Video by Gus Wezerek / NBN.
On April 6, 2010, the Taiwanese American Students Club (TASC) reeled in three influential Asian American artists to perform for Northwestern students. Around 150 students, faculty and community members filled the McCormick auditorium at Norris to enjoy the music of Cynthia Lin, Vienna Teng and the Shanghai Restoration Project.
The event began with with Cynthia Lin, an New York City-based singer-songwriter. The artist described her music to the audience as “a combination of jazz and blues with the lyrical poetry of acoustic folk.”
Lin performed a range of her repertoire and selections from her new CD, which she advertised between each song. There seemed to be two sides to her music: One side has a superficial childish naivety, the other more mature and candid.
In “Skipping in NYC,” Lin claimed that she was inspired by New Yorkers’ perspectives of love. “New York people seem to be cynical and jaded about romance. But I’m an optimist; I’m a skipper,” Lin gushed.
True to her word, the light swing and skip in her guitar chords kept things upbeat as she sung “They don’t understand/why I can’t keep my skip inside.” The polite audience either wasn’t buying the effervescence or didn’t know how to react. Only a few smiles broke out during the song.
However, Lin thrived with some of her other songs, which showed a more candid side to the audience. Backed by a cellist and her own soft guitar harmonies in “I’m Shy,” she sang of the trouble she had opening up in relationships. “Wish I could show you / but I’m shy,” helped her connect to the audience, revealing a more mature but vulnerable side.
Before she wrapped up her set with “Doppelgänger,” the audience had a collective laugh when Lin asked if anyone knew what doppelgänger meant, and someone in the crowd shouted “Naruto!” (a popular anime character able to create manifold shadow clones of himself).
Next was Vienna Teng, who at 31 has already produced five albums. Teng opened up with an a capella traditional folk song from Taiwan, which her parents sang to her when she was young. The audience seemed astonished by her pure tone, and they could almost imagine the musical accompaniment during the silence.
With a traditional song, Teng appeared to be in touch with Asian culture. Teng then surprised everyone, confessing her Mandarin Chinese was only at a third-grade level.
In “Whatever You Want,” Teng charged her keys, revealing a deeper emotionality. The complex harmonies showcased her intensive training in classical piano. Teng’s voice had a haunting, ethereal quality that rose over the harmonies.
The most interesting side of Teng was revealed when she fiddled with previously-recorded tracks stored in a recording program. The software enabled her to recreate four-part harmonies live, truly living up to the concept of a one-woman show.
Teng requested that the Asian American audience stop perpetuating the Asian stereotype of being respectfully quiet in concerts by heckling and booing at her during “Grandmother’s Song.” This was a literal translation of Teng’s grandma’s lectures to the artist. Excited, the audience heckled indiscriminately, so eager to participate that they accidentally cheered when Teng channeled her grandmother’s misogynistic worldview. Teng smiled graciously at the end, despite the decidedly botched nature of her experiment.
Last but not least, the Shanghai Restoration Project stormed the auditorium, reversing the wave of peace and calmness that Teng instilled. TSRP’s setup on stage had Macs, mixers and piano synthesizers that recreated the Chinese tracks. They literally controlled two distinct worlds of music at once. Chinese traditional jazz tunes in one hand and hip-hop in the other.
With electronic beats combined with hip-hop, rap and Shanghai 1930s jazz music, the audience bobbed and waved to the agreeable electronic mash-up of East and West.
Beyond the sheer entertainment value of their music, TASC’s three artists and Q & A session exemplified the diverse possibilities of East and West coming together, themes that Northwestern’s Asian Americans struggle with on a regular basis. All three groups’ performances incorporated ancestral roots, though they were never tied down by them. The event deserved a bigger audience than the 70 or so present, and people outside in Norris could be heard asking about who was playing, glancing intermittently toward the auditorium.