Jen Shyu: You Are Everything

It’s strange that ChoralQuest® will be my first choral composition, as my voice has defined me artistically and taken me around the world. I’ve been focused on performing full-time and composing for my band and larger ensembles, and also creating my solo theatrical works. It just took this opportunity. I was immediately thrilled and said “Yes!” when ChoralQuest® program director Laura Krider wrote to me. 

I learned the most about musicality from choir singing. I sang in choir non-stop from age 12 through high school choir, show choir, musical theater. I sang a cappella at Stanford University (the R&B/soul group Everyday People), and then with the blissful Brasenose and Queens College chapel choirs at Oxford University, and Peter Broadbent’s The Joyful Company of Singers while doing the Stanford Overseas Program at Oxford. After graduating while living in San Francisco, I sang with the San Francisco Chamber Singers, now named Volti San Francisco, under the direction of Robert Geary. So choir is very near and dear to my heart. I’ve gotten so many flashbacks to all the beautiful people I sang with and befriended. I was competing in piano and violin competitions by middle school. There, I could always hide behind my instruments. But, I couldn’t hide behind my voice, which is why singing felt more dangerous and vulnerable to me – and ultimately why I fell in love with it.

As part of ChoralQuest® I’ve been working closely with the choir director, Mimi Broderick, who has been fantastic. She shared with me all the students’ completed surveys where they were asked which instruments they played, the languages they spoke, and what other musical experience they had. Mimi said that some of the students didn’t read music. So the challenge for me was to create music that the singers could learn by ear, but also demanding enough to keep them interested. All the Barber, Messaien, Schoenberg, Pärt, Strauss, and so many other amazing pieces from my time in  England that really blew my mind are inspirations as I create this new choral music.

This commission has saved me creatively as well as given me financial support for this month when all my performances were suddenly cancelled. It has also been a profound experience setting the students’ words to music. When I first met with the students, I had them write for 2 minutes about “quarantine” as homework. I made a video taking them through this exercise, and they knew their words would be part of the lyrics to the work I was composing for them. Mimi and I were stunned at the poetry and honesty of the students. What they wrote was so unbelievably beautiful and heart wrenching, and I’m so excited to have them sing their own words. I am pleased we are aiming toward a virtual premiere so the music can be heard globally, with the hope that we can do a live premiere next school year.

The 50 State plus DC Tour

In 2012, while I was on my Fulbright in Indonesia, I started leading these intermedia workshops called “You Are Everything” . These were meant to engage everyone in artistic expression, regardless of their artistic background. I initially hosted it by inviting artists and non-artists to bring a dish or snack and any instruments – or just themselves. We ate first and socialized. Then I led a writing, singing, movement, and improvisation exercise. We began in duets and then as a group, with the underlying goal being that everyone should try something they’ve never tried before – dance, or sing for the first time, or play an instrument in a new way. It enabled everyone to be on an equal level as everyone had to do something they weren’t comfortable with. Everyone was not just given permission, but highly encouraged to try new things and look silly in front people they had never met. It keeps evolving as I lead it around the world and throughout the US. I’ve added more acting improvisation to the workshop, and it has been so successful that some groups that I’ve guided, such as the Jackson Center and Community Empowerment Fund in North Carolina have created their own musical performances inspired by my workshop. What I realized most was that this workshop brought complete strangers together and forged friendships through artistic expression, sharing, and vulnerability. 

In 2016 Trump was elected and many of us watched in horror as more news of racism manifested from microaggressions to violent hate crimes across the nation. I reflected on my own childhood, growing up as one of the few people of color in my school in Dunlap, Illinois, a farm town north of Peoria. I painfully learned very early on what racism meant and why I was being ostracized as a young girl. I recently created a new solo show called Zero Grassesabout this backstory, which I wanted to bring to the forefront, a story shared by so many women of color. I was very shy and barely talked in school. I would be made fun of and made to believe that I had an accent even though I spoke perfect midwestern English. Music and dance are what saved me. It was my incredible middle and high school choir teacher, Deborah Rude who brought me out of my shy shell. She helped me through a childhood tainted by this racism and ostracization. This was in stark contrast to my beautiful experiences with art, dance, and music in our school choir, the local Peoria Ballet Company, the youth orchestra, and local theater companies outside of my school, where I was treated with respect. Choir and singing were like a sacred and safe space for me where people actually admired me and didn’t harass me. 

Professional artists never visited our school, let alone artists of color or female-identifying artists. I only remember a weatherman and a magician, both Caucasian males, coming to talk to us. I can just imagine myself at that age, insecure and ashamed of my heritage. How my self-esteem may have improved if an artist who looked like me visited the school singing her own music, performing instruments from her heritage and other parts of the world, and being able to speak 10 languages. I would have felt more pride in my ethnicity, and my classmates around me would have perhaps treated me differently. I would have had a role model and seen the possibilities. 

In my 50-state tour, I want to be that role model for the little girl who was me and for all of those kids. My tour also involves free workshops with families so that the parents and kids can create together in this interdisciplinary way. I’ve done parts or all of this multi-tiered visit in 14 states and the response has been amazing. Not only do I get to perform my own music in a well-equipped venue, but I seek out schools in rural areas to interact with young people and families in this ultra-creative way. I’ve seen strangers become friends in just a couple hours. I’ve seen lightbulbs go off, inhibitions shattered, and newfound respect for one another across racial and generational lines created. 

With COVID-19 and social distancing, I will have to rethink my tour, but I have seen the positive results in real life and I am confident that somehow I will be able to continue, perhaps in new but still impactful ways. 

Looking Forward

I’m blessed to be an improviser whose lines between art and life have always been blurred. I am finding out day by day what is essential for my artistic life. I’ve also been most creative when under pressure and undergoing great change. I’m soon announcing my new Patreon page where I am discovering new ways of engaging with my audience, since my main mode was always live performance. I’ve already begun to create with my patrons, and I have so much of my creative process, theories on vocal improvisation, education, and reflections on all my fieldwork research from Indonesia, East Timor, Taiwan, etc. that I want to share. I am conjuring up podcasts and a new book, and I’m excited to be spending more time composing, as life on the road always makes it harder for me to work on bigger works, like an orchestral work I had proposed for my Guggenheim. I am now beginning to create it. With the cancelled performances, it’s the perfect time to embark upon this. I have some virtual performances and appearances coming up (May 4th “Happy Hour” via the Jazz Gallery and June 28 and 29 via the Open Space Music series), and I was lucky to compose a solo violin work for Jennifer Koh’s “Alone Together” project just after the lockdown began. I look forward to more creating not only the music I want to create but also new structures in our community: mentoring, global gatherings, health awareness, and new realms of presence in absence of our normal structures. 

Jen Shyu is 2019/2020 ACF ChoralQuest® Composer-in-Residence at William Alexander Middle School MS 51 in Brooklyn, NY . You can find more of her work here.