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Podcast: Samson Young, Real Music

Dylan Timtschenko

We respectfully acknowledge the people of the Kulin Nations, on whose land this podcast was produced, and pay respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

Joel Stern

My name is Joel Stern and I'm artistic director of an organisation called Liquid Architecture an arts organisation that specializes in experimental music.

Francis E. Parker

My name is Francis Parker. I'm the Curator – Exhibitions here at the Monash University Museum of Art and I had a coordinating role in putting together the exhibition Samson Young: Real Music.


Liquid Architecture have had a relationship with the artist Samson Young going back a number of years. He's one of the most prominent contemporary artists working with sound. One of the roles that I've had in this exhibition is to be a pair of remote ears for Samson. He couldn't be here during the install process. So he invited me to have a listen to the works in the show and make sure that everything was sounding just right as he might have wanted it to be.

We are sitting in Possible Music. And it could just as easily be called ‘Impossible Music’, just like the exhibition as a whole, which is called Real Music, could just as easily be called ‘Fake’ or ‘Synthesized Music’. One of the things about Samson's work in general is that it does bring together these contradictions and tensions between the real and the fake, the possible and the impossible, the authentic and the appropriated.

We're sitting surrounded by sixteen speakers which, when the work is in full flight, produce a very dynamic and unusual and futuristic, and at times humorous, soundscape of speculative trumpet and impossible trumpet.


At the same time, we're surrounded by these components of that impossible trumpet that's emerging up through the floor, a trumpet that's certainly too big for any human to play.


One of the things that Samson explores in this work is the way in which a synthesized instrument, an instrument that doesn't exist in a kind of material form, like a trumpet made of brass that you could hold in your hand, but exists as a kind of algorithmic model in a computer, that synthesized instrument can be extended in ways that are too extreme for material reality to allow. So we've already talked about how it can be massively oversized, but in the research that Samson was doing in Edinburgh with the NESS laboratory, one of the things that he found, that was very amusing to him, was that one of the dimensions the laboratory quantified in thinking about the synthesized sound of an imagined trumpet was the temperature of the breath of the person playing it. And Samson suggested to the technicians, what if we heated it up to 300 degrees Celsius and imagined perhaps a fire-breathing dragon might be the right scale to play this oversize, primary coloured, 3D-printed trumpet. These are the sorts of possibilities of Possible Music that are in some ways impossible to comprehend in the material world of music and musicians but in the synthesized world, the virtual world of an imagined instrument, they are made possible.


There's an interesting dialogue between the works, between Possible Music, in particular, and The World Falls Apart into Facts, around what is real or authentic. In terms of Samson's composition Possible Music encompasses these synthesized sounds on an equal footing with the recorded sound of a bugle. And with, the whole work is about this question of really what is authenticity and should we be that hung up on it?


And Samson certainly isn’t. In fact he's extremely playful when it comes to the question of authenticity. When you think about the sixteen channels of sound, the sixteen speakers on stands that surround us when we encounter this work, what is made clear is that to have an authentic experience of sound immersion requires a huge amount of mediation and artifice.

All of this technology is deployed to produce something that feels orchestral, that feels like you're surrounded by sound in the way that you might be in a rich acoustic environment of a performance. So he is it pains to show us the technological mediation required to reproduce something that feels authentic or real.

One of the concepts that Samson deploys in his work and that inspired him in many ways is the idea of echoic mimicry, which he took from the British Australian historian and cultural critic Paul Carter. And echoic mimicry is a kind of complex term but echoic simply means something that has the quality of an echo, the sound that returns again, that is playful in terms of time and echoes a sound that brings the past into the present in a certain way.

And mimicry, of course, is a form of imitation. So echoic mimicry is a form of imitation that comes back and that resounds again and again, and if we think about mimicry as a form of tension between the real and the fake, and as the echo as something which calls into question the nature of the original and the reproduction, then we can see that one of the things that Samson is always doing in his work is taking these sonic concepts, like the echo and the mimic, but exploring them in rich conceptual ways to call into question our ideas and experience of culture, time and history.


And what constitutes an authentic account of a work of music or a musical style.

The Horse Togaku that sits inside The World Falls Apart into Fact is his version of a very ancient form of music originally from China but then introduced into Japan more than a thousand years ago. It's purported by the Japanese performers still to be the same, even though it's a form that's not written down, and has obviously been handed down over many, many generations and presumably might have changed a little bit over that time. And then there's this question of, can you recreate the lost Chinese version of that music by studying the current Japanese version? I think the question that Samson poses with his work is, do you really need to? Perhaps the thing as it exists now is actually fully valid.


Samson is an artist who is both interested in originary myths but also very skeptical of them. He doesn't see the original text as sacred but more as a point in a history that travels in both directions backwards and forwards, and is constantly open to revision. In the Horse Togaku there are all of these traditional elements and questions around the relationship between Chinese and Japanese cultural traditions but also the work is extremely self-consciously staged in a kind of TV studio with very consciously produced costumes and the apparatus and mechanisms of documentation, the film crew et cetera being constantly displayed, and that's a very Brechtian kind of approach where you’re drawing attention both to the content of the work and to the means of production and the apparatus involved. One of the reasons that Samson does that, just as Brecht did, is to remind the spectator that art has the power to both manipulate your emotions but also snap you out of your passivity and understand the mechanism through which that emotional manipulation takes place. There's a high degree of absurdism at play and the sense of humour, which runs through this show, is one of the most important aspects of it. I've found myself constantly laughing with Samson and appreciating the musical jokes that are embedded in each of the works and, in that sense, the way he lampoons the Baroque theatricality of certain cultural traditions, and especially Western classical music, reminds me of New York composers of the seventies and eighties like Robert Ashley, whose operas for television both exaggerated the campness and theatricality of opera whilst undermining it with televisual tropes of advertisements and other kinds of very constructed editing, et cetera.


The lecture is presented in a very constructed way. It's a little bit like some of Peter Greenaway’s more recent films where there are multiple fields layered over each other that are providing a kind of a counterpoint to the content of the lecture. And then there's the horse from the Horse Togaku who's standing there and seems to be nodding in agreement with Samson as the lecture goes along.

It's clear that it's Sampson writing in his own voice but he's chosen to have it read by a different voice, which sounds very typical of the genre of BBC documentaries. And so there is this strange disjunction between the voice that you're hearing and the voice that you know that your hearing through the text.


Samson is very astute when it comes to every aspect of the sonic world that he presents and when it's a more of a musical landscape that might be the sound of the instruments, both intentional and unintentional, as we hear in the Muted Situations works, but when he uses text or spoken language, questions of accent, elocution and vocal tone are very important. And they're not just important as a sonic effect, because he likes the particular grain of the voice, but, as you mentioned, the tension in his work, and in the work of many sound artists, is between sound as a kind of material presence in a work, with its frequencies and amplitudes et cetera, and sound as a signifying presence leading us to think about power, authenticity and cultural resonances. And there's no doubt that when we hear a narrator speaking in the Queen's English with a BBC-style elocution, we think about certain forms of cultural power, authenticity, pedagogy, and that's very self-consciously present in the work.


I suppose what that signifies is that it's the same kind of process that the Chinese folk melody went through. It was reproduced in a European format and curiously, as Sampson notes in the lecture, one of the other versions that was in circulation published by Carl Kambra was fleshed out with harmonies to be played on harpsichord and apparently John Barrow, who published the more well-known transcription, was quite critical of that for not being sufficiently authentic by introducing all of those European harmonies.


When I was speaking to Samson recently, he took me through a list of possible titles for the exhibition that were considered and rejected in favor of the eventual title, Real Music. Originally, he considered inserting the word ‘Real’ in quotation marks to call the reality of the word into question and suggest that it may be used ironically, and that goes to the other suggestion that he had, which was ‘Synthesized Music’ as an opposite of the real. But a third suggestion was ‘World Music’, and Samson was thinking about music in some ways as an analogue for the world that, in listening to music, we hear the world in all of its fragmented multiplicity, it's power relations, it's colonial histories, et cetera. In the end, he decided against calling the exhibition ‘World Music’ because of the risk of that bringing to mind a certain genre of music, which the works, of course, are you far from. But when we do think about the genre of world music, in which musical traditions from around the world are mind and extracted, and then appropriated using Western studio techniques and standards of musicianship to conform to the listening expectations of a Western market, we can hear that some of those methodologies are very close to what Samson also uses in his work but in rather more critical ways.


So this is ‘the world falling apart into facts’.


‘World falling apart into facts music’. Yeah.

So we're talking about the Muted Situations works now. I've been thinking a lot about the act of muting, which is a very specific kind of act. It's very obvious in an art historical context, or in the context of experimental music, to think about the work of John Cage, the American avant-garde composer and philosopher and poet, and many other things, and the influence of his ideas on Samson's Muted Situations works. Cage, of course, is strongly associated with notions of silence. He thought a lot about silence and wrote…


He wrote a book about silence.


He wrote a book called Silence and he delivered a very famous lecture on nothing which included a lot of ruminations on silence and sections of nothingness. And Cage’s most famous composition, arguably, is a piece known as 4’33”, sometimes 4’33 tacit, in which he instructed a performer, a pianist, to take the stage and sit silently at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, turning the pages of the score as the tempo suggested and opening and closing the piano lead rather ostentatiously. And although it's a complex work and, you know, shouldn't be reduced to a single idea and it's been a very influential and much discussed work. But what is usually understood about that work is that in the absence of a performance by the musician, the audience of listeners are directed to the soundscape within the concert hall that was always already existent, a soundscape consisting of environmental sounds, and the sounds that the audience themselves produce through their shuffling and coughing and bustling.


The sounds that they usually try to shut out.



Cage’s intention in drawing the listener's attention to those sounds is, firstly, to help us understand that silence as an absolute is impossible, that when we remove a sound from the foreground, what we do is we reveal the sounds that exists in the background, that were previously obscured, and that we can get quieter and quieter but, in doing so, we will always reveal even more quiet sounds that are existent as a precondition of sound itself. For Cage, silence was a kind of sublime state, which was associated with his interest in Zen philosophy and different forms of meditation and, in a way, quietude, silence and this act of listening together had a certain ethical quality. It was seen as an inherently positive gesture.

Now muting, on the other hand, draws attention, not to the preexisting quietness of sounds, which are always vibrating positively in the background, but muting draws our attention to the act of silencing, to repressing something, to switching it off. And, in some ways, I like to think of it in relation to the mute button on a remote control. When you might be watching television, you press mute and the images continue to appear with the same vitality and intensity but the sound has been suppressed. And in some ways, that's what Samson does to the performers in the Muted Situations works when he instructs them to retain the same level of intensity in their performance, their gestures and their movements whilst muting the production of sound that would usually accompany those gestures.


Which is almost asking them to self-censor, in a way.

You have to think very carefully about how you're not producing the sounds, say if you're a singer, that's perhaps the most embodied form, but even for the instrumentalists, they have to take a great deal of care in order to play as if they were making sound but without making any sound.


That’s right. So, perversely, the skill and musicianship required to play silently is of a very high level. And likewise, the sound worlds that are produced out of those Muted Situations are not merely negations of the original piece, which is being appropriated, but they are wholly new works in and of themselves. The muted orchestral work of Tchaikovsky is a complex array of material sounds related to the instruments being performed and the bodies of the performers. The muted chorus work, which features a vocal ensemble singing an oratorio by the composer Bach without reproducing any of the melody, that work creates a complex field of whispers accompanied by the sound of pages turning and bodies shuffling.

So Samson is interested not just in muting but also in amplifying other kinds of sounds. And in fact, at the heart of those works is the idea of muting as a form of amplification. That in muting one thing you always inevitably amplify something else. In the context of Muted Orchestra, it might be worth thinking about the way in which the space of the gallery, as opposed to the concert hall, mediates our experience of the orchestra and orchestration.

Because when we experienced an orchestra in a concert hall, they're generally on stage and were seated; we're facing them front on and we're at a certain distance from the sound. When we're experiencing the work Muted Orchestra, we’re free to move between multiple speakers—I think there are twelve speakers in the work—and we get to experience what it might be like to circulate inside the space of the orchestra and its musicians, to move between the musicians and their instruments and to be a more active kind of listener in relation to the orchestra. And that's something that is made possible by the transposition of an orchestral situation from the concert hall into the gallery.


Thank you for listening to an exhibition case study for Samson Young: Real Music presented by Joel Stern, Co-artistic Director at Liquid Architecture, and Francis E. Parker, Curator – Exhibitions at Monash University Museum of Art, and produced by Fancy Films.

Samson Young is represented by Galerie Gisela Captain, Cologne and Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong.

Samson Young: Real Music is jointly developed by Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh and Monash University Museum of Art with support from the Keir Foundation.

Additional audio has been sourced from Perfect Lives, an opera for television by Robert Ashley, and John Cage, 4’33”, performed by Kyle Shaw.