanted to create something totally different because in my mind I was hearing other things. I thought that a different language would make it sound even more different.

But I think it was just where I was at that time and something that would make the work broader and expand the scope of the work. I’ve never focused on just one thing in my music. I’ve always wanted to have multiple aspects to my work and I feel like that is the best way to describe that decision. I’ve always been interested in putting things together that are vastly different. I think the most interesting and creative art, and the works I most admire, are those that go into areas that are a bit scarier, less familiar, and more creative.