Jazz lovers in the Puget Sound region have a reason to celebrate: The Earshot Jazz Festival presents a month of jazz performance from October 7 to November 4 at venues all across the region. One of those performances will be by multi-instrumentalist Jen Shyu, who will tell the tale of her friend, Sri Joko Raharjo “Cilik,” a Javanese puppet master who died in 2014 with his wife and child, in her new piece Nine Doors.
This new work arose out of Shyu’s grieving process. “Just two days before I heard the news from a friend through an international gamelan list, I was messaging with Sri Joko on Facebook, talking about future collaborations,” Shyu said. “He was an amazing gamelan musician, as well as vocalist.”
After hearing the news of Raharjo’s death and sending condolences to his family, Shyu began mourning by improvising new music with her fellow musicians. “I knew that eventually, I wanted to create a solo version, which has a strong impact as well, as a woman alone on the stage, playing seven instruments, singing in eight languages, and acting out this very personal yet universal ritual,” she said. “Sri Joko’s and his family’s sudden death is a reminder of how unpredictable life and also death is, and how we all share this experience of loss, if we are lucky to live long enough.”
Shyu melded multiple traditions into this new piece. “Nine Doors incorporates the last 15 years of my study of traditional music from five countries, including epic storytelling, Pansori, East Coast shaman music, pronounced Dong Hae Ahn Byeol Shin Gut, and Binari, usually performed as a blessing for an audience, all from Korea,” she said.
Other traditions from East Asia are also important in Nine Doors, according to Shyu: “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 four-stringed instrument originally used by monks and priests.”
Shyu’s multi-cultural focus leads to challenges in time management. “Each tradition that I am studying and practicing also takes a lifetime’s devotion,” she said, “so I just try my best, sometimes in spurts and dedicated time periods, to dive in and just concentrate on each thing for a period of time, for as long as possible.”
Despite Shyu’s focus on traditional music and instruments, her composition process is more experimental. “If something works or is successful, I might flush out that process and build on that process more, but more often than not, I turn it on its head and do what is least comfortable,” she said. “Language, poetry, improvisation, chance, through-composition, and extra-musical influences and everything in between and beyond each of these, are very important in my creative process.”
And Shyu doesn’t just confine her experiments to her composition and rehearsal time. “I often use performances as works-in-progress and take a lot of risks, often sabotaging a single performance knowing that the interaction between audience and myself will give me the information I need to move forward in the creation of a piece,” she said. “I’ve composed many new things based on improvisations in a performance because performance is a heightened, sacred state, and things that I created in performance with the audience’s energy and their active listening often yields music and ideas that simply couldn’t have arisen without being in a performance.”
Shyu combines these strategies with other balancing efforts. “Each discipline of composing, writing, choreographing, experimenting and envisioning new work already requires so many hours of concentrated, uninterrupted time,” she said. “That’s why artist residencies for composition and simply creative time without internet access and disruptions and preferably amidst nature are usually my most productive periods, when I can just turn on the automated reply on my email and defer my administrative tasks complete to my administrative associate, Corinne Judd, and her small company called Soli Assist.”
And if Shyu wasn’t busy enough, she also engages in teaching on a regular basis. “Teaching is my way of giving back to all my mentors and teachers who spent so much time believing in me and patiently instructing me and passing down information that I couldn’t have learned from anyone else except those particular people,” she said. “I have such a long list of amazing teachers, many who have sadly passed away, whom I credit, quote, and talk about as often as I can.”
Shyu focuses her teaching efforts on under-served communities, with the goal of helping others to discover their hidden talents and creativity, through her multi-year, 50-state tour Songs of Our World Now / Songs Everyone Writes Now (SOWN/SEWN). “Whenever I line up a performance, I try and do at least one free school performance or creativity workshop in a high school or middle school in need,” Shyu said, “and I also organize a free potluck lunch, song exchange, and creativity workshop for families in someone’s home or community center, preferably in rural towns outside of the city in which I performed.”
The Earshot Jazz Festival and greater Seattle community is no exception to these efforts. “I’m so excited to be collaborating with Families of Color Seattle, who will host my SOWN/SEWN Tour potluck lunch and creativity workshop on October 21, on the Sunday after the concert,” Shyu said. “Their mission is very much in line with mine, so I’m excited to spend this time exchanging songs with these families and talking about things like intergenerational relations and cultural identity.”
These conversations allow aspiring musicians to engage with Shyu as a role model who is balancing issues of time, money, family, and gender. “Equity in the performing arts is something that we should always keep at the forefront of the conversation, as long as there are injustices at play,” Shyu said. “As a proud collective member of the We Have Voice Collective, I’m also proud to be performing at Earshot Jazz, which is one of the 48 institutions who have adopted the We Have Voice Code of Conduct,” which focuses on creating safe spaces in which to work, create, and engage.
Jen Shyu performs Nine Doors in the Earshot Jazz Festival on October 20 at PONCHO Concert Hall, Kerry Hall, Cornish College of the Arts, 710 East Roy Street, Seattle.