Jen Shyu—the ever-ambitious, ever-evolving vocalist—has produced and performed several multi-disciplinary solo shows. Her latest one—Zero Grasses—was commissioned by John Zorn and premiered at National Sawdust. It is perhaps her most personal project to date.
Over the course of the show, Shyu will sing in multiple languages, play a variety of instruments, and dance, as well as having composed the music, worked on sound design, and written the libretto. For every ticket sold–aligned with the themes of birth, death, and rebirth–a tree will be planted in the forest of Shyu’s father, in collaboration with WEARTH. We recently spoke at length with Shyu about how the work transformed around the recent passing of her father.
TJG: It’s amazing to think that our last interview was almost exactly two years ago today. At that time, we were discussing Zero Grasses, which seems like it has really transformed. It was a Jade Tongue ensemble project, correct?
Jen Shyu: Yes, exactly. When it was In Healing | Zero Grasses, it was the day before I was going to record with Jade Tongue, the band with Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Mat Maneri on viola, Thomas Morgan on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. Some of those songs remained in this solo version, but indeed, the show took a big turn, in terms of its themes, in terms of everything.
TJG: When we last talked, the emphasis was on relationships and grief, personal and environmental, and not necessarily focusing on particulars. I was just reading about the recent passing of your father—was that a catalyzing moment for you and for this work?
JS: Yes. I was in Japan in January for what was to be a five-month fellowship, doing research, focusing on the premiere of Zero Grasses, the solo show at National Sawdust commissioned by John Zorn. The fellowship was the U.S.-Japan Creative Artists Fellowship by way of The Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission. Those five months were going to feed directly into the piece. After that, I was immediately going to stop by New York before going to Sienna in Italy where I teach at the jazz workshop. After that, I was going to do a composition residency through the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, which would be where I was going to finally organize this whole solo piece.
I got an email during a Japanese lesson about a month and a half into my time in Japan. It was from the sheriff where my parents lived in Texas: “We are sorry to inform you that your father, Tsu Shyu, has passed away.” I was like… What the hell?! I thought it was a joke, a scam. I couldn’t believe it. I called my mom, in a panic, and it was true. The ambulance had already come, dad had already been pronounced dead. He had passed away during his nap, before dinner. He wasn’t sick: He’d just come back from a trip in Egypt with my mom and was about to go to Greece. It was such a shock. That changed everything.
That night in Japan, before flying back home, I had a biwa lesson. I needed some comfort. My teacher was like a mother figure to me, and when I told her what had happened, that my father he had passed away during his nap, she said “Oh, yes, that’s how I want to go too” [laughs]. It instantly made me feel better.
TJG: When all of this began happening, were you thinking “My gosh, I’ve been exploring themes of relationships and grief in my work, and now this takes it to a new place?” Or was it months later that you began connecting these creative, personal dots?
JS: It was months later. At the time, time stopped. Life stopped. My brother was in St. Louis, and our first concern was taking care of mom. We stayed with her, we worked on selling the house, moving her to a retirement community, cleaning, handling the estate. I couldn’t think about music until we got mom to a stable place. Thankfully, she’s in a great community now.
While moving, we were cleaning the house, and from dad’s closet, she handed me a stack of my diaries. I took them with me. In August, I ended up going to Italy after all, and finally had the chance to be alone with the idea of the solo work, with the diaries. Reading about how I wrote about dad, myself, our family, was an immediate connection. It was a reminder of the cycle of life, how I was now taking care of my mom after so many years of her taking care of me. I thought, “This is preparing me to be a mom.”
My last email to my dad had been about the Guggenheim nomination. The last thing he wrote me about was his excitement. They tell you you’re nominated to receive the award, and I wrote to my dad, “We don’t know yet, don’t get too excited,” and that was the last email. Looking back in my diaries, I saw such an ambitious little girl. So nurtured by my parents. I had lofty dreams: “I’m going to live in New York,” “I want to travel the world, learn all these languages, write music based on it all.” I realized, my god, I’ve gone forth and lived that dream, and at the same time, my ambition and career focus lead me into certain crises.
TJG: And the piece, Zero Grasses, is an exploration of all of that?
JS: Yes. The piece is flanked by the present. I won’t give away the whole thing, but the opening is my first visit ever to a fertility clinic, before the end of a relationship, thinking about having children. It moves into a breakup, into the news of my dad passing, surrounded by moving boxes, the reading of an obituary I had written about myself. Throughout most of the piece, then are selected diary entries. A disturbing thread is revealed, with my dad warning me of certain things, negotiating my ambition, navigating a career and world where my models and mentors were almost entirely male. It gets into very complicated relationship and approval-seeking territory. It’s all in there, race, sexuality, #metoo themes.
TJG: How did it come to pass that John Zorn commissioned this work?
JS: He has The Stone commissioning series at National Sawdust. He invited me a while ago, around March of 2018. That was before any of this happened. Life was going as normal, as planned.
TJG: A lot of shows are produced at The Jazz Gallery, yet rarely do they have a production team, so it’s rare that I get to ask about production. Tell me about your relationship with your director, and the whole crew. What are you working to evoke with projections, lighting, and set?
JS: At The Jazz Gallery, we will transform the space. I have a great lighting designer, who was booked, but he recommended another fantastic lighting designer named Annie Garrett-Larsen, who will be doing the lighting. The director, Alexandru Mihail, is Romanian, and he directed Nine Doors, my last solo work. Zero Grasses is the third full, theatrical, musical, solo work that I’ve conceived, performed, and toured. It’s a form that I love—it’s such a fantastic challenge. I feel like it’s many things. I grow through the process, and it’s something so new for the audience as well. We’ve heard of a one-woman show, but to be able to compose all the work, write the lyrics, perform the work, produce the work… it’s a great thing, and a good example for other women, too. Of course, I’m looking at people like Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson, who have done amazing things, and I feel like I’m part of a continuum.
The lighting, the set, the arc of the work, it’s important for me to have these aspects working together. Alex is intuitive. When I was in Italy, I was behind on my process, and thought, “Do I have time to work with a director? Do I need one?” It worked out that I could bring him to the states for three weeks to work it all out. Three weeks: It was insane. You usually have at least three months to work out a piece like this, and for my other solo works, I’ve had that time. This was scary. I didn’t sleep for weeks. He helped me with the libretto, we hacked away at diary entries, he helped with structure. I rely on a director for that, because I get so close to the material. I had compositions already, but he’d suggest “We need another piece here,” or “You should turn this entry into its own musical piece,” or “We need something lighter here to balance the tragedy of the work.” I could fill each thing in, and he really helped with the broad structure.
Coming back around to the narrative of the work and of my life, in a strange way, my dad’s passing allowed me to return home to NYC and nurture a new romantic relationship that had just begun. I was humming along on my usual journey of travel, research, language immersion, creating new work. Dad’s passing created a deep cut from that trajectory, and forced me to confront family, legacy, and strangely, helped me solidify this new relationship in a way that would have been impossible had I stayed in Japan and Italy. This lead to the last scene of Zero Grasses where I have my eggs harvested (which did happen last July, and actually came to just one viable egg frozen).
The work ends with a video I took of my father driving, and mom sitting in the passenger seat, capturing the last moments I had with him around Christmas. I might have had a premonition, but at that time, I thought it was such a precious moment that I felt compelled to capture it. Anyway. Out of tragedy arose a new seed, a continuation…
Jen Shyu performs Zero Grasses at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, January 11, 2019. The production features Shyu on vocals, composition, Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa, piano, dance, sound design; with assistance from Director Alexandru Mihail; Set and Projection Designers Kristen Robinson and Kate Campbell; Costume Designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward; Lighting Designers Solomon Weisbard and Annie Garrett-Larsen; Keynote Operator Neil Beckmann; Media Production Designer Kinetic Expression LLC. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $30 general admission ($15 for members), $40 reserved table seating ($25 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.