Nine Doors, a full length, multilingual, ritual music drama by Jen Shyu, came about as the result of a self-issued artistic challenge. “I wanted to write for as big a group as I could,” Shyu says, “and then distill it down to a solo.”
You’ll be able to hear that big group – Shyu’s jazz quintet plus string quartet – on Song of Silver Geese, to be released by Pi Recordings this October. Nine Doors, which reimagines the work with a wealth of new material, reduces those performing forces to an ensemble of one. The new project — developed under the auspices of National Sawdust’s Summer Labs series, co-produced with World Music Institute and presented in association with Asia Society — will have its premiere at National Sawdust on June 29, with performances at 7 and 10pm.
Shyu is perhaps more capable than anyone of managing on her own. She will play biwa (Japanese lute), Taiwanese moon lute, Korean gayageum, piano, and electronics. She will sing in Indonesian, Javanese, Taiwanese, Mandarin, Tetum (the language of East Timor), Korean, Japanese, and English. And she also will dance. Nine Doors draws on the traditions of Korean pansori and East Coast shaman music; Taiwainese Hengchun folksong, and Indonesian sindhen and ledhekan, in addition to jazz and electronic music.
In a telephone interview, Shyu talked to The Log about the piece’s deep and wide-ranging roots across Asia.
THE LOG JOURNAL: You’re only in your thirties and you’ve studied in Cuba, Taiwan, Brazil, East Timor, China, Korea, and Japan. That’s more of the world’s cultures than most of us will get to explore in a lifetime. What fuels your appetite for the unfamiliar?
JEN SHYU: It goes back to my upbringing in Peoria, Illinois. I grew up as a second generation Asian American in schools where the students were mainly Caucasian. All of the teasing and the racism I endured really shaped my childhood. That’s at the root of why I do everything. I’m following this creative path because of the feeling that they weren’t seeing me, but rather this completely incorrect stereotype of me. So I’m going to offer a real me. And not just me, but I’m going to offer something real about who we are — whether we’re Taiwanese, Timorese, or Chinese.
Your parents were born in Taiwan and East Timor. Did you grow up with access to their home cultures?
There were Chinese New Year’s gatherings in our small community. And what was presented to us was the cheesiest commercial music. My reaction was always, “I don’t like that.” I assumed that’s what Chinese music was. So as I grew up and was very western focused in my musical studies, I left home and went to Stanford and all of my courses were on classical music. Then I got into jazz. I was successful at imitating: singing like Sarah Vaughan, playing salsa music. I had no interest in music from my roots until I encountered my mentors in the Bay Area Asian improv community. I had these long talks with [saxophonist] Francis Wong and [pianist] Jon Jang about digging deep and finding out who I was.
I think it’s fair to say that most Americans have a very monolithic vision of what constitutes Chinese culture.
Oh, yeah, forget it! When you start to explore, you find that the ethnic music in even a single province like Hunan is infinite.
Do you remember your first encounters with indigenous Asian music?
I was at Amoeba Records on Haight Street in San Francisco and found this album on a French label, Chants des Aborigenes de Taiwan. I think it included some music from the Ami, the Rukai, and the Bunun tribes. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, and had nothing to do with the “Chinese” music I knew. To me, the songs sounded similar to Cuban Santeria. I was really surprised. It was so beautiful. I went on my first trip to Taiwan in 2003. Then I wrote a grant for the Asian Cultural Council and went back from 2007-08. That was my first taste of doing fieldwork.
There’s also something about falling in love with the music from a certain place. It’s organic. I follow where… I just follow. Like the first time I heard a recording of Japanese biwa from a set of CDs my auntie bought for me in Taiwan, I thought, “Oh, my God. I have to learn that instrument someday.” I once heard Henry Threadgill talk about about intuition and attraction. It was at a master class at the old Jazz Gallery. He said, “No one can take that feeling of attraction away from you, and you don’t have to explain it to anyone. It’s a sacred thing.”
When I’ve seen short descriptions of Nine Doors and some of your other works on paper, they can read like lists — of traditions and instruments and languages. I find that a very oblique way of talking about a composition. What was the starting point for the work?
Every human who lives long enough deals with grief and loss. This piece is an offering. The starting point for the story was the car accident that killed my friend Sri Joko Raharjo “Cilik” this month in June — June 9, 2014. He was a rising star as a dalang, a Javanese puppeteer. The accident was so tragic. He and his wife, who was seated behind him holding their 11-month-old son, were all killed. But amazingly their six year-old daughter survived without a scratch. In the piece, I’m imagining that time stopped after the accident and the daughter is alone without her family. I wanted to introduce myths with strong female characters, who I envision as her guides going forward.
There are two main myths. The Timorese Wehali Kingdom myth of Ati Batik is a fantastic story about a seventh daughter with six brothers. Because they’ve gambled away their freedom to a rival king, she has to go save them — by dressing as a man. Then there’s another story from a Korean legend called Baridegi. She’s known as the mother of all shamans in Korean folklore, and is also the seventh daughter. Her father was the king and he wanted a seventh son, so he abandoned her by floating her down the river in a jade boat. The king falls deathly ill, and is told in a dream that he is sick because he abandoned that daughter and the only cure is for her to retrieve holy water from the underworld for him. She travels there and has to labor for nine years, one of the reasons the piece is called Nine Doors.
There’s also a thread involving the real story of a Japanese gardener, who put a phone booth in his garden a few months before the tsunami of 2011. He had used it to communicate with his cousin who’d passed away. After the tsunami, locals started to come and talk to their lost ones through the phone. Now 10,000 people from Japan and beyond have come to see it. NHK did a documentary on this “phone of the wind.” After I saw it, I said to myself, I’m going to go to that village and meet him. And I did. He gave me permission to write a song based on a poem he wrote and posted in the booth.
Do the different musical traditions on which you’re drawing have specific associations in the piece — meaning, are they symbolic, or do they give voice to particular emotions? One imagines that you could compose in such a way that it creates its own sense of cultural geography.
It’s freer than that. I’m not approaching it as an ethnomusicologist. I’m just approaching it as a composer and artist. It’s more that I’m thinking about how I can use all of these tools to best tell these stories. And what is the most authentic and interesting way to do it. At the beginning, I’ll be doing this very traditional Javanese sacred dance called “Bedhaya Pangkur Tunggal,” but I’ll be doing it without gamelan accompaniment. I’ll just be singing alone. And that will be interrupted by a phone call. We’re going to use the symbology of the phone and then the police report from the accident.
Then I’m going to sing a samurai song — in the traditional way, but in the context of accepting this tragic news. And that moves into a Javanese melody that Joko wrote for us, that we performed with gamelan two years before he died; I arranged it for piano and [Korean] gayageum. When I chose that, I wasn’t thinking about Korean music; I was just thinking that gayageum would sound beautiful there playing this Javanese melody to express the loneliness after the accident.
Do you use languages the same way? Because they can also be seen as a set of tools that assume certain expressive qualities.
The sound of the language really changes everything. It’s another layer. For instance, I’m going to tell the Wehali story of Ati Batik in English and in Korean and then sing it in the original Tetum. It’s actually in Tetum Terik or Old Tetum. They’re quite different. I had this strong Korean melody and the rhythmic structure that comes from the Tetum language. It sounded so good to me, and I composed these strange harmonies around it. What’s always funny is wondering if it would fly someplace like Korea. So I’ve performed this piece there and a friend who is a composer heard it. I was like, “How is that?” And he said, “It’s better. When you sing it in Tetum, it sounds better than Korean.” [laughs]
It seems like the traditions you’ve learned become a kind of vernacular for you. At what point in your studies of a culture do you feel comfortable enough to work in this integrative, holistic kind of way? Is there a moment in which the foreign becomes a kind of native expression for you?
Fluency with the language: it all depends on that. If I feel fluent, I’m the most comfortable. So that’s a matter of time as well. I feel the most at ease with Javanese song and dance, mainly because I can speak Indonesian. I spent two years — that’s a big chunk of time — studying in Java. It’s so exciting when I actually think about it. Most of my teachers don’t speak English and, all of a sudden, when you speak their language, you have access to all of this knowledge. It’s what I tell little kids: if you learn one language that means you can talk to 82 million more people. You can have that many more friends. That’s the way I encourage them. Kids are always looking for more friends! But it’s true. My love for language is something else that fuels my work, and keeps getting stronger everywhere I go.
Jen Shyu’s Nine Doors, co-presented with World Music Institute and in association with Asia Society, will be presented in its premiere at National Sawdust on June 29 at 7 and 10pm; www.nationalsawdust.org
Interview was condensed and edited. Lara Pellegrinelli is an arts journalist and scholar. She’s contributed to National Public Radio, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Village Voice. She teaches at MIT and New England Conservatory. Follow her on Twitter: @iveheardworse.