September 12, 2019
Jen Shyu to Give World Premiere of Her Solo Dramatic Work "Zero Grasses" at National Sawdust, October 30
Steven Schreiber

Composed for and presented as part of John Zorn’s Stone Commissioning Series

“…one of the most creative vocalists in contemporary improvised music…”
— David Hajdu, The Nation

NEW YORK, NEW YORK (September 12, 2019) — Known for groundbreaking performances that bridge a variety of genres and cultural traditions, Jen Shyu (pronounced “shoe”) returns to National Sawdust to give the world premiere of her multilingual, multimedia monodrama ZERO GRASSES on Wednesday, October 30, at 7:00 p.m. The work was commissioned by John Zorn, who invited Ms. Shyu to compose a new work for his series at National Sawdust in celebration of The Stone, his revolutionary venue dedicated to the experimental and avant-garde. This premiere reunites her with Romanian director Alexandru Mihail, who also directed her acclaimed one-woman show Nine Doors, which premiered at National Sawdust in 2017 and was reprised at last year’s Resonant Bodies Festival.


Featuring Ms. Shyu as a vocalist, dancer, pianist, electronic musician, and performer of traditional instruments from Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, ZERO GRASSES explores the fractured relationship between humanity and nature, while also identifying parallels in how people relate to each other. Regarding the origins of the work, she explains:

“The title and seed of ZERO GRASSES came from my ongoing collaboration and conversations with Garin Nugroho, the great Indonesian filmmaker and stage director, who directed my first solo theatrical work, Solo Rites: Seven Breaths. In light of Seven Breaths and Nine Doors, we began to discuss the number zero and its power as a metaphor for loss and disconnection, as in the deterioration of humans’ ability to communicate with nature, to read the signs of nature, which is something I was already wanting to manifest artistically. So when John Zorn asked me to create a new work for his series at National Sawdust, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to realize this vision.”

The work, she said in an interview with The Jazz Gallery, asks such questions as:

“How can we, as a species, not predict environmental destruction with all of our advanced technology, and similarly, how can we, as individuals, not predict the ending of important relationships? We have so many new ways of communicating, so much new technology, yet things aren’t necessarily becoming more clear.”

Among the ways that ZERO GRASSES engages with these challenges is by drawing upon ancient shamanic art forms from Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and Timor—all of which reflect folk traditions deeply concerned with connecting to the natural world. The work features Ms. Shyu playing the Japanese biwa, Korean gayageum, and Taiwanese moon lute, while also singing in various languages including English, Indonesian, and the Tetum Prasa and Tetum Wehali languages of Timor. In creating this multilingual text, she drew upon her own childhood diaries, which her mother returned to her upon the passing of Ms. Shyu’s father. She was also inspired by the story of “Feto Hitus” (“Seven Angels,” in Tetum Wehali) as told by a seer named Petrus Tahu Nahak, whom she interviewed and transcribed in the city of Betun, West Timor.

A recording of ZERO GRASSES performed by her band Jade Tongue is planned for release on Pi Recordings in fall 2020. In addition to Ms. Shyu singing and performing the instruments above, the album will feature fellow band members Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet; Mat Maneri on viola; Thomas Morgan on bass; and Dan Weiss on drums.

Beyond these performances and the planned recording, Ms. Shyu has also incorporated the environmental, technological, and cultural themes in ZERO GRASSES into her work as an educator, developing an extensive community engagement program—Songs of Our World Now / Songs Everyone Writes Now—that she began touring last year. She has introduced the initiative to 10 states so far, with plans to take the program to all 50 states and the nation’s capital.


Jen Shyu (pronounced “shoe”; Chinese name: 徐秋雁, Pinyin: Xúqiūyàn) is a multilingual vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, dancer, 2019 Guggenheim Fellow, 2019 United States Artists Fellow, 2016 Doris Duke Artist, and was voted the 2017 DownBeat Critics Poll’s Rising Star Female Vocalist. Born in Peoria, Illinois, to Taiwanese and East Timorese immigrant parents, she speaks 10 languages and—in addition to studying violin, ballet, and opera, the latter at Stanford University—has studied traditional music and dance in Brazil, China, Cuba, East Timor, Indonesia, South Korea, and Taiwan.

She has performed her music at a variety of venues including the Asia Society, Blue Note, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Theater of Korea, Ojai Festival, Roulette, and the Rubin Museum of Art. She has sung in two operas by Anthony Braxton and has also collaborated with many fellow genre-defying artists, including bassist Mark Dresser, pianist Vijay Iyer, flutist Nicole Mitchell, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey. In addition to premiering ZERO GRASSES this season, she is touring her solo work Nine Doors—one of The New York Times’ “5 Standout Shows” (2018)—on a 50-state tour of creativity workshops in rural towns across America, promoting cross-cultural / generational exchange.

Ms. Shyu has produced seven albums as a lead artist, including the first female-led and vocalist-led album on Pi Recordings, titled Synastry (2011), with co-bandleader and bassist Mark Dresser. Her album Sounds and Cries of the World (2015) landed on many “Best of” lists, including those of The New York Times, The Nation, and NPR. Her latest release, Song of Silver Geese (2017), was also highlighted by The New York Times as one of the best recordings of the year.

Currently based in New York City, she is on the Artistic Advisory Council of Roulette Intermedium and is a member of We Have Voice, an artist collective dedicated fostering awareness, inclusion, and the creation of safe(r) spaces in the performing arts community. Jen Shyu is a Steinway Artist.

For more information, visit

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Wednesday, October 30, at 7:00 p.m.

National Sawdust (New York, NY)

Presented as part of The John Zorn Stone Commissioning Series

Jen Shyu — vocals, Japanese biwa, Korean gayageum, Taiwanese moon lute, piano, electronics, dance
Alexandru Mihail — director
Kristen Robinson — set and props designer
Solomon Weisbard — lighting designer
John Zorn — curator

JEN SHYU ZERO GRASSES (world premiere)

For ticketing information, visit

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