Jen Shyu and Theo Bleckmann: Breaking the Song Barrier
The two vocalists' arrival at working with avant-garde and highly complex music is a long journey from childhood to the present day, filled with varied experiences and initial exposures. Bleckmann's initial exposure to music and performing started early. "In childhood, it was anything I heard as a kid: children's choirs, kids' records, classical music, et cetera. I was a boy soprano, and I was a soloist in a children's choir. My musical education was on guitar (around six) and piano (around 10). After that, I was listening to classical music and popular music, and at 16, somebody in my class introduced me to jazz. I really discovered it through the '60s and '70s free stuff: Albert Ayler, late Coltrane, et cetera. I branched out into both directions from that era, both the older stuff and newer artists like Kenny Wheeler, and I also got into some vocal music through that. I started taking non-operatic voice lessons when I was 18. I first studied with jazz singer Silvia Droste in Germanymostly standards and some bebop, just to learn the technique and learning repertoire. I've never had any classical voice training; I was never interested in the operatic singing voice for my own sound."
Shyu's main exposure to performing came through dance and musical theater, but Shyu's childhood in the Midwest provided some obstacles. "I had already trained in ballet, piano, and violin, so music was there and the desire to be on stage was strong. Singing didn't come until much later, because I was so shy and the whole racism aspect was there. I was growing up in Dunlap, Illinois, in a kind of colorless high school where there wasn't really an understanding of where my parents or I were from. Trying to assimilate made it an interesting time. Even talking out loud was really terrifying. But it was musical theater and also the songs on the radio that I started to imitateI remember Natalie Cole's version of 'Unforgettable' was always on. Musical theater led me to tunes that would be considered standards: people like Gershwin, Cole Porter, et cetera. I was kind of a musical theater nerd: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Miss Saigon, A Chorus Line, et cetera." Like Bleckmann, Shyu gravitated away from the operatic sound. "I started taking classical voice lessons in high school, around 14. I always felt that wasn't my real voice. I used more of my natural voice when I was doing musical theater."
Musical theater was an important medium for Bleckmann as well. For a native German speaker, televised musicals were an interestingly bilingual experience. "A lot of music you'd hear would be in English. I would watch a musical on TV, and the dialogue would be in German and the music would be in English. You wouldn't even think about it, because to you, that's what musicals are. I was addicted to those."
Shyu's linguistic story is different. "My first language was English. Mandarin was the language in my house; my parents spoke it to each other, but didn't force it on me. We did go to Chinese school once a week, but then all the lessons and rehearsals had taken over. I've been taking great pains to learn conversation; I'm fluent on a basic level or a little more. I can speak Spanish, which I studied in high school. Portuguese came later and Tetum most recently."
Introductions to singing and improvising for Shyu and Bleckmann came with regards to both culture and time. "When I was growing up with vocal jazz in the '80s, it wasn't like it is today, where there are a lot of jazz vocalists," recalls Bleckmann. "A lot of schools today have vocal jazz programs, but at that time, there weren't. There were people like Al Jarreau and Jay Clayton and Laura Newton and a few of the old guard, and that was it. So that wasn't really that much on the radar. Getting into contemporary classical, like Cage, Ligeti, Stockhausen, I was exposed to a lot of very odd vocalizations, maybe odder than jazz. It was all coming to me at the same time. And then of course, I was introduced to people like Bobby McFerrin's music, which opened up a lot of doors. I was into more of the weirder, more offbeat vocalists like Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, Norma Winstone, Sheila Jordan, et cetera."
Shyu found improvisation through both a musical and cultural community. "I first started improvising in a community context in San Francisco. It was an Asian improv community; there's actually a label for it in the Bay Area with Francis Wong. Vijay Iyer and I have talked about that kind of nurturing from these kinds of gatherings, like a salon. It would be everyone from every sort of color, class, tribe, et cetera, and we'd just improvise, either solo or collaboration. By that time I learned a few standards, and they encouraged me to open up with them and draw upon my ancestry." Shyu continues to do so to this day, preparing to leave in October on a Fulbright grant for 13 months to study sindhenan, the improvisational singing of Javanese gamelan music, in Indonesia, where her great-great grandmother was born. "Steve had sort of given me a lecture encouraging me to go to Taiwan, because I had talked about wanted to learn some of the folk songs there. I did exactly that and then went to Cuba to check out the Chinese-Cuban community before the Lucidarium recording."