Jen Shyu and Theo Bleckmann: Breaking the Song Barrier
For vocalists, there are many things to consider when it comes to the woodshed. Daily practice is as important for them as it is for any instrumentalist. When engaged in as many projects as they are, the chief focus is on range and balance. Similarly with brass players, stamina and manageable organization of energy is key.
"A lot of it is keeping my voice balanced," said Bleckmann. "It can fall out of balance very quickly. For example, when work with Ben, he writes very high. He likes that very high falsetto, so I have to work on being able to return comfortably to my chest voice. If I'm working on something very high, I also have to work on something very low so I don't lose the rest of my voice. I do sort of like what a decathlon runner would do. It's not marathon running or vault jumping or anything specialized, but it's all-encompassing. I can do multiple things reasonably well, but not on the level of, say, a male soprano or a Broadway belter."
"I'm trying to find a good regimen," explains Shyu." I usually do what I tell my students to dothings like interval work, just limiting myself to improvising in certain intervals. Then I'll do things like manipulate and augment the intervals and do sorts of variations. I also utilize the classical warm-ups. The breath is very basic, but it's very essential. I agree with Theo, it's about keeping your range. When I was doing opera, I had a nice shimmer in my chest voice, but since I've tailed off from doing that, I've lost some of that shimmer. Different parts of your range affect all parts, so I'd like to be more disciplined."
Technique is an important part of their repertoire, but for Bleckmann, there is no differentiation between what is extended technique and what is standard. "When I started to catalogue my vocal techniques a couple of years ago, sort of a tree, making sounds and then five variations of that sound, I realized that at some point, there's no difference between regular singing and extended technique. Like, an 'ah' is as much of a sound as something crazier, like overtone singing. For me, there's no distinction between holding a note on an 'ah' versus someone doing a fast, double-tonguing improvisation. If you have a command of your technique, that's all part of it. Singers sometimes just settle in on something they can do really well and then get too comfortable."
Shyu has the same type of all-encompassing view of technique, in that it's all part of the search to become a whole musician. "I think the broader your technique is, the more freedom of expression you have. I think that's something we'll probably be searching for, the rest of our lives. You just want to push the limits, no matter how foreign. If I'm attracted to something, I'll go for it. I think about the technique in context, how I can use it in a meaningful way, not just an imitative context."
Singing alone is not even the full extent of what can be done on stageaspects of dance, poetry and theater have introduced themselves into Shyu and Bleckmann's work. For Bleckmann, the importance of this synthesis of different mediums came through legendary vocalist Meredith Monk. Bleckmann fondly recalls Monk's influence on him. "Meredith was very instrumental in shaping my idea of sounds and how to use them. It was a lot about connecting sounds, not just making them. A lot of the process was very much a gesamtkunstwerk [synthesis of many different artworks]working with body, movement, occasional texts, lights, other instrumentalists, et cetera. That was important as a spiritual practice as well as a vocal practice. It was very similar to how Pina Bausch used to work. It would focus on the performer; Meredith would create material that was specific to my vocal/physical idiosyncrasies. It's a much more rock-'n'-roll way of working than the classical approach. We would work for a very long time and sometimes very painstakingly, maybe a year for each piece, but it was an intricate collaboration. That's a way of working that I like, which is why I keep the people I work with around for a whilelike Gary, John, Ben, et cetera. It's more rewarding than just sleeping around in other people's bands.
"There was a point in time in my life where I was learning a lot of people's music, and you would practice it by yourself for months and perform it once, maybe twice. You might do a recording, probably not, and that would be it. That's not what I want to do; I want to create something that has an afterlife. If it does, then I'll put in that kind work."
In discussing Meredith Monk, Shyu recalls another instance in which she and Bleckmann crossed paths: "I actually met [Bleckmann] at Stanford when [he was] performing with Meredith. That was the first time I'd heard about Meredith Monk. I was involved with dance at the time also. I was trying get these students to these workshops; we had a very small group of performance majors in our music department. Meredith said I had a very good ear, and that was a huge deal. And with dance, it was the first time I had seen something as integrated as that."
"It's not as separated as a lot of Western music is," Bleckmann explains. "Western tradition usually deals with just singing or just playing an instrument. This way of working was more like African tradition or other folk tradition. There's no separation; it's just one. A lighting cue could be a music cue or a music cue could be a set cue. Everybody has to know everything. The stagehands would have to know some of the music to be involved. It's tricky. There is improvisation, but based on very narrow margins, which is great to work with, to put oneself into the discipline to only work on the rhythm of one note or the timbre of that note. You have to go into a very small capsule, and then you realize the power of that universe in that one note. Any instrument, not just a vocalist, could be a part of it. It can be a drummer or a dancer or anything."
Shyu's performances, both solo and with a group, have included dance as an indispensible part of the act. "I heard Woody Shaw used to do tai chi, sometimes on stage. But integration is the key. I think Meredith was the catalyst of integrated dance for me. I won't do it if I'm hired to just sing. Of course, I think if I started dancing on stage with Steve, he'd probably have a fit. But for the most part, [in] the work I do with others, they'll know that I'll start moving or dancing. If you think of it just as a jazz vocal thing, you're limiting yourself. If you've ever been to a punk rock show or a metal show, they're doing all sorts of movement."
Though he doesn't do as much dance anymore, Bleckmann has a strong background in dance, placing as a junior champion ice dancer before pursuing music. "I think that the integration of the body is very important. That's something that I teach a lot, and that's what I see missing. I say that if it's not in your body, it's nowhere. It's not just playing intervals or counting to 13. It has to really move you and touch you, and that's really impossible to do if it's just in your brain. We're very disconnected with our bodies. There's no common practice of movement or tai chi; we just end up connected to our computers or our phones. I think dance should be mandatory for all musicians."