Jen Shyu and Theo Bleckmann: Breaking the Song Barrier

Daniel Lehner By

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Before Robert Moog came out with the first synthesizer, before Adolphe Sax invented his famous reed instrument, before the trumpets sounded at Jericho, even before the world's ancient tribes tightened their animal skins to make drums, humanity's first instrument was the voice. Not that this is of particular consequence to Theo Bleckmann. "To me, that argument is completely moot because it doesn't matter what the first instrument was, it's what you make of it. Just because it may be the first doesn't make it any better."

But, for what it's worth, in the course of discussion, Jen Shyu makes a distinction about the human voice. "It's lucky that the voice is part of tradition that all cultures have—which is to say, you wouldn't find an ancient saxophone song. Songs are much older; that's what humanity brought us."

Indeed, throughout much of music, be it rock 'n' roll, opera or Tibetan chant, the voice has played a very prominent role, so much so that instrumental music has become strange to the general public. Bleckmann has picked up on this, and he finds a strong connection to the audience even within the context of his famous sound improvisations. "Soon as somebody sees you making weird sounds with your voice, they can relate to it more easily than if an instrument was doing it, even if it was the same improvisation. We all make those sounds in daily life when we moan or hum or sigh." This connection to the audience is a concept that vocalists Jen Shyu and Theo Bleckmann have used masterfully over their working careers.

Bleckmann recently paid tribute to a childhood musical icon of his, Kate Bush, among other diverse projects. "I just finished recording the Kate Bush project, and I'm working on orchestrations with the Ossia Symphony. I'm also working on a liederabend at The Kitchen; it's three days of songs." Beyond his lyric-oriented work, Bleckmann had just recently come off a West Coast tour with the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. His activities aren't just limited to records, either. The makers of the movie Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil approached him to do a yodeled version of "Kung Fu Fighting." This isn't Bleckmann's first involvement with Hollywood: in 1997, the makers of Men in Black approached him to create an alien language.

"I got a call asking if I would come into the studio to improvise for half an hour. I was asked to read along with the script to do the sound of the alien in some improvised language. I did about six takes. The only stipulation was that it couldn't be too crazy since the actor would have to mouth along with the audio. When I read and improvised along to his one scene, I thought to myself that it would be the worst movie ever. Someone's head opening up and out pops an alien—that's not even B-movie material! I'd go much further down the alphabet for this one. I thought that it was going to be the one movie that people wouldn't talk about regarding Spielberg's career, but it turned out to be a great movie!"

Shyu has also been keeping busy, releasing her third album, Synastry (Pi Recordings, 2011), with bassist Mark Dresser, the first album released on Pi not only by a vocalist as bandleader/co-leader, but also by a female artist. She's been busy forging a new frontier, both in her improvised sung narrative and her sonic capability. She's composing and performing the music for a dance theatre piece with theatre artist Soomi Kim, based on Dictee by the late Korean author Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, to be premiered in Los Angeles at the third National Asian American Theatre Festival in June. As preparation, she does her research: "I'm taking P'ansori lessons, which is epic narrative folk singing from Korea. It's very demanding; real singers in this art form actually develop calluses in their throat. Whenever I think something is out of my chest range, my teacher just tells me, 'No, you just have to open up more.'"

Being voice-oriented musicians, Bleckmann and Shyu have been granted freedom of lyrical expression. However, each musician takes to lyrics in a different way. "I don't use language all that much," says Bleckmann. "I do work with lyrics, with the Bertolt Brecht stuff and English lyrics like Charles Ives, but I wouldn't call myself a lyric- oriented person. I don't use lyrics in my improvisation; my improvisations are much more sound-oriented. I have used poems when I write music, and they're usually very short. Shelly Hirsch, a wonderful vocal improviser, is very fluid using language as an improvisational tool, but that's not my thing."

Shyu's improvisations include language in a much more stream-of-consciousness way. "I like to use languages just to throw things in there. Some of what I do is creating a language that sounds like one, but isn't."

For Bleckmann, language adds another depth to the music itself. "When I sing language, it becomes even more juicy. I become more mindful of the type of song I'm singing. Oftentimes, I find the lyrics get in the way. I don't listen to lyrics the first time I hear a song. Sometimes it takes me three or four times to fully absorb them. Regardless of language, I just hear melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre, et cetera. Lyrics are a third or fourth layer, so it has to be very close to my heart."

What has tied Shyu's and Bleckmann's works together is their use of wordless singing. Between Bleckmann and Shyu, there are many influences to be counted, ranging from Charlie Parker to Gyorgi Ligeti. Some of these include vocal improvisers like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, but what has separated Shyu and Bleckmann from other vocalists is their nuanced approach to the vocal sounds themselves.

At a certain point, Shyu felt the need to find something different. "I wanted to find something more than the already-established scat vocalizing. I didn't really want to do that. I had heard that style, but I wasn't interested in reproducing it. When I started working with Steve Coleman, I was coming from classical training, so I copped a lot of saxophone lines, mostly from people like Bird, but he had me learn solos of master improvisers like Von Freeman and Art Tatum. It was like schooling. I use very different syllables, mainly inspired by my research of indigenous music from various places, and I had to find different ways to utilize them other than just going 'da-ba-da-ba-da,' which wasn't enough to sing those fast and complex lines."

"I almost never pre-plan syllables, they just sort of come out," says Bleckmann. "I have a subtext that I use when I'm singing without a lyric. I agree with Jen about not copping scat syllables; I think they're distracting and very annoying. It's something I urge my students not to do. If my student sings something like 'shooby dooby,' I tell them they absolutely cannot do that. What you're singing, whether it's an 'ah' or an 'ee' or a 'doo,' it does mean something—it has some kind of an emotion. For me, the syllable just comes out of the emotional context. If it's lighter, I might not use a consonant, but I might use one if I want it to be percussive. It's also a choice whether I want to be unobtrusive or if I want it to stick out. Lyric or no lyric, the intention is still there."

Shyu considers a very worldly phenomenon about the listener's perception of vocal syllables. "Whatever syllable I'm singing does mean something in some other language—for example, 'ma.' That's why I like to slip into other languages—because I know someone out there speaks that language, maybe not in the room, but somewhere in the universe."

Bleckmann makes light of a very unfortunate choice of scat syllable: "I heard a recording of a very well-known singer who was scatting on the syllable 'shit.' It was out on a major label. Nobody noticed it; nobody told her!"

Bleckmann and Shyu have mostly been working in separate contexts, but their paths did cross when working on Steve Coleman's Lucidarium (Label Bleu, 2005), featuring other vocals by Kyoko Kitamura, Judith Berkson, Lorin Benedict, and freestyling from Koyaki. As it was Bleckmann and Shyu's first engagement with Coleman's music, there was a lot to explore.

"It was based on a retuned scale," Bleckmann explains. "Ten pitches instead of 12. As an ensemble, you had to get used to each other with this retuned scale, so it took a while to maneuver around this brand-new music. Everybody was struggling. It reminded me of working with Anthony Braxton, where the struggle was built in, so I wasn't too freaked out by it."

Shyu describes the process in which it was learned. "We broke it down into five tones to learn it. So each step was less than a minor third but more than a half step. It would be approximately something like a C, a very sharp D, a very flat F# and then a slightly sharp G#, then a flat B-flat."

Bleckmann explains, "You would just negotiate to see if you would agree on something."

Chapter Index
  1. Finding a Voice
  2. Interactions
  3. Solo
  4. Practice and Technique
  5. Integration
  6. Jazz Voice in the Present

Finding a Voice

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 Germany—mostly 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 imitate—I 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."


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