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Samson Young

In Conversation with Philippa Snow
Photography by Ruslan Varabyou

On weaponized sound, sudden disappearance and the benefits of being a composer and artist. 

Melophobia is often understood to be an abstract and general fear of music — this is a falsehood. The melophobia sufferers are in fact afraid that their bodies will be permanently damaged by the sound of music. “Oddly enough,” writes Dr. Marsha Johnson, who is the director of a tinnitus clinic in Oregon, “most of my [melophobic] patients are in orchestras, philharmonics, symphony groups, or are piano players.” There is, to this, an odd and terrible poetry. This is the charge of Samson Young’s artwork; his multimedia works rely on the dual abilities of sound and music to both savage and seduce the listener.

Born and educated in Hong Kong, in Sydney, and in the States, Young’s work encompasses sound as both a weapon and a path of resistance. His project For Whom The Bell Tolls documents the sounds of bells in various international locations as a means of interrogating cultural conflicts and differences: in his drawings of birdsong, Young visualizes what one might have imagined to be un-visualizable. His is a kind of sonic alchemy. This year, Young will head to the Venice Biennale, where he will be representing Hong Kong; at the time of this interview, he was performing at the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle. As is befitting the content of his work, I heard only the sound of his voice.

PS: You mentioned these daylong performances in Dusseldorf that you’re doing at the moment — what do those entail?

SY: Well, many of my works involve elements of live performance. I usually include myself, but this time I’ve cast two performers to appear. It’s a really long performance. It goes on for three months and it’s on every day, except for Mondays when the museum is closed. Every day, I go in, I work on the performance, I take a short lunch break, and then I work again until dinner.

[A note: the performance, entitled A Dark Theme Keeps Me Here, I’ll Make A Broken Music, is a re-enactment of two previous works, Nocturne and Canon — the first involving the recreation of gunshot and explosion sounds using household objects; the second being the sound-cannon performance that is discussed further down in this interview]

PS: A question from the Proust Questionnaire: what sound or noise do you hate?

SY: Hate is such a strong word — I don’t know if I hate any sound or noise in particular. I’m pretty tolerant! When it comes to listening, I listen to all kinds of things, really. 

PS: What sound or noise do you love?

SY: I can give you a category: I love sounds that are very condensed. What I mean by that is, for example, the sound of explosions; these are very condensed sounds. If you were to try to break them down as they happen, it would be impossible. You would miss information in the moment. Percussive noises are often condensed in a similar way — they have the same quality. This is why I’ve been so interested in using the sounds of bells in my work; they’re an information overload, in a very short attack. And then after this very short attack, the sound develops into this very complicated network of harmonics.

PS: I’m curious about the project For Whom The Bell Tolls (2015 –), in which you incorporate the sounds of various international bells. A number of your works deal with the idea of cultural conflicts, or histories, or territorial demarcations; these are usually the kinds of subjects that we’d imagine would be best interrogated with the written word or a visual medium. Sound would seem to be, in this instance, a more unusual approach.

SY: It was pretty intuitive for me to work with sound. Obviously, there’s a process of research that leads up to these kinds of explorations, but it’s natural for me to think about music because of my background: I’m trained as a composer, which has structured my world in a particular way. You might know the saying — and I keep forgetting who said this — “if the only tool you have is a hammer, then all of the world’s problems look like nails.” It is the tool I use to organize myself.

Nocturne, 2014. Sound performance (for one performer with airsoft pistol, audio interface, bass drum, compressed air, contact microphone, cooking paper, corn flakes, electric shavers, electrical sound toys, FM transmitter, glass bottle, laptop, mixer, ocean drum, rice, Shinco radio, shotgun microphone, soil, tea leaves, thunder sheet, thunder tube, tupperware, wind chime). Dimensions variable.

PS: How did you progress from a fairly formal academic background in composing to using sound and music in an art context?

SY: After my undergraduate training in Sydney, I went back to Hong Kong very briefly for two years before I went to graduate school in the U.S. When I was in Hong Kong, I met a whole bunch of new media artists. It was kind of coincidental, really — I’d just met a friend who was working as the manager of a new media and video art organization in Hong Kong called Video Touch, and there I met somebody who was a computer scientist as well as an artist, and also a poet. So together, the three of us founded an artist’s collective called Emergency Lab.
At first, I played the role of the composer and the musician within this collective. Then, later on, we started to swap roles — I would start to make video, and the poet would start to make music, and the video artist would write the text. We had a lot of fun doing that. I acquired skills outside of music and naturally broke apart my inhibitions. I wasn’t worried about whether people would perceive me as having the skill to do particular performances. I just went and did them. When I went to the U.S. I lost these collaborators and decided that the easiest thing for me would be to learn to make videos properly, and to use text, and to do these visuals for myself.

PS: You’ve been in a number of bands. Is that something you see as being a part of your artistic practice?

SY: I continue to play in bands — I’m still writing music in a more traditional context. Right now, I’m actually writing a piece for an orchestra, using a recorded bell sound that I’ve brought back from this most recent trip. But I’m also making installation, and so on. To me, all of these things are a part of me. But I think what you’re addressing here is the broader perception of what I do, right?

PS: To some degree, yes.

SY: What I find really interesting is that people who know me as a composer in the concert hall and in the music world don’t necessarily know me in the gallery space, and vice versa. So for the music crowd I’m kind of a weird composer who does multimedia stuff, and I don’t know if the curators who are curating the show at the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle right now have listened to any of my music! So for me it’s all very integrated — I do my research, and sometimes it ends up being music, and sometimes it ends up as drawings, or installation. But for the audience, it’s true that they are often only seeing one aspect at a time.

PS: Are there any specific fears or anxieties that you’ve had to overcome in your practice? Or fears that your practice has helped you to overcome?

SY: Well, it’s actually funny that you should ask about fear, because I made this whole big sound walk for Frieze in London just this year which was all about fear. It was called — and it’s a very long title — When I have fears that I may cease to be, what would you give in exchange for your soul. It’s about the fear of disappearance, and it takes its cue from the bookstore owner disappearance cases that happened in Hong Kong recently. Agents from mainland China came to Hong Kong and abducted these bookstore owners. Did you know about this?

PS: I didn’t, no.

SY: There was a bookstore owner who was selling pretty politically books — books that exposed the highest officials in the Communist Party. It is suspected that China sent agents into Hong Kong and abducted them across the border. These booksellers disappeared overnight; there were staff that disappeared in Thailand too, as part of the same case. They’re still being detained in China right now.
When I was making this piece I started thinking about what it means to live under constant fear of disappearance. And about the idea of this fear leading to what I suppose you’d call a heightened level of suspicion about everybody’s motives. And I was thinking about how art, or creativity, can also be used as a way to combat fear: the fear of disappearance, but also the fear of living.

PS: You’re also interested in the potential of weaponized sound — what you refer to as “sonic sabotage.” In this way, sound becomes a means of inducing, rather than fighting, fear.

SY: Yeah — I have recently become interested in the idea of sound as an actual weapon, and how it’s actually been weaponized throughout history: from the earliest days with something like drumming, which is basically a very simple form of psychological warfare if you think about it: it’s a way to intimidate the enemy. And then more recently the LRAD has been used as a literal sonic weapon. If you look at popular culture — manga, in Japan, for instance — the idea of the sonic weapon has always been with us. If you look at martial arts movies, it’s a very popular notion. It’s a very popular thing in the cultural imagination. For me, it’s a very useful way to think about the idea of fear, because sound is haunting, right? Sound comes to you from all directions, it surrounds you, but it’s also directly inside your head. It’s an invasion.

Stanley, 2014. C-prints on paper, neon sign, sand. C-print 59.4cm x 84.1cm (each), set of 16, neon and sand dimensions variable.

This story originally appeared in WAX 8.