Jen Shyu

Reginald Theatre, November 9


Jen res
Jen Shyu plays the gat kim. Photo: Frank Crews.

When Jen Shyu was last here 15 months ago I suggested her eclectic, multifaceted, mind-bending performances could become even more exhilarating were she to reach the point where idiom – that outmoded and redundant concept – was discarded altogether. This time she was indeed closer to that vanishing point on the horizon, even if her scope was slightly narrower, in that the emphases lay more squarely on music and story-telling; less on visuals and dance.

Nonetheless Shyu, an American of East Timorese and Taiwanese descent, is tantalisingly close to that Holy Grail of not just creating art, but of devising the art-form in which it occurs. When the presentation of music is highly theatrical the content is often humdrum (like restaurants with views), yet here the music consistently blitzed us with the unexpected, not to mention high drama, meditative pools, emotional spikes and textural flux.

Her multi-instrumentalism was crucial to the latter quality, as she flitted between violin, piano, percussion, gat kim (two-string Taiwanese lute) and gayageum (12-string Korean koto-like zither) rather as a butterfly alights upon different flowers: sampling, but seldom lingering. Meanwhile with her primary instrument, her voice, she sang in half-a-dozen East Asian languages as well as English. Often soft and intimate, her singing always had a singular clarity, and could be as bright and innocent as a child’s eyes.

Where last time she duetted with our local master of Korean drumming, Simon Barker, here the pair were joined by American vibraphonist James Shipp and local violinist Veronique Serret. Shyu’s pieces were seldom geared towards shining a light on individual improvising skills so much as on a collective empathy and on meticulously colouring the sung narratives.

When she ventured into Korea’s Pansori story-telling tradition her rapport with Barker was especially striking as moments of crashing drama reared up from nowhere to fade again to a whisper. Above all Shyu has the rare ability to make cutting-edge art that seems homespun and quite devoid of artifice.