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Yuhan Su: Sun-Chaser On Vibraphone

Jiaowei Hu By

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There's always a yearning, I believe, toward the impossible, hidden in the pursuit of art. —Yuhan Su
Five thousand years ago, the giant Kuafu set out from the East in an impossible pursuit of the Sun. In his endless chase, says the Chinese classic Shan Hai Jing, he swallowed up all the waters of the Yellow and Wei Rivers, yet even these were insufficient to quench Kuafu's thirst. Ultimately, legend has it, Kuafu perished in his pursuit, yet the giant often referred to as "the Chinese Prometheus" remains mythologized for his fortitude, spirit and resolve.

"Kuafu Chased the Sun" is hardly an unfamiliar fable to Chinese ears, let alone with Yuhan Su, a black horse in the local music scene. Whereas some interpret Kuafu as overestimating his own ability, however, no such accusation can be levelled at Su. Sweeping onto the scene at the November 2019 Golden Indie Music Awards in Taiwan, the New York-based Taiwanese vibraphonist scooped both Album of the Year for her latest release City Animals (Sunnyside Records, 2018)—the first jazz artist to triumph in a general category—and Best Jazz Single for the enigmatic "Feet Dance."

"It's a great honor to have won Best Jazz Single," said Su in a recent interview from Paris, "and even more so Album of the Year given the remarkable variety of nominees." It's simply as unthinkable as the sun chasing legend, for many of her Taiwanese peers. Su, who is almost a permanent itinerant away from the island, became a limelight-stealer overnight.

Somehow, the biggest winner missed the ceremony, for being on a six-month residency at the Cité internationale des arts. Later she explains, "I'd just finished my tour in Italy and was about to fly back to Paris when I heard the news. I was receiving texts from friends right at the departure gate; It was a great surprise." Opening a window into her family dynamic, Su goes on, "It was my mother who stepped up on stage to accept the award. She's become famous! She has a great sense of humor, so I prepared no speech. I decided to let her improvise!" Su adds, "She actually ballyhooed for my album, and suggested onstage that the local cultural departments should raise the prize winnings!" Regardless of who took the stage, Su has given the jazz world reason to sit up and take note.

The oft-overlooked domestic jazz scene has assuredly been provided with a long-overdue shot in the arm. In the last decade, the genre-spanning category of GIMA Album of the Year has already produced winners from the aboriginal folk, singer-songwriter and hip-hop communities among others. GIMA, along with GMA (Golden Melody Awards), are the two most prestigious music award ceremonies in Taiwan, and have reverberated further in the Pan-Chinese society. It should be noted that, however, GIMA has an inclination towards local independent music. Thriving on a mission to foster creativity, GIMA encourages global communications among Chinese music creators. In this light, an official attention to jazz, the little-consumed and highly behind-the-scene genre in Taiwan, has sparked a historic highlight in the local industry progress.

This is great news for Su, who as well as harbouring international ambitions, cares meanwhile for her hometown jazz scene. "Hopefully my success can draw greater attention to jazz music, and I especially wish to contribute to the scene in Taiwan. Even though I'm based in New York, I still want to build connections between myself and local artists through musical communications. Music and art are heavily influenced by time and place, so I feel it part of my mission to help stimulate the regional music."

No small feat. However, though it may take several generations to realize her vision, the first seeds seem to have already been sown. The supernatural heroism of Kuafu lives not in a Spanish Castle; For Su, the album also represents a personal milestone. "City Animals is my third album," she says, "and it's a true honor to have it recognized, and even more so in Taiwan. The trajectory of my music has mirrored that of my life. With City Animals, I feel I've reached a point of maturity. The music itself is a challenge, both to listen to and to perform. It's my ambition to deliver the avant-gardeness even back to my family."

Channelling the spirit of the mythological giant, Su's ground-breaking third effort includes the three-movement "Kuafu Suite," a synaesthetic masterpiece dedicated to its eponymous ancient hero. Opener "Rising" dawns with the warm, wispy saxophone rubato, adorned with expert restraint by Su's trembling, crescendoing doubles, before Nathan Ellman-Bell enters on percussion with a tempo and sinuosity speaking vividly of the chase. Second movement "Starry, Starry Night" aptly exploits the vibraphone's organic tones, Su lending a playful yet acutely intuitive atmospheric harmonic backing to the sluggish horns flow, the meandering bass of Petros Klampanis, and Ellman-Bell's catkin-brushwork, evoking the image of a lumbering, disoriented Kuafu. "Parallel Chasing" sees the suite culminate in a dizzy, circular pursuit between trumpet (Matt Holman), alto sax (Alex LoRe) and vibraphone, closing on one another through rounds of trades before reaching a luminous reunion, and revisiting the motif to create a cohesive musical package. Her trip to self-discovery travels through a sequence of primeval world scenarios, constituting a postmodernism road movie, deeply rooted in the ancient oriental culture. "The suite was among the earliest music written for the record," Su explains, "It inherits the rich harmonic and narrative style of my second album, A Room of One's Own."

"Feet Dance," the motion-inspired GIMA jazz song of the year, achieves a sense of dynamic movement which belies its gingerly-balanced internal arrangement and reveals a chain of highly democratic interplay. The wild tiptoe fantasy is sustained in its verses by a handful of sneaky-themed repeat-pattern phrases designed on vibraphone. Back in 2018, a music video for "Feet Dance" was filmed prior to the album's release. Shot in monochrome and directed and edited by jazz photographer and cinematographer Adrien H. Tillmann, the video crossfades the musical performance of Su's quintet with the instinctive, free-flowing articulation of contemporary dancer and jazz vocalist Lucia Jackson. In a tribalish undertone, the impromptu dancer fuses the vocabularies of modern, jazz and classical ballet into her private language, intrinsically resonating with Su and the rest. The deeply-lacerated cement floor, which Jackson was moving across, discloses the age of the filming location: the factory-renovated 1896 Studios & Stages in Brooklyn, New York. "It was Tillmann that discovered the floor grooves, and he decided to let the dancer start from there," Su notes, "Much to my surprise, later I found out it was the same studio that David Bowie filmed his final music video, 'Lazarus.'"

Su's own exposure to dance accompaniment came in 2014, by chance. "It was literally absorbing," she recalls, "A ballet syllabus is usually highly systematic, requiring formalized technical training, in foot positions for example, as well as an understanding of certain types of music to go along with. Style and rhythm of the music is the key. So I had to familiarize myself with the repertoire, as it's an essential aspect of classical ballet. I may well have benefited from a background in improvisation and percussion, even though I didn't major in piano."

Today, she is very active in the New York dance scene. Years of collaboration with numerous studios—Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ballet Academy East, Rioult Dance Centre and Peridance, among others—have made her a keen and seasoned dance observer. "Dancers think straight with their bodies. They either respond spontaneously to your playing or lose the connection completely. If that happens, it doesn't necessarily speak badly of your own ability as a musician. It may simply be that your choice of accent or shape didn't suit the step. As such, I began studying how to express myself to better enable the dancer, and the end result was 'Feet Dance,' a piece inspired by the same method." And it doesn't stop there. "My intention is to take this concept and extend it later into an entire series."

Besides music and dance, Su also confides a fondness for the written word. "I love to write and wanted to become a novelist," she says, "but later I took up music and my literary dream became musical. I usually jot down my ideas into text to preserve the momentary moods, and look for musical expressions afterwards. This creation method may be uncommon, but has turned out for me the most natural approach. This means my compositions are often explicitly visual, as the colors and images I wish to elicit are preconceived."

The majority of her compositions follow specific narrative themes, elaborated with a unique realism style which is often picturesquely storytelling. The large-scale use of color and sound of chromatic harmony introduces a texture of angularity, density and abstrusity, illuminating her romantic artistic enigma in an unfathomably complex manner. Easier felt than seized. "I've studied classical music and modern percussion from an early age," says Su, "which has instilled a certain taste for disharmony in me. Say, to stay in and also rush nearly out of control. With City Animals, I try to push the boundaries of harmony and rhythm, to create the thrill of abrupt chaos within order. In recent years I've been living in NYC; always on the road, always moving around, confronting challenges and unpredictable situations. All of that has been put into this album. I want to capture a sense that one almost tumbles with these music elements. It's an edgy album and pushes people onto the edge as well."

The move to New York is perhaps what Su refers as her "point of maturity." The girl from Taiwan, barely having left home before she gave us 2013's Flying Alone and A Room of One's Own two years later (both through Inner Circle) has been replaced by the Taiwanese woman in New York, with all the maturity experience brings. In an early piece named "Comfort Zone," over Christian Li's sympathetic, pre-composed piano accompaniment of Su's scattered strokes, the vibraphonist hums—almost pleads—in Mandarin, "I won't say. I don't understand. You didn't say. You don't understand. You don't understand. Who is there to say? Who is there to understand? I will say, please understand." As her voice, making quite a stark contrast, cuts viscerally through Li's self-possessed piano accompaniment, an innocent boudoir-ish intimacy begins to simmer.

It's taken time—11 years, to be exact, for Su to step out of her own room with a stride. "I did the first album when just arriving in New York, and I've gradually got accustomed to the city since then. I'm a born introvert, yet it has reshaped my personality to receive the training in music performance. You have to meet a lot of people. Now I hope to connect people through music."

New York is definitely a hatchery for city animals, where more than enough handy connections can be ignited. The density, the congestion and even the chaos have also been lavishly portrayed in Su's writings. No lacking the metropolitan pizzazz. Leading her own quintet in New York, she has far surpassed her own expectations. With an anomalous perspective on oneness, she prefers performing with local musicians in tours, stopping by in Spain, mainland China, Japan or Italy. "I've been mostly on the road in the past three years. Thanks to all these opportunities, I've made strong ties with musicians all over the world. I'm always amazed at the different ways in which my music is interpreted, even the same song. The Spanish play cheerfully, with openness, while the Japanese tend to offer a sort of inwardness. Intriguing indeed. And then musicians in New York are always exploring their limits and might come up with something 'uncomfortable' any second. Always unpredictable. But the stimulation and anxiety also urge me to delve into new territories. Exactly my pursuit."

Paris too, has provided abundant inspiration. Sponsored by Le Centre Culturel de Taïwan à Paris, from its beginning in August 2019, Su's program coincided with the presence of over 200 artists at the Cité internationale des arts. "Musicians, painters, installation artists, dancers, filmmakers, actors, and many others. With no compulsory assignment, I had full autonomy in my area of interest. It was a precious experience. The cultural and aesthetic environments of the USA and Europe differ a lot. During my residency, I slowed down, learned many different styles of music, visited museums and galleries, and had many conversations with other artists. But most importantly, I got to create music and face myself, with no purpose, nor pressure. To simply enjoy every being around."

A muse spell has been cast with the attitude. During the sojourn, Su composed the unreleased series "Liberated Gesture," dedicated to German-French abstract painter Hans Hartung. "I hope to have the series recorded for the next album with my new sextet, as I'm returning to New York this year. Besides that, I've formed an entirely new band in Europe, an electronic and experimental jazz trio with accordion and drums. We plan to tour this year, and I still intend to work on more crossover projects in Taiwan and Asia."

So, Su runs on, just like Kuafu, chasing down the future not knowing what it may bring. Rather than interpret the myth as a fool's errand, she chooses to appreciate the romanticism of Kuafu's tale. "Some may say Kuafu overestimated himself. To me, everything he went through was bizarre. Say, the stars mirrored in the lake, the forests his remains spread out as, or the mountains they rose up as." Her own story holds echoes of Kuafu's; born in a small Taiwanese town and a childhood of classical music, for long periods few people believed in her dream to become a vibraphonist and to study abroad, yet Su kept her chin up. "There's always a yearning, I believe, toward the impossible, hidden in the pursuit of art. Although I've written so many songs along the way and released three albums to date, what really matters is the many unforgettable and beautiful memories left during the bumpy ride."

China is a land of dream weavers. For five thousand years, the Middle Kingdom has abounded with myths: "Nuwa Mended the Sky," "Jingwei Filled the Sea," "Houyi Shot Down Nine Suns," "Yugong Moved the Mountains." Kuafu is only one among a pantheon of immortalized heroes. To their descendants on both sides of the Strait, those heroes left an everlasting spiritual heritage, to strive, to persist, to aspire even to the heavens themselves. Yuhan Su rises like the mountains of Kuafu, and her music spreads like the forests below them. For her, the chase is still just beginning.

Photo: Te-Fan Wang

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