The first scene in composer Jen Shyu’s latest work, the jazz fantasia Song of Silver Geese, opens with a string quartet quietly stirring. These sounds recall a darkened expanse of road in Java, Indonesia. On this road the audience meets Shyu’s protagonist, a young girl suddenly orphaned in a late-night automobile accident. The real-life event that spurred Shyu to create Silver Geese was a fatality that in 2014 claimed the life of her friend and collaborator, Javanese puppeteer Sri Joko Raharjo. “I was imagining the terror of Nala, his [6-year-old] daughter, right after the accident” as she waited alone for help, Shyu says. Nala was the only survivor of the crash.
This image haunted Shyu during the nearly two years it took her to create the composition. Its first incarnation was a through-composed piece for her regular jazz ensemble Jade Tongue and the Mivos Quartet, with Shyu on vocals, moon lute, gayageum, and piano. Japanese dancer Satoshi Haga served as co-director and choreographer, and a grant from New Music USA afforded the two the time and space to develop the production’s many moving parts. In March 2016 Shyu presented sections of the new work as part of the first Met Breuer series (curated by fellow composer/pianist Vijay Iyer) and debuted the completed, full-length piece at Roulette. Later, Shyu transformed the ensemble piece into a solo work, Nine Doors, which premiered at National Sawdust in Brooklyn this past June.
The next evolutionary step for this ground-breaking composition is the release of a studio album on November 10 through Pi Recordings. Each of the nine tracks contains one of Shyu’s “nine doors,” the musical openings that lead us through her story. Along the way, the protagonist (and the audience) encounters three catalyzing figures: the Taiwanese folk hero Chen Da, a virtuosic player of the moon lute; Timorese female warrier Ho’a Nahak Samane Oan, who rises out of enslavement to rout a king; and Bari-degi, known in Korea as the “abandoned princess” and the first shaman. Through the words and music of these characters, Shyu offers comfort to the grief-stricken and a way of processing tragedy. “Everyone experiences the loss of a loved one—death is a fact of life,” she reminds us.
As something of a de facto cultural anthropologist and an accomplished polyglot (Shyu is a Fulbright scholar whose studies have brought her to East Timor, Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, China, Cuba, and Brazil), Shyu moves fluidly in and out of different cultural and artistic contexts. She uses languages as if they were instruments. Her staging is at once theatrical and ceremonial, an invocation of the sacred. And she draws from both Eastern and Western musical traditions without grinding any gears. Above all, though, her lingua franca is experimental jazz—music that not only breaks from known musical conventions but offers up innovative structures on which to build some new ones.
It’s through this syncretic process that Shyu presents a successful template for artistic works that bridge cultural divides. For instance, on her 2011 album Synastry (Pi) with avant garde bassist Mark Dresser, she synthesizes Chinese and English words, classical vocal technique, and melodies indigenous to the Asian countries of her travels to create dramatic vocals that move unerringly against a solo bass line. On her 2015 release, Sounds and Cries of the World (Pi), she played several Korean folk instruments not usually (if ever) used in American jazz performances—lutes, gongs, and zithers—alongside skilled improvisers on trumpet, bass, drums, and viola. The effect is mesmerizing.
It was Indonesian film director Garin Nugroho who first encouraged Shyu to write and play music for herself alone. Following his advice, Shyu wrote (and Nugroho directed) Solo Rites: Seven Breaths, a one-woman show in which Shyu shares the personal insights of her real-world journeys through Asia. Shifting from ensemble to solo work “was a big moment creatively for me,” she says. “I recognized the rewards of taking huge leaps of faith.”
Shyu’s rewards are also due in large measure to her tireless dedication to craft. Born in Illinois, the daughter of a Taiwanese father and a Timorese mother, Shyu spent her youth studying ballet, violin, and classical piano and was so precocious that at age 13 she soloed on piano with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. Later, after graduating from Stanford University with a degree in opera, she met Asian American jazz pianist Jon Jang and sax player Francis Wong, the mentors who helped her to emerge as a jazz artist grounded in multiple cultures.
As her identity as a multi-cultural artist has evolved, Shyu has become a master at relating universal truths to general audiences around the world. Still, the challenge of translating the nuances of speech across cultures remains. While most performing artists who work in other languages rely on program notes or sous- and subtitles to help tell their stories, Shyu looks for a more immediate way of engaging with her audience. “How do you convey the meaning of [foreign-language] texts in a creative way that doesn’t distract from the performance?” she wonders.
Listeners may well regret any misunderstanding of Shyu’s intended meaning. For instance, while the poetry of the title Song of Silver Geese resonates in the ear, few listeners would know that Shyu’s Chinese name means “autumn goose” and that one of her nicknames in the East Timor language Fataluku is “lavan pitinu,” which means “silver.” This small piece of translation shows how deftly Shyu turns word play into metaphor and personal experience into something ecumenical.
In keeping with her peripatetic life, Shyu will spend much of the rest of 2017 on the road. Australia, to play in two jazz festivals. Indonesia, to celebrate the Fulbright Commission there. And Europe, to introduce Silver Geese to new audiences. During this tour, Shyu will rarely perform her show in the same format twice in a row. What will remain unchanged, however, is the story and the heightened performance. “I try to carry some magic,” she says. Wherever she goes.
Photo: Steven Schrieber
(Reprinted from the September 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)