Last month I caught three performances of Jen Shyu’s latest multi-disciplinary art-piece ‘Song of Silver Geese’. Each viewing left a strong impression on me and I felt it right to share my thoughts on this wholesome art and artist with the world…
Two of the performances were seen at Wangaratta Jazz, the first a duo setting of mostly Jen with intermittent support from our own Simon Barker; aptly set inside the cavernous local church. The second was with an ensemble closer to the record- a quartet with the addition of Veronique Serret (Ensemble Offspring) on 6 string violin and US’ James Shipp on Vibraphone. They played inside the main theatre the following afternoon, which although lacking the transcendental ambience of the church seemed an appropriate space to house her theatrical piece. Even after that gig I hadn’t had enough and went along to her gig in Sydney. Put on by Sydney Women’s International Jazz Festival, she played with the same quartet in the 120 or so intimately sized Reginald theatre, part of the Seymour Centre. It was probably the most fitting venue of the three, as it’s intimate theatre set up and darkness allowed certain elements of her performance to shine.
I first heard of Jen through Sam Gill- my most common channel of discovery for exploratory artists, back during our Con days. I’ve since spent time listening to her on some Steve Coleman albums as well as her 2015 Pi release, ‘Sounds and Cries of the World’. It was on my phone for about 18 months and so I spun it quite a bit. I definitely dig it, although I have tended to categorise it as an ‘intellectual’ listen: an album were my focus hangs on individual parts and with it’s angular melodies and foreign dialects I tend to garner this lingering feeling like I don’t quite ‘get’ it…which I acknowledge doesn’t really mean anything, so what I think I’m actually trying to say is I haven’t been able to see past the musicality and aesthetic to allow the music’s true spirit to wash over me. Watching her live definitely changed all that. Let me paint a picture…
Seated in the church pews, the audience and I were drawn in from her first unaccompanied vocal notes and slow, refrained tai-chi style movements. Over the hour we were drawn deeper and deeper by an incredible mix of song, movement, theatre and instrumental playing. She sung in seven languages! Seven! Most East Asian dialects. She played maybe half a dozen instruments, including a number of traditional East Asian string instruments among Western staples of piano and violin. She recounted two theatrical narratives in English. Others sung/spoken in the six other languages. I believe the stories were lifted from East Asian fable and folklore. Both English stories centred around the plight of wilful female protagonists and were especially engaging, with Jen falling to the ground in a shrieking mess at one climactic moment. There were also moments where she laughed like a witch possessed and another where she seemed to weep like a mother in loss. It was hard not to be at the edge of your seat. Funnily, in stroke of swift fluidity there were multiple moments during a cadence she would break both character to reveal her bubbly, benevolent personality. She offered us a water break at one point. lol. Each time the swift switch took us by surprise as we were forced out of our immersive bubbles.
The entire suite was somewhat based on the themes of life and death. The performance begun with a phone call interrupting her initial notes and movement. Over the PA it informed us of the death a man and his family in a car accident. During a brief, impromptu Q&A after the Sydney performance she revealed, holding back tears, it was indeed a tragic but true story of a close friend from Indonesia. In fact, I remember now before the performance she had asked us to think of someone we miss and to have that person close in spirit during the performance. So I guess loss and displacement were themes also.
After the performance I chatted with some friends and Sydney scene elders who were also in the audience and was surprised to realise that injecting a personal element like that into one’s art is not in everyone’s taste. The arguments for and against seemed akin to those in the absolute vs programatic debate in music: whether music should carry value or intrinsically holds it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ We could all at least agree to include such a personal element was certainly brave. Me? I really dug it. I guess brave doesn’t necessarily equate to honesty but in this case it also felt honest and vulnerable and well, in terms of art, can we ask for much more? Moreover in my mind great art should bring into focus those perennial questions of life and mortality, so my hat off to her.
I came out of each performance with that cleansed feeling that washes over you when you witness exceptional and moving art. Jen is undeniably a virtuosic singer, a multi-instrumentalist, multi-lingual, multi-disciplinary artist but in my mind her true mastery comes from the ability to wield these immense skills in a way where the performance, the art and the message wholly come first and come strong. Undeniably this was aided by the added theatrical elements of movement and story-telling, manifested in Jen’ dances, cries, shouts, smiles etc. These allowed those aforementioned themes to ring through more pertinently and to be an undeniably engaging.
Moreover, I realised I was witnessing an entirely original piece of art. Her vision to create such a unique work is immense. Which is possibly one reason why it’s so welcomed by the jazz community even though at an aesthetic level it leans heavily towards the ethnomusicological side of things and I could imagine some jazz-conservatives being a bit iffy about it. At her Wangaratta performances I was unsure of how she would be received by the old skool swing-lovers but reception seemed positive and filled me with hope yet again that good art is good art and will cut through the bullshit to people’s hearts.
All in all, I was moved by each of her performances. They showcased so much of what great art can be: vulnerable, transportive-a vehicle to bring the big questions to the forum etc. I should add they also have given me new ears in how I digest her recorded material. I’ve let myself go now, realising even without the visual element, they they have so much to give and so far to take me and much tell me.
Here’s a video of Jen doing her thing with another indelible musician, Tyshawn Sorey. Admittedly viewing on a screen diminishes the vibe but it will give some insight into her workings and if you can tap into the electric energy these guys produce I’m sure it will heal.