All About Jazz: Du Yun Gives Keynote Speech at European Jazz Conference 2019

September 26, 2019
by Ian Patterson
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For its sixth edition the European Jazz Conference dropped anchor in sunny Italy. Where Rome or Milan might have been more obvious locations for such a high-powered international gathering, the baton instead passed to Novara, in the Piedmont region of Italy’s North-West. Novara, however, has jazz pedigree of its own, being home to the internationally renowned Novara Jazz Festival. More importantly, perhaps, there is a warmth in the personal encounters here that is sometimes lacking in major cities, and in that respect Novara was a most genial host.

This Roman-founded city of beautiful courtyards, squares and neo-classical architecture, stepped up to the plate and delivered a conference of multiple highlights.

Three hundred and seventy-five delegates from thirty-nine countries—the largest ever gathering of EJC attendees—did place some strains on the city’s accommodation facilities, with some staying in hotels up to twelve kilometers from the center. One such remote hotel gained legendary status over the weekend, not least for the wall-sized mirrors in its bedrooms.

What Novara lacked in central accommodation that particular weekend it made up for with its outstanding hospitality. At no previous EJC has cheese played such a prominent role, with the local creamy Gorgonzola one of the stars of the weekend. Piedmont’s famous rice and fine wines warmed bellies and gladdened hearts, and though the queues for the individually, chef-prepared pasta at lunch and dinner seemed interminable, the waiting, which was always worth it, did allow for lengthy conversations with those immediately behind or in front in the queue.

And conversations were really what the EJC 2019 was all about -conversations essentially about what jazz means in the twenty-first century. Two contrasting keynote speeches in Teatro Coccia provided inspiration aplenty, while more intimate discussion groups invited opinions on a wide range of topics pertinent to the world of jazz— programming, showcases, gender, new technology, and funding, to cite a few examples.

Those delegates from the UK and Ireland who thought a weekend in Novara would provide blissful relief from all things Brexit might have pretended not to notice room CL , where the topic was none other than the threat Brexit poses to the mobility of musicians. You can run from Brexit, but porca miseria, as the Italians sometimes say, you sure as hell can’t hide.

On a lighter note, a blindfold test-type panel saw five up-and-coming Italian jazz musicians share their thoughts on historic Italian jazz recordings. Music was in even more plentiful supply in Novara than the Gorgonzola, with the showcases featuring half a dozen Italian bands. In addition, a double-header gala concert featured one of the greats of Italian jazz in Franco D’Andrea, and one of the most exciting new stars of the music in Gianluca Petrella.

All the music at EJC Novara 2019 is covered in a separate article by Ludovico Granvassu.

Keynote Speech 1

Du Yun: Creating A Living Heritage Together

Multi-faceted artist Du Yun wears many hats. As a composer the Shanghai-born, New York based artist works in the areas where orchestral, opera, theatre, pop, electronics and visual arts coincide. A multi-instrumentalist and curator, this “indie-pop diva with an avant-garde edge,” as the New York Times once described her, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for her opera Angel’s Bone.

Technical issues meant a late start to the morning. Du Yun, however, was unfazed, and although she felt obliged to skip some slides, the message she delivered was a powerful one.

A major thread of Du’s speech was the notion that, even though cultural memory runs deep, ownership of culture is problematic. Rather than claim ownership, Du’s work is all about cross-cultural, cross-regional collaborations that illustrate and celebrate the fluidity of culture. She was dismissive of East-meets-West cultural projects, rejecting the simplistic binary.

Du shared a video of a trip to rural Tibet where a foundation she was representing was providing solar panels and electricity. Though the adults of the village were illiterate, it should perhaps have come as no surprise to learn that every kid in this village, situated at 4,000 metres above sea level, already possessed a smartphone.

One of the aims of the project was to encourage the children to preserve their traditional language and heritage. The children speak both Tibetan and Mandarin, and though it was left unsaid, the feeling that Chinese culture could totally absorb Tibetan tribal culture was never far away.

As the smartphones indicated, the ever-evolving culture that Du spoke of in her introduction, even in remote regions of the world, moves a lot faster than many on the outside can possibly imagine.

In the video, Du explained how a traditional heritage dance, full of color and movement, was the exclusive preserve of men, though the reason for the exclusion of women was not explained. In another segment a group of school children—the first generation of their community to attend school—were encouraged to share their songs. While the boys sang heartily, Du said that the girls were too shy to join in. Or, like the dance shown just before, it may be culturally ingrained that when the boys are “on stage” it is simply not their place to join in, but to remain as passive observers.

Du described how the boys won’t teach the girls, but when Du lead the way the girls joined her in song. This idea of providing agency—and encouragement— was a recurring motif of Du’s speech.

Tradition is not something pure, Du stated. Curiosity dictates that experiment happens naturally, and curiosity, she emphasized, should be encouraged.

Du highlighted Chinese opera and the Indian raga as examples of art forms whose traditions have been built on cultural and linguistic hybridity -the ever-evolving influence of geography and time. She could just as well have been talking about jazz. Culture, Du intimated, has always been about the embrace of new ideas. It was no contradiction in terms when Du called for both reverence and irreverence towards folk traditions.

Who defines what folk music is, what is traditional and what is experimental? Du asked. These are important questions, she stressed, as it’s these gatekeepers that define the cannon. Experimentation is essential, Du countered. Risk-taking should be encouraged and mistakes accepted as part and parcel of the process. Music, she surmised, is about much more than mere theory.

And, in a nod to curators and programmers, Du underlined that risk does not start and end with the composer or performer. She sounded a note of warning to programmers, as they are “presenting stories to a community which may only resonate with a fraction of their cultural memory, but not their current life.” Modern day lives, Du noted, are “messy” and any attempt to reduce an audience to a neat cultural package, or to patronize them “can be insulting if not laughable.” The audience should be invested in the experience.

Du gave an example of this sort of contract between performer and audience when she detailed her project titled Disruption as Rupture. In this project, created in conjunction with New York artist Shahzia Sikander , a group of boys and girls sang in front of Lahore Fort. The children were from diverse religious and economic backgrounds, representing different cultures and traditions, Yun said, that ordinarily “don’t talk to each other.” For the children, and their families and peers in the audience, this performance became a powerful symbol, not only of a coming together of different cultures, but of the pushing forward of traditions.

In the Q&A that followed, Yun reiterated the idea that culture continually evolves and that no-one can claim exclusive ownership of it. “I own the sound of David Bowie as much as you do,” Yun told the audience.

So rich and philosophical a speech surely merited a panel discussion with artists and programmers to dive deeper into the questions Yun had raised regarding ownership of culture, of cultural purity and authenticity, our relationship with traditional cannons and of the evolutionary nature of culture. Addressed through the prism of jazz, such questions would likely have triggered a fascinating conversation.

Instead, the EJC 2019 moved swiftly onto a sort of blindfold music test featuring five of the Italian artists appearing in the EJC showcases. Eloisa Manera, Gaia Mattiuzzi, Ludovica Manzo, Filippo Vignato and Andrea Grossi made up the panel, which was chaired by Francesco Martinelli.