Jen Shyu: Artistic Evolution, Learning and Passing Down Wisdom

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Jen Shyu playing the Taiwanese moon lute.

A true innovator, Jen Shyu’s artistic output encompasses so many categories that the New York Times has hailed her as a “new kind of improviser-composer-ethnomusicologist hybrid.” While creating music that features her multilingual vocals and performances on a variety of instruments, Shyu taps into her extensive study of the traditional songs of East Timor, Taiwan, Indonesia and more. Equally involved in efforts to enrich the performing arts community, she’s also a member of the We Have Voice Collective, which aims to bring awareness to issues of inequity and create safe(r) spaces for all in the performing arts.

To coincide with her four-day residency at Schulich this week, we spoke to this multi-faceted artist in a recent email interview about her beginnings and more.

Can you tell us a bit about your early life in music and dance?

It begins with my incredible parents – my father was from Taiwan and my mother from East Timor and was Hakka Chinese. I had an idyllic upbringing in terms of discovering and falling in love with the arts from a very young age, and I spent almost all of my hours practicing, going to symphony rehearsals, and ballet lessons. As my older brother was already playing piano and clarinet, my parents put me into a ballet class when I was age five or six and I loved it immediately. Piano lessons began the year after, then violin lessons the year after that.

I began competing in piano and violin competitions and started studying piano with Roger Shields, a wonderful and intense teacher who was a student of Soulima Stravinsky. At age 13, I won a local concerto competition and I somehow played the 3rd movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. Those years of my life were focused on piano training, and I competed in the Stravinsky International Piano Competition until I was 17. However, when I was 16, something clicked in terms of connecting emotion, spirituality, and music within myself – I began to love practicing, not just performing.

Meanwhile, I discovered musical theatre through recordings of the big musicals of the time (like Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon) that my brother brought home. I began memorizing all of these musicals and imitating the voices at an alarming, obsessive rate. At 16, I was cast as Diana Morales in the local community theatre’s production of A Chorus Line, and this experience made me dream about moving to New York City and being on Broadway. My wonderful choir teacher Deborah Rude really nurtured and encouraged me, and fed my obsession with musical theatre.

This was important for me as before I started singing, I was very shy and barely talked in school, partially from dealing with racism and being ostracized. When I started to channel this newfound spiritual and emotional connection in music through the voice, it changed my whole way of existing, from being a very closed and quiet person to an expressive extrovert.

It was also through these musicals that I fell in love with songs by composers like Cole Porter and Jerome Kern. These show tunes were my introduction to the jazz tradition, as they were often interpreted by the great jazz musicians. When I was still in high school, a trombonist asked me to front for his jazz group at a local pub called Woodcutter’s. By my senior year, we were playing on weekends at Woodcutter’s, and I was doing my best to imitate my favourite jazz singers (like Sarah Vaughan), and we did many show tunes that I knew as well.

Later, I was exposed to even more music through the albums that my brother brought home from college, including the likes of Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Phish, and many more. I just absorbed everything, which was a challenge as my parents didn’t like us listening to “rock” music. All of this meant that I had a very diverse range of listening growing up.

When I went on to attend Stanford University after high school, I started thinking that I would be a drama major, but I soon declared a music major so that I could get free voice and piano lessons. While I focused on training in art song and opera with my voice teacher Jennifer Lane, I also was in an R&B a cappella group called Everyday People. On top of this, I was asked again to front for a jazz combo at a series of events called “Café Night,” and I bought a couple of fancy-looking sequined dresses, played the role and sang torch songs like “Lush Life.”

I also learned so much from the non-music classes that I took at Stanford, such as the dance classes with Robert Moses, who is still one of my favorite dancers and choreographers. Patricia Ryan’s acting improvisation class was also hugely important, as it taught me about overcoming fear and making rules for oneself in order to do so. Finally, Meredith Monk also performed at Stanford and gave workshops in both the music and dance departments, and her integration of music, dance and theatre was a huge mind-opener for me.

What experiences led you down your current path after you graduated from Stanford University in opera?

There were many events that guided me to where I am today. A hugely influential one was my decision to go to Cuba to study Afro-cuban music and dance through the Plaza Cuba program in 2001 after graduating from Stanford in 2000 and attending the Stanford Jazz Workshop. A drummer who heard me sing at the Stanford Jazz Workshop approached me to front for his local jazz ensemble, and we performed around town. This was a great experience to learn a ton of jazz standards and work on “scat” singing, doing my best to imitate Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and of course, Sarah Vaughan. I also loved Elis Regina and learned as many of the songs that she recorded as I could.

Before and after that first trip to Cuba, I took on day jobs related to the arts to pay the bills, including an internship at a new music organization called Other Minds (eventually becoming an interim Development Director), and later assisted the founder/director of an experimental theatre company called Thick Description. Both jobs taught me so much about things like presenting new music, running a non-profit organization and writing grants – and both jobs also led me to the Asian Improv aRts community.

My mentors and fellow artists in this community (including Francis Wong, Jon Jang, Miya Masaoka, Vijay Iyer, and many more) encouraged me to look to my own ancestry for creative inspiration. I had kept a packet of photocopied songs that my late fourth grand-auntie had given my father to pass on to me, which had sat untouched in a box while I was at Stanford. Francis encouraged me to dig out these songs and arrange them, and so I started to perform them with the various groups that I was in.

I also fed my love for Cuban music during this time by joining a group led by Jimmy Biala called Con Alma, where I got to sing Cuban son and boleros. I would later make a second trip to Cuba in 2003 to learn more about the Chinese diaspora there, and I was certain that I would create some kind of new work about the history of Chinese migration and indentured labor in Cuba. Looking back, it was really important for me in these two to three short years to work with all these examples of artists working from this very deep and personal place.

To jump back a bit, I realized that I had to travel to Taiwan to truly understand the songs from my grand-auntie, which were, until then, only notes on paper. Francis also said in one of his generous mentoring sessions with me that it would be good if I just “hung out” in Taiwan. I didn’t know what he really meant back then, but now, after having lived in many countries for long periods of time, I realize the value of what he meant – it’s in the “hanging out” where you learn and experience the most in the deepest way.

I also knew that I wanted to move to New York City eventually, but was waiting for the right time while making short trips there to check out the vibe. Around this period in 2002, I released my first album of mostly jazz standards (and one arrangement of a Taiwanese folk song), quit my day jobs and met Steve Coleman. He was a huge force in urging me to go to Taiwan and Cuba for that second time, and to move to New York City, which were all things that I wanted to do but was afraid of for financial reasons. He said that people’s fears are usually protected by excuses, and he encouraged me to break free of those excuses.

Soon, I started to apprentice with Steve’s band Five Elements, and performed my first gig in Europe with the group at the 2003 Marciac Jazz Festival. There was a vast learning curve in moving from my Western classical foundation into the world of improvised music, and after my first fieldwork trip to Taiwan and beginning to tour with Steve’s band, I started to compose my own music and lead my own band.

From then until now, I’ve embarked on many research trips to explore traditional music and/or dance in China, East Timor, Indonesia, Korea and Japan, with short visits to Vietnam and Malaysia. Between trips, I wrote as much music as I could, usually releasing an album and premiering a new work before traveling again.

Above all else, the most important thing in these travels are the people I meet and the communities with which I engage. They all become a big family, and I love connecting people between these communities and countries and building bridges, as the cliché goes. This is actually my favorite thing, so I cherish return visits to nuture relationships with teachers, friends and collaborators. The only downside is the constant nostalgia from missing everyone with whom I’ve spent so much intensive time. But that makes the reunions that much sweeter and more meaningful!

Can you speak about your multi-disciplinary work Nine Doors (as you’re going to perform some excerpts at Schulich) and your journey through researching and performing this project?

Nine Doors is actually a work expanded from Song of Silver Geese, which was recorded featuring the Mivos Quartet and my band Jade Tongue. Song of Silver Geese was co-directed by the dancer Satoshi Haga and myself, and afterwards, I distilled the music and expanded it into Nine Doors, adding and taking away material – but the essential stories are the same.

Nine Doors is a ritual and celebration of our lost loved ones and how, through the eyes of a 6-year old girl, trauma and tragedy can be overcome and transformed into a life better lived. When I lost my good friend Sri Joko Raharjo “Cilik,” a famous Javanese shadow puppeteer who died with his wife and infant son in an automobile accident at the age of 30, I was in total shock along with everyone else who knew him. I had just been chatting with him on Facebook two days before the news of the accident, and we had many future projects brewing. It shows you how unpredictable life and death are, and how we all share this experience of loss, if we are lucky to live long enough.

I created this piece to honour Sri Joko Raharjo “Cilik” and his family, and to provide the audience members with a chance to meditate on their lost loved ones as well. His 6-year-old daughter, who survived the crash, is the central character. Time stops as she encounters powerful female legends—from the Wehali Kingdom of Timor to the Korean folkloric myth of Baridegi—who become her guides. A mysterious phone booth in a gardener Itaru Sasaki’s yard in Otsuchi, Japan, which has become a comfort to the families who lost loved ones in the 2011 Tsunami, also enters into the story. Nine Doors reflects the parallels that exist between life and death, different cultures, and the importance of empathy over destructive assumptions that divide humanity.

Overall, Nine Doors incorporates the last 15 years of my study of traditional music from five countries: epic storytelling (Pansori), East Coast shaman music (동해안별신굿pronounced “Dong Hae Ahn Byeol Shin Gut”), and Binari, usually performed as a blessing for an audience, all from Korea; music from sub-districts Aileu and Ataúro from East Timor; Bedhaya or Javanese sacred dance from Indonesia; and the "speaking-the-song" or "katari" with Japanese biwa, the rare 4-stringed instrument originally used by monks and priests.

The work is also honoring all my teachers: Kwon Song-hee and Bae Il-Dong (Pansori), Ha Kyung Mee (gayageum), Seo Hanna (East Coast Shaman Music,동해안별신굿), Jo Mun-ju (Binari), Sim Woonjung (soribuk), Arai Shisui (biwa), and Zhu Ding Sun, Chen Yin, and Zhang Ri Gui of Taiwanese folk song and moon lute. The performance is dedicated to the late Sri Joko Raharjo “Cilik” and his family, the late Edward Cheng (whose texts “Don’t Tell Me—The Language of Dementia” and “Contemplation” bind the work), and finally to Kim Yong Taek, the elder shaman drummer of East Coast shaman music who welcomed me to witness many rituals, who sadly passed away on April 30, 2018.

How do you find teaching complements other elements of your life as an artist?

When teaching, a sacred phenomenon happens when I name or quote a mentor who taught me something precious that I am passing on – I can see the light of that wisdom illuminate the consciousness of a student or mentee. There are some things that I’ve discovered and learned through my own travel and research, but there is so much knowledge that was passed down by my many mentors. As many cultures say, “a person lives eternally as long as her/his/their name is spoken in the village.”

My hope is that in turn, my students will also absorb these words of wisdom, tools, and processes that I’m channeling from my teachers, so that I can pass down their names, words, and creative output and allow the journey to continue for generations. This is a sacred process to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching and learning, and how fluid these two things are – I learn so much through teaching and from my students.

I think the late Muhal Richard Abrams said it best after I had breakfast with him and Roscoe Mitchell, another great mentor of mine, as we were all performing at Ojai Festival in June of 2017. I was fumbling with my words to tell Muhal how much I appreciated his mentorship and words of wisdom, and he stopped me and said something like, “Now, don’t think of it like that. When you say mentor, you’ve put me up here [he raised his hand up above his head], and you see, there’s an imbalance. I like to think of it as an exchange. For instance, I want to know more about those Taiwanese songs you’ve been studying.” I was speechless, humbled, and grateful – and this was just four months before he passed away at the age of 87. How blessed are we to be alive at the same time as these giants?

Another mentor of mine passed away September 1 – Randy Weston, at the age of 92. I got to meet him when I was working my day gig at Other Minds, way back in 2002, as Randy was one of the featured composers of that festival. This is why I tell my students that each job has meaning, in that every stage of your life builds upon the next and the people you meet along the way are to be cherished and will guide you if you are open to the wisdom.

I sometimes meet young students who get very defensive if I give them advice or criticism – I am always surprised at this because essentially, you are rejecting the trust of someone who could teach you a lot, that no book or your own practice could teach you. I can’t tell you how many times a mentor or older colleague called me out on things that I did which were less than ideal or less than professional. I always listened very closely and learned the valuable lesson, and became a better artist and person for it. Of course, mentors are not always right, but one should always listen to a person’s experience and consider where she/he/they are coming from, and learn from it, even if eventually rejecting the wisdom once you’ve tried it out.

Obviously, I have much to say about teaching and mentorship, and I am learning along the way as well. I look so forward to teaching at McGill this year, especially because I get to see two of my former students from the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music from both 2017 and 2018. It’s a life-long journey and if we support each other in our strengths and our weaknesses, we all make the world better through this exchange.


Hear Jen Shyu perform in the following events as part of her residency as a Catherine Thornhill Steele Visiting Artist at Schulich: