EASY COME EASY GO: Stardom came effortlessly for Vienna Teng, who was a Stanford computer science student when the piano-and-voice recordings she made for friends developed a cult following.
Indie jazz sensation Vienna Teng contemplates life beyond the spotlight
By Andrew Gilberti
VIENNA TENG hasn't lost faith in the power of music to change the world, but she's not putting all her eggs in one basket.
The Saratoga-raised singer/songwriter has earned a passionate following over the past decade with a series of albums distinguished by her luminous voice, poetically evocative lyrics and incisive melodies. While her songs tend toward introspection and character study more than advocacy, she has sought to align her politics with her art, whether partnering with Habitat for Humanity on her 2007 Green Caravan tour or offering ecologically friendly merchandise.
For the next few years however, Teng is putting music on the back burner. Her Saturday and Sunday shows at Yoshi's San Francisco and Monday performance at Kuumbwa are the last in the area before she heads off to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to pursue a dual master's degree in business administration and natural resources and environment, a program that will enable her to address environmental and social issues working with for-profit companies.
"My interest in this stuff shouldn't be surprising," says Teng, 31. "It shows up in songs from time to time and the organizations we donate tour proceeds and CD revenues to. ... But there's a limit to how effective I can be without further education. I want to know more, and do more. The ultimate goal is to somehow integrate what I'll learn over the next few years with making music. Or at the very least, create a life where they exist alongside each other."
Going back to school is just the latest major change in Teng's life. About three years ago she relocated from the Bay Area to New York City, and you can hear the impact of the teeming metropolis's bustle all over her ambitious 2009 album Inland Territories. "The tempo's kicked up a few notches, something to do with running after subway trains," says Teng, who has also upped her game at the piano.
While some Inland songs explore familiar Teng territory, using romantic relationships as metaphor for the existential condition, she also gets far outside of her own head. She credits her New York experience with inspiring her first venture into thematic songwriting, exploring politically charged issues such as illegal immigration and the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.
"New York is a very dense space and there's a certain ever-pervasive awareness of all the different perspectives and cultures at any given time," Teng says. "You're surrounded by people who've immigrated from all over the world, with very specific identities, and it kind of seeps into your subconscious."
Just as important for Teng's recent musical evolution is her creative relationship with percussionist Alex Wong, who produced Inland Territories and tours with her as a duo. Like Teng, he's a New York transplant from the Bay Area. They first met in 2002 when his band The Animators played an open mic night at Red Rocks Coffee in Mountain View, and they all ended up hanging out together after the gig.
"Two weeks later we turned on the TV and saw her on Letterman," recalls Wong, who grew up in Palo Alto. "We're like, 'Who is this girl?!'" They stayed in touch over the next few years, and when Teng decided to expand her trio with cello and violin she recruited Wong to add a more assertive rhythmic sensibility. He has greatly expanded his sonic palette in the duo, traveling with an unorthodox percussion battery that includes one cymbal, glockenspiel, shakers, a snare drum with brushes and mallets, and a large boxlike cajon that he modifies with an effects pedal.
"I approach drums from a writing standpoint, not as if I've got to express myself through them," Wong says. "I can sit out for 16 bars and just play a cymbal splash, and I'm OK with that. Vienna's music has a wide dynamic range. It's very delicate sometimes, but sometimes it wants to rock. I do a lot of stuff with time delays, giving it a produced, almost electronic sound, implying the drum kit without sounding too rocky or folk."
Teng's more assertive sound has gone hand in hand with delving into the dynamics of her upbringing. Her grandparents fled mainland China during the communist revolution, and the family made its way from Taiwan to the United States in pursuit of opportunity for their children.
She fulfilled the expectations of her immigrant parents as an academic high achiever with a computer science degree from Stanford. But Teng decided to walk away from a job at Cisco Systems in order to pursue her passion for music. Just as Teng shed her given name, Cynthia Yih Shih, her embrace of an economically unstable life in the arts signaled her rebellion against a career path that felt pre-ordained by her family.
"I went through a period when I needed to declare my independence and I rejected what my parents stood for, writing off what they've accomplished and done," Teng says. "I've had enough time to calm down and see that they're deeply impressive people who have been through a lot."
On pieces like "Grandmother Song" and "In Another Life," she uses her music to make an empathic leap into the lives of her relatives. Teng still faces disapproval, but in accepting her family as her foundation rather than her foil, her music has taken on another layer of emotional complexity.
"When I see my grandmother, the disappointment is visible," Teng says. "She wishes I got an advanced degree and married someone with a similar pedigree, with kids and a house. She had to run to air raid shelters. Her education was interrupted, and she didn't have many options. That's why she's so desperate for me to take advantage of everything."
Her grandmother might not realize it, but that's exactly what Teng is doing. She may not be pursuing the academic degree her family hoped for, but she's embracing freedom and responsibility, choosing a path that leads to entrepreneurial spirit, self-expression and social consciousness.
VIENNA TENG AND ALEX WONG perform Monday, May 17, at 7pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22 advance/$25 door at 831.427.2227 or www.kuumbwajazz.org.
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