5 Questions to Jen Shyu (multi-disciplinary artist)

Jen Shyu is a multilingual vocalist, composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, and dancer with a penchant for creating highly theatrical and immersive performances. On October 30, 2019, the premiere of her new work Zero Grasses will take place at National Sawdust as part of John Zorn’s Commissioning Series. Zero Grasses is based on the concept of our loss of ability to communicate with nature—the idea of a world with no grass, flowers, or animals; the barren land we face in climate crisis; and zero connection with other humans despite social media. On the flip side, zero also refers to current movements for zero waste and zero tolerance for harassment. Among her many accolades, Shyu is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2019 United States Artist Fellow. Shyu’s work often features a strong narrative component, lighting and set design, and original music performed on an array of instruments. I had the pleasure of seeing her perform another original work entitled Nine Doors at the 2018 Resonant Bodies Festival, and if Zero Grasses is anything like it, there’s a lot to look forward to from this master storyteller.

It sounds like Zero Grasses touches upon a lot of pressing issues—climate change, connection, social media, and harassment. Can you talk about what drew you to these specific topics?

The blessing of being an artist is that we move through life completely immersed in that life with heightened awareness while also being able, and called upon, to be observers of society and translate those observations into messages or symbols in our artmaking. The topics examined in Zero Grasses have been pressing upon my psyche because of recent experiences–triggering memories of past experiences, conversations with friends, students, musical colleagues, and other artists. Analyzing media, observing extreme weather patterns, thinking that death might be upon me when flying through turbulence, wondering if I have accomplished enough, and the continual reports of death around the world due to nature’s reaction to us, have all led me to think about where we are going as a society. Then, the sudden passing of my father six months ago changed everything, including the trajectory of the work itself, and my own actions and attitude toward career, life choices, fertility, egg freezing, family, and our reliance on technology to control life when life proves to be as unpredictable as ever. With so many of my peers asking the same questions, I was compelled to explore these issues with urgency, knowing it would be healing to them as well as myself.

Jen Shyu--Photo by Steven Schreiber

Jen Shyu–Photo by Steven Schreiber

You speak, I believe, ten languages now, and perform on a number of instruments ranging from the piano and violin to the Taiwanese moon lute, the Japanese biwa and the Korean soribuk. What can we expect to hear in Zero Grasses?

Yes, 10 for now. But during a recent residency in Italy at Civitella Ranieri, I began learning Italian, which could be my 11th language if I return to Italy for a longer time.

I don’t want to give away all the surprises, but in Zero Grasses, I sing in various languages–perhaps more in English than in my past works—and play the biwa and soribuk live or processed with other sounds. I’m venturing a bit more into electronics and projections with this work. I am incorporating projected images and videos, much of which I found going through my belongings and old diaries after my dad’s death. My mom and I were emptying closets, trying to figure out what to do with his clothes, when she handed me a pile of my childhood diaries from a shelf. Then, so much heaviness of meaning as my brother and I helped our mom move to a smaller place and put our parents’ house up for sale. It’s something many of us have experienced with the loss of a parent–the surreal process of having to go through their belongings, your own life’s possessions, deciding what to let go versus keep, while reliving so many memories and suddenly being confronted with questions of legacy, one’s future children, what possessions really mean, what you’re doing with your life, all these questions burning while you’re feeling unfathomable grief. Though Zero Grasses has an epic and far-reaching scope, it’s deeply personal.

For Zero Grasses, you collaborated with set and props designer Kristen Robinson and lighting designer Solomon Weisbard. What draws you to pursue such theatrical settings of your work?

I’m elated to be working with Kristen and Solomon again, and I’m happy to have Romanian director Alexandru Mihail and costume designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward join the team. Alex directed my last solo work, Nine Doors. For me, these theatrical elements are crucial to the work’s expression and who I am as an artist. I don’t see them as “extra,” but rather essential to capturing all the nuanced messages I wish to express. I think of things holistically, and it’s hard for me to separate disciplines. My work has always come from the inside of my being, while evolving from the work itself. Not everything I do is multidisciplinary, but much of it is–it really depends on what the work demands and also how I want to challenge myself.

What does your creative process look like for a complex, evening-length work like Zero Grasses?

The process of each of my solo works has been very different. My first, Solo Rites: Seven Breaths (2014) directed by Garin Nugroho, also with Kristen and Solomon on board, plus costume designers, Kristin Isola and Ghia Javaqueen, was largely created while I was living and doing research in Indonesia on my Fulbright. But really, the work was a culmination of 10-plus years of undulating primarily between two modes: that of studying my own ancestral ties (if present), and the language, music, dance, and ritual from Cuba, Brazil, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, East Timor, and Korea; and the mode of letting these studies gestate while composing, performing and producing the work. But it was very organic due to my own curiosity, restlessness, and obsession for learning. I then created the album Sounds and Cries of the World (Pi 2015) with my band Jade Tongue based on these solo works, going from solo to ensemble.

Then Nine Doors (2017). The title was inspired by Garin Nugroho, who assigned me the homework of working with “nine.” But I was waylaid by the tragedy of a close friend from Java who, along with his wife and son, was killed in a car crash. Coping with this tragedy brought Song of Silver Geese (2016), which I composed for Jade Tongue and Mivos Quartet (11 musicians), plus the amazing dancer and choreographer, Satoshi Haga, who co-directed the work with me (costume design was by Naoko Nagata). Satoshi and I improvised for two to three months, three times a week, six to eight hours a day, weaving together the different myths from Taiwan, Timor, and Korea, and creating the flow of the plot. Then I spent less than a month composing the music, rehearsing with the musicians and re-writing, all the way up to the downbeat of the premiere in 2016.

I wanted to create a solo out of Song of Silver Geese, so I brought back Solomon and Kristen, and added the incredible Romanian director Alexandru Mihail, for what was to become Nine Doors. For the solo, new elements were added including a new Pansori in English, two songs on the biwa, and a story taken from my research in Japan. Taking the work from ensemble to solo was deeply challenging and rewarding.

With Zero Grasses, I’m challenging myself again, starting from scratch. The work is still being built because it is so deeply personal and current to what’s happening in my life; now sitting beside death, in a way, from my dad’s passing, experiencing endings and beginnings of relationships with pressing issues very close to home, that are also undeniably global. Creating this piece in particular has been like excavating objects, memories, and experiences from my childhood impulses, and seeing how they shaped this living, breathing moment. Almost like solving a mystery; tapping into dreams and visions and the powerful choices we make. As usual, I won’t really know what it is until the premiere–it’s a terrifying feeling, but also thrilling and fulfilling. Having frequently been in that terrified space, and having things work out beautifully and beyond my expectations has allowed me to take risks and trust in doing what scares me the most.

Jen Shyu--Photo by Witjak Widhi Cahya

Jen Shyu–Photo by Witjak Widhi Cahya

You have a background in many disciplines—opera, classical violin, piano, and ballet, to name a few. Do you have any advice for students or younger artists on how to navigate diverse interests?

Seek mentors and humbly accept wisdom from them while trusting and acting upon your own precocious ambitions. Take action and DO what you envision and don’t worry if it’s “right.” Experiment. Always respect and credit your sources. I’ve had many mentors and teachers tell me from a very young age that “you can’t be a jack of all trades, you have to choose one thing to be good at, and you’re spreading yourself too thin.” I later learned that this advice was based on their biases and perhaps their own limitations. I always tell my students and mentees, “Take advice, but this is your path, so if you go against counsel and do the opposite…Great!”

I’ll never forget when I was living in the Bay Area, nurtured by the Asian improv community before I moved to NYC, when an important mentor of mine, Jon Jang, said to me after a performance–during which I was experimenting by simultaneously singing, dancing and playing the violin, with saxophonist Doug Yokoyama–“Jen! I had a vision. That’s what you’re going to do. Later. You’re going to bring it all together. You’re going to integrate everything!” This encouragement had such a profound effect on me, as did encouragement from Francis Wong, and many mentors at that time and thereafter. For my part, I’ve developed workshops in intermedia, and I am on a 50-state tour to bring my “You Are Everything” workshop to families and non-artists, mainly to empower people to erase the limits that they, and society, have put upon themselves. Most people will urge you to specialize. I am not saying that rigor, training, and focus are not needed–they absolutely are. One hundred times the focus is needed. But if you have the capacity, talent, and gift for multiplicity, multi-tasking and multi-thinking, then you have to take advantage. Your role on this earth may be to bring these disparate things together. If you believe that, and work beyond hard, nothing, and no one can stop you from fulfilling that destiny.