Nine Doors: A journey through language and expression

On Oct. 19 at Western Front, composer, multi-instrumentalist performer and multilingual vocalist Jen Shyu presents her musical and visual narrative Nine Doors. Shyu’s dynamic performance, which centres around the story of loss through the eyes of a six-year-old girl, is communicated through both a multitude of instruments – Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa, piano and several languages, including Korean, English and Javanese.

Jen with Korean gayageum, from 2014’s Solo Rites: Seven Breaths.| Photo by Steven Schreiber.

“One of the greatest compliments I received from someone was, ‘I feel like I understood everything even when I didn’t understand the language’,” says Shyu.

A push to explore

Jen Shyu says her performances are often characterized by their diversity: a diversity not only in emotion or song structure, but also by the wide array of languages and instruments used. Singing in fluent Mandarin and Javanese, and displaying well-versed use of instruments such as the Korean soribuk drum and gayageum – a 12-stringed zither-like instrument – Shyu draws on the classical musical training of her youth and early career, as well as on her continually growing understanding of languages and musical traditions from around the globe, most prominently those from East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Shyu says she hasn’t always been so proficient in such an array of languages and instruments and there was a time in her professional music career where she had little of either.

While Shyu was more accomplished than many at a young age, having performed a Tchaikovsky piano concerto with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra at just thirteen years old, she was later compelled by her musical compatriots to go further, to explore a wider world of music, including her own roots. Among those was Francis Wong, a flutist, saxophonist, erhu player and close friend of Shyu.

“I loved singing this [Cuban] music and surprising people as my voice didn’t match what people saw when I sang,” says Shyu. “We were starting to play a few jazz festivals around town. But Francis told me, ‘Yes, but you’ll always look like a Chinese girl singing Cuban songs.’ He wasn’t criticizing me, but rather, he was questioning whether that was what I finally wanted to contribute as my art. He urged me to explore my own ancestry as well and as soon as possible.”

Music and language

Currently Shyu is focused on further exploring the musical traditions of Japan, including the biwa, a Japanese four-stringed short-necked fretted lute, and noh, a Japanese style of theatre dating back to the 14th century, but she insists that each cultural aspect she studies is a lifelong commitment.

This commitment includes linguistic and musical traditions pertaining to her own heritage. Though she was born in Illinois, her mother and father are of Hakka Chinese and Taiwanese descent, respectively, and her ancestry also includes relatives from East Timor and Indonesia. However, Shyu says that the learning of different languages and musical traditions isn’t just a matter or connecting with one’s heritage, even if it is a part of her cultural exploration.

“There are many other reasons why I like to put all these languages together, one after another, because I feel it reflects the diversity of our world and the increasing need to be fluid and fluent in many modes of being and in many modes of expression,” says Shyu.

Shyu wants to share what she’s learned with her audience – not just the languages and instruments, but the experiences and perspectives as well.

“I also want to expose each audience member to new things, to expand their consciousness, and to surprise them and give them what they don’t expect,” says Shyu. “It is in this heightened awareness or unknowing that they will discover something new, and new connections are made.”

In her work Shyu uses her own created language as well, both spoken and musical, thereby delivering a compellingly ambitious definition of what it means to communicate, with less focus on the words and a spotlight shone on their meaning.

“This is what I hope to achieve: that in any language or even in a created language of my improvised syllables, I can convey meaning through my sound, intent, presence and energy,” says Shyu.


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