Jen Shyu & Simon Barker

Sound Lounge, August 20


Jen Shyu. Photo supplied.

Were a Peter Dutton of the arts considering establishing a musical border force, I think the horse has already bolted. Jen Shyu’s performance utterly clouded any boundaries between east and west, composition and improvisation, music and theatre. An American of East Timorese and Taiwanese decent, her music incorporated the traditions of Korea, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam, while also drawing on opera, jazz and even Javanese dance.

Here she was collaborating with Australia’s preeminent improvising drummer, Simon Barker, the pair having met in Korea, with both being steeped in that country’s rich pansori music and story-telling tradition. Of course Barker would find something to play with the birds in the trees, so could happily follow Shyu wherever she went on her 80-minute journey across traditional and original music.

By wearing a tiny wireless microphone Shyu was free to roam the Sound Lounge’s small stage and to shape-shift using pieces of fabric and items of clothing. Often the music was just a duet between voice and drums, but she also played gat kim (two-string, round-bodied Taiwanese lute), gayageum (12-string Korean zither, like a koto) piano and percussion, as well as occasionally using sampled voices. So the texture was in constant flux, like the sources. When she sang in English her words had a strikingly oneiric quality, and when she was singing in another language one could revel in her sophisticated vocal control, her flexibility and her tonal beauty.

Barker, meanwhile, was variously providing an underscore to the theatre of her singing, energising the drama, providing melodic counterpoints or astutely orchestrating the textures. This was a sensational collaboration that could become even stronger as Shyu approaches the vanishing point on the horizon where genre is discarded altogether.

In a cunning exercise in high-contrast programming the opening set was provided by the duo of Brian Campeau (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Aaron Flower (electric guitar), who commendably performed the latter’s dreamy songs with their attractive melodies and echoes of late-’60s psychedelia.