Samson Young: Real Music

Samson Young: Real Music

  • 24 April 2020
  • Samson Young is recognised internationally as an artist and composer who pushes disciplinary, material, cultural and musical boundaries. Histories and traditions meet in richly associative performances, videos, installations, sculptures and drawings generated from the artist’s research, fieldwork and speculation. He received his BA degree in music, philosophy and gender studies from the University of Sydney, his MPhil from the University of Hong Kong and his PhD in music composition from Princeton University, New Jersey.

    Young has had solo exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art in Manchester, M+ Pavilion in Hong Kong, and Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, among others. In 2017, he represented Hong Kong with a solo project at the Hong Kong Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale. Group exhibitions include: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Shanghai Biennale; Biennale of Sydney; National Museum of Art, Osaka; National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul; and documenta 14: documenta radio; among others.

Click the image above to watch the recording.

Samson Young: Real Music will be the next exhibition to open at the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA). A joint project between MUMA and the Talbot Rice Gallery, the University of Edinburgh, it was presented as part of the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival.

Hello everyone. I'm Samson Young. I'm an artist and a composer and I'm very happy to be with you virtually and sharing with you some of my works in the past.

Some of these works are also going to be shown in an exhibition that is at MUMA. Some other works that I'll be talking today are older pieces and they contextualize my practice. So I think I'll just launch right into it and start telling you a little bit more about my work and my background. So I was trained as a musician and a composer originally.

I actually went to school in Australia as a high school student and also an undergraduate student at the music department at the University of Sydney and then after that, I went and did some graduate studies in the US.

But I have, since that time, my practice has morphed from more purely musical set of practice very purely strict down the centre composer kind of way of making, to now, where I make a whole range of different kinds of things from video to installations and drawings and music theater.

And it's not sort of easy to find a common thread between all the different works that I do because they actually look and sound really different from, you know, going from one work to another, there's often a very stylistic shift even from one work to the other, but I think roughly speaking, I've gone through several phases, and I tend to work on one topic for a couple of years before I shift my attention to another topic of research.

So hopefully, that is going to help anchor my introduction – somewhat help you navigate through the many different things that I do.

So, still a little bit more about my background first maybe.

After finishing my undergraduate studies in composition, I went back to Hong Kong for a few years before going to the US for graduate studies. And when I was back in Hong Kong I met a group of new media artists and they they really opened up my thinking in terms of working outside of music, which is the world that I knew, and what was possible ourselves as well.

So during those two years in Hong Kong I was a part of an artist collective, with a video artist and a poet, and the three of us would make works together. We would make multimedia works together. Some of them involve interactive technology and stuff like that. In those early works, I play the role of the composer in the group. Although these works that have visual elements and video and text in them.

And so when I went to the US, I lost the physical proximity to these collaborators in my artist collective and I started branching out and started, I guess in a way, taking up some of the things that they would do in the artist collective and learning to make those things myself. That was what, I guess, started this whole branching out.

So I want to start with a work that I made in 2014 – could have been '15 actually – called "Nocturne". So this was actually in 2015. So Nocturne was the beginning of a phase that went on for about two years when I was really interested in the relationship between sound and warfare and military conflict, more specifically how sound in music have been used historically as a weapon in actual warfare, examples of sound as a weapon in mythologies, in biblical writings... but also the use of sound as a weapon in modern times.

So actually, let me start by sharing my screen with you now so you can see some images.

So this is Nocturne and it was made in 2015 and the idea for the work is really quite simple. In this work, which is both a sound installation and a performance, there's a setting – an installation setting of a kind of a sound stage – and the sound stage is filled with, sort of, everything objects. So there's compressed air, wind chime, glass bottles, sand and tea leaves and rice... there's also a bass drum with an air pistol on it, and electric shavers, and such.

So in this work what I'm doing is that I'm watching the performance of watching a video recording – not a video recording but like a long video, that I have added together using found footages of night bombing that I have downloaded from the internet. And I muted the sound in these videos and added these footages together into a very long... it's actually about in six hours loop, and while I'm watching this loop in real-time I am sort of recreating the sound of night bombing, and the explosion sound, with these household objects. So I'm basically doing foley with the with the household objects.

And this work is to be experienced on a radio. So in this photo you see a member of the audience listening to the radio set. So he's turned to an FM frequency that I had pirated in the space, and so what what was actually happening is that the sound that I was creating at the sound stage is fed into the computer and then it's brought – so this is, for example, this is the radio transmitter – all of that sound is fed into the computer and then into the radio transmitter which is then broadcast on an FM radio frequency, which then the audience can listen to with radio set that is provided at the venue.

So I'm going to show you a little video of what the performance sounded and looked like. But, bear in mind whatever you are hearing through the radio, that's not what you're hearing in the space itself, but it's actually the sound... like how it will sound like through the radio set, but we've added that sound into the radio, into the video footage, to create the illusion that you're listening through the radio. So let me go ahead and do that, to the share screen again, so you can hear the audio.


So in the video I looked a little tired because this work is always performed as a durational performance, so for this particular version – which is the second time I've done it, and that was in New York – I performed a piece every day that the gallery is open for six hours a day for a month and a half.

So it's the durational aspect of the piece is very much part of it as well sort of... I guess there's a durational aspect to... in the military these days, you would have a human sitting behind a computer operating drones and there's an aspect to it that is durational, but there's an aspect of it that is very connected to just the everyday. These officers are operating drones... they would go into work for a couple of hours for a shift, then they would leave and they would go home and make dinner.

So this won't be long to a phase when I was very interested in sound and warfare but also there's a paradoxical quality in these footages in that they sound to me, when I first started research these video sound, they almost sound like fireworks to me and there's a quality to them and so I felt that, and I thought that, and then I immediately started feeling guilty about feeling or even perceiving a sort of aesthetic dimension to these very violent scenes. So Nocturne was trying to deal with that and it's a part of a series of work that was titled “Pastoral Music”.

So another piece that's related, or that was a part of the series, is called “Canon”. So Canon involves me performing again in a durational performance with a long-range acoustic device – the LRAD – which is a sound weapon. So when I first did this piece in 2016 I was able to read that I could buy a unit of this just off the commercial market, but since then many nations have outlawed the LRAD for civilian use. And rightly so, because the LRAD was designed as a weapon and in this, used as a weapon. So the LRAD looks like this, and this is the model that I used, but there are other models that are larger, but they always eventually do the same thing. It is a very loud speaker that is able to transmit sound in a directional manner over long distance, and because of these very special properties, is used by law enforcement a lot as a way to disperse protesters.

And so, I was fascinated by this weapon and how it was being used, but when I was researching into the technology itself, I also was fascinated by another paradox that was in the history of this technology, which is that the technology of these very long range broadcasts, commercially speaking, it's mostly widely used in airports and in nuclear plans as a way to drive away pests birds, because obviously these are places where you don't want birds to hang out. But the way they do it, the way they achieve this dispersion effect, is to use these long-range devices to playback calls of birds in distress and so when birds hear distress calls, they they take that as a signal for imminent danger and therefore they leave the scene.

And so, I was drawn to this merging of opposite elements, these calls, that to our ears are just bird songs, and there's almost... I mean the quality of these songs are of course in contrast to the military origin of these LRAD devices. So in this work, what I do is that I'm standing behind the LRAD and the audiences are always physically separated from me over a long distance, so in this, case it's one end of the hall to the other end of the hall. I've also staged a version where I'm on an elevator – a crane elevator lift – in one end of the space and the audiences are on the second level, also over a very long distance. And I'm basically, essentially, performing bird calls in response to, and improvising with, pre-recorded bird call tracks that have been played back with these devices.

So those are, I guess, sort of two key works that anchored the phase when I was really interested in sound like military conflict. And then, so after that phase, which is around 2015/16 I started taking up topics that are a bit lighter and started making works out essentially, sort of, music theatre – so, going a little bit back to my music, or like my first love music and write/composing music, but creating an installation environment for it.

So this is one example. This work was made in 2017. It's called "Palazzo Gundane", and this work has an interesting backstory. So those of you who are watching, I don't know if you are too young to remember, or to know that there's a song titled “Do They Know It's Christmas?” made by, basically, just a bunch of the most high-profile celebrities and singers at a time, who got together to make a charity single to raise funds for famine in Ethiopia. And so, this is the album cover “Do They Know It's Christmas?” The song has, I mean, the song did quite well – it raised a lot of money but it also certain lines of the lyrics has problematic, very sort of slang offensive imperialist overtone. And some people have picked it up since and actually when they recreated it, remade this song more recently, they have since modified those two lines of lyrics. And so, when I was researching this song, I came across a piece of... I read on a blog political blog that you can see here that a bunch of musicians in Africa have created a response to Band Aid’s “Do They Know It's Christmas?” and called that song “Yes We Do” and they used that song, apparently, to raise funds for educational programs in the UK. And this this group of musicians from Cape Town was led by somebody called Boomtown Gundane. So I was really fascinated by this story and so I started asking my friends in Cape Town whether they could connect me to this musician. And only then, I found out that this person doesn't actually exist – he was made up by a fake, or, not fake news... like a satire news website. I kind of like Onion news kind of fake news website, that has since folded. So this piece of news when around the internet several times and by the time, Redlight Politics hosted it, and by the time I picked it up, it had been reposed as something that had naturally happened.

So I was really fascinated by that idea and I basically, in this work I tried to imagine that this person actually existed and I made the song, and then I went and filmed the MTV of the song and also created a whole installation environment in the celebration of this fictional character called Boomtown Gundane. So what you're seeing in these images is the music theater which doubles as this characters living group filled with his favorite things and his costume. There's also another room which is like a Hall of Fame type room, with platinum records and memorabilia and also this sculpture in the middle which is supposed to be, in my imagination, like kind of a trophy that he could have won by touring the record and selling the records in platinum levels. And the sculpture is a 3d collage of many different elements.

So again let me share this screen with you, in playing you a little video walkthrough this piece. I think I might be running out of time I'll try to be quick.


So that was a part of a larger show with four pieces in it, all of which looked at charity singles, and the show was titled “Songs for Disaster Relief”. I'm slightly going over time, I'm actually really going over time, so I'm gonna skip ahead and go right to this last piece that I want to talk about, which...

So we talked about like, the sound and warfare strand of thinking that was a little older, and the music theater things which I'm still in – I'm still doing those sort of making music theater and making musical conversation that are sometimes performed as music theater – and then using the documentation and the footages from a recording of the performance. I then construct like an installation involved with it. There's an other strand of my work that is much more about the philosophical aspects of sound and listening, which are... Usually my work has a very, like a very eclectic quality about it visually, like I use very intense colors, there's a lot of very flashy visual bells and whistles. Recently I've also been doing animations and they usually are very fast paced, but with this series of works titled “Muted Situation” they are a lot more introspective and they're much more about sort of one conceptual idea. So the entire Muted Situation series is kind of... it's actually really simple conceptually.

Imagine if you had a remote control and you could mute, like, one very specific layer of sound, but have the other layers of sound still be heard. And actually they are heard precisely because you have muted a very specific layer which is usually the foreground, then that's what the Muted Situation tries to do. And this is sort of like a conceptual approach but I have written altogether 22 of these Muted Situations, some of them are very detailed and gives you, actually, exact instructions on how to achieve those Muted Situations. Like that there's one that is a muted line there, so specifically I wanted to take away the percussion but then everything else was still remaining and you cannot diminish the performative energy of the performance – in the instruction it talks about how you might achieve that, where as others more open-ended. Until “Muted Situation #22”, which is something that I'll show as a sound installation in MUMA as well, is the conclusion to the series. So this Muted Situation – it's quite specific, it's a muted Tchaikovsky's 5th, and so the instruction is for an orchestra to perform Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony in its entirety from beginning to end, without sort of diminishing the performative energy, but we should try as hard as possible, to try to suppress the pitch layer of the music – but the rhythm, the timbre, the performative element such as ensemble, those elements should still be retained.

And so, the process is like this. When we start working on a piece like this, I take the proposition to the ensemble, to the orchestra, and then together we figure out their definition of, and their understanding of, what it means to mute just a pitch, but let the timbre of the tone come through. So then, to give you an example, for the strings, what we did was that we decided we would try many different things, but we decided at the end to put a piece of Glad Wrap – very thin piece of plastic – on the strings, so then when the bow is in contact with the string you still get all the scratchiness and you definitely still get the left-hand finger sliding and the pressing down and all that, but just like the pinch becomes... it's still there... it's very faint, but it becomes certainly not the foreground element, we have kind of shifted the relationship and sort of pushed it into the background.

And we did the same for each of the instrument in the orchestra through a process of negotiation and discussion. And then at the end, we would perform the piece in a studio. And I just want to say for those of you who are not musicians, that the sound in the video that you're gonna be hearing, there's no post-production involved – that's how it sounded in this space. It's not like I went in the studio and took away the sound bits. The idea of the Muted Situation is to try to make those impressions and those reshuffling of layer in the physical performance itself, and then sometimes these physical performance they may not... they may even fail to achieve the total suppression of that foreground layer, but that's a part... that potential failure is also a part of the work itself. So here, let me share with you the recording – an excerpt of the recording.

So this is the end of the performance – the very last couple minutes of the fourth movement.


So I have very quickly sort of gone through several works that belong to, sort of different strands of thinking, and I think they look really different, but I think they... I mean, I actually like it's... I shouldn't apologize for the fact that they look very different – I mean that's actually the eclectic quality of my different bodies of the output is something that I have made peace with already, but I hope that I have given you a taste of what I do and what I'm interested in, and when the worst of this is behind us, I also look forward to seeing you at the show at MUMA.