By Kathy Rowland
(529 words, 5 minute read)
Solo Rites: Seven Breaths by Jen Shyu, a highly acclaimed experimental jazz vocalist from the US, was staged at the Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama on 14 February 2017. Shyu, who is of East Timor-Taiwanese ancestry, has spent years conducting research and learning the traditional musical and performance styles of Asia. The work, directed by award-winning Indonesian film director Garin Nugroho, draws heavily from Shyu’s fieldwork and travels. Unfortunately, the hour plus ‘solo musical drama’ proved that virtuosity, research and personal biography are no guarantee against a tiresome, trite creation.
Solo Rites is divided into seven parts or breaths, each composed of musical styles and performance modes from East Timor, Indonesia, Taiwan, Korea and Vietnam. The work traverses the pathways of Shyu’s family history, with East Timor, her mother’s homeland, featuring prominently. In the First Breath, ‘World of Home’ Shyu sings a bluesy inflected song in her mother’s native Tetum and English, accompanied by the Taiwanese moon lute. The piece shows off her vocal prowess and interweaves the different strands of her musical and personal journey.
From this promising start, the work descends into a degustation menu of Asian forms. We get a little bit of text by Garin, some poems from Indonesia, indigenous songs from Taiwan, Buddhist chants, recordings of Kalimantan healing rituals, a Korean pansori extract. There was a failure to channel Shyu’s musical talent and the repository of knowledge she accessed into art that was startling, rich, precarious, complicated – truly intercultural work – because instead of making, Solo Rites was concerned with showing. As a result, the performance is one of surface detail and texture, drawn from Asian practitioners and communities, who remained in the shadows.
Some memorable moments include Shyu, with a red selendang (scarf) over her head, clawing at the gayageum, and a particularly painful attempt at a facsimile of pansori audience participation. The use of a length of fabric, ubiquitous in school plays, to symbolise anything from a river to a road to a magic cloak, did not help matters much. At several points, she addresses the audience to ask a question or explain something in a manner that gave the whole endeavor the air of a performance designed with an ‘educational’ focus.
Indeed Solo Rites: Seven Breaths seemed exclusively crafted for an audience from an assumed ‘centre’, whom Shyu takes on a musical journey to, in her words, the ‘cornerest of corners’ of the world. Garin’s direction lodges Shyu’s performance at this register – a cross between a guide to a culturally rich Asia and a showcase for her dexterity and mastery of the exotic East. She has earned this role, presumably through her time under the tutelage of Asian artsts, and in various communities. Before launching into an explanation of the Korean storytelling musical form, pansori, Shyu proudly tells us she has mastered Korean Level 3 and has even started learning Japanese.
The rare moments that one felt real emotional rawness came when Shyu ventures into more avant-garde vocal and jazz improvisations on the grand piano. Incidentally, none of the ‘Western’ forms that appear in the work are identified in the programme notes, unlike the Asian forms. This reinforced the sense that Solo Rites begins and ends with an assumption of centre/Western versus periphery/Asian forms (although obviously, the Western forms in Solo Rites are anything but mainstream, within the wider context of performance).
Solo Rites has received praise in the West, and once can imagine how Shyu’s beautiful voice, her charisma and the display of performance exotica make for a stimulating experience for a general audience. Performing the work at TPAM in Japan, for an audience whose orientation of centre/corner is flipped, however, exposed the paucity of purpose in Solo Rites. Robbed of the element of the unknown, Solo Rites: Seven Breaths was a case of one audiences’ meat being another’s unappetizing seconds.
Jen Shyu’s Solo Rites: Seven Breaths was performed at The Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama on 14 February 2017.
Selected Reviews of Solo Rites: Seven Breaths