Presentation by Samson Young

March 30, 2013
AAA in A, '09-'21

43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY

A presentation on the occasion of Samson Young’s participation in the exhibition ‘Revolutions Per Minute: Sound Art China’ at Colgate University (March 26 – April 26 2013).

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Tonight we are delighted to welcome Samson [Young], who I encountered [in 2012] at Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. Every year we organize an event called ‘Open Weekend’, where we invite members of the public to come and interact with our library. It is focused on students and teachers, but we also invite artists to intervene in our space. Samson, whose work I had not seen before, came in and did a very intriguing project which I’d like him to explain at some point, either in this presentation or downstairs. And so I decided to track him down. Then, totally coincidentally, there was an exhibition in New York for the Tomato Grey artists. In fact some of the artists are here tonight – Annysa Ng and Bing Lee, and Eleanor [Heartney] who was the curator of that exhibition. I was asked to be on a panel for that exhibition to discuss Hong Kong art and some issues relating to borders and in-between spaces, which Hong Kong in many ways represents. And Samson had a work in it, and again I was intrigued. Today Samson is in New York on the occasion of another exhibition [‘Revolutions Per Minute’], organized by curator [Dajuin Yao]. Dajuin is also here tonight, and it turns out he is an old classmate of mine – another coincidence – from U.C. Berkeley. Dajuin’s exhibition is being presented at Colgate, and he’ll have some time downstairs to talk about it. It’s a retrospective of sound art from China. So Samson, now it is all yours … a twenty-minute presentation, after which we will ask questions. Thank you very much, and we are delighted you are here.

Samson Young (SY): Thank you. I’ll be very strict. I have the timer… [laughter]. Thank you Jane for inviting me here to give this presentation, and thank you everybody for coming. And again, I’d like to thank you Dajuin for organizing the sound art exhibition, which gave me the opportunity to be in New York again. I am going to very briefly explain my background and a couple of my works that I think are important for you to understand where I came from and where I am today.

To give you a little bit of background, I was not trained in contemporary art. My training was very traditional, strict, down the center, music training. I was trained as a composer and, up until the year 2002, I was still what you would call a very strict, down the center composer. I would write pieces for string quartets and orchestras and what have you and in some ways I still do that. I think now I have arrived at a place where I am more critical about that engagement with these institutions and more clear about where I stand in relation to these institutions. So I want to play you very quickly a composition that I wrote, so we begin with something to hear, a commission for the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. This is an orchestral piece. I will just play a very short excerpt …

Okay. Let me explain. That piece was a composition for an orchestra and me playing a Gameboy. I was trying to create a situation where I was asked to write this piece for the orchestra and I guess I was trying to push them and see how far I could go, so I asked if I could use electronics and they said yes, ok, I could. So, that was no fun. Let me try something else [laughter]. Could I write something for Gameboy and orchestra? And they said yes, of course [laughter]. And then I also asked if I could dress up in an orange jump-suit and be with the orchestra onstage, and they were okay with that as well, so that was disappointing [laughter]. But then I wrote this other piece. This is called ‘Brahms String Quartet #1′. Let’s hear a little bit of it first…

That is a very short excerpt. What I did in this piece was to find four professional singers who usually operate in the contemporary classical musical world and I gave them the score of the first movement of Brahms String Quartet and I gave them the instructions to perform this piece with the most serious intent, except that they should disregard all of the pitch materials. Then they would still render the rhythm and would follow the instruction and try to really perform this piece as an ensemble but to vocalize it. So, why did I do that? And how did I go from writing pieces for symphony orchestras to this? Is anybody trained as a musician here?

Audience members: [A show of hands]

SY: Okay, so I think a musician’s training, particularly a composer’s training, if trained at a conservatory, is a very narrow one. It gives you a very specific worldview. It first of all gives you the worldview that the history of music belongs to a very specific group of people. It is Beethoven and Mozart and that sort of lineage coming down. To give you an example, we were studying music history and you would do that for three seminars in a sequence over three years, but then you would have one seminar that was called ‘World Music’ and then of course everything else is in one music class. You have music from the rest of the world, except of course for Music with a capital ‘M’ from Western traditions. And then of course, after that seminar, you go back to that world and you study composers predominantly from the German-Austrian tradition. And that was my undergrad training and I went through that training in Sydney, Australia. When I was in Sydney doing my undergraduate studies, it was a time when Australia was very hostile to immigrants. For those of you who know, it was the ‘Pauline Hanson’ era. There was a lot of anti-immigrant and protectionist sort of rhetoric in the media directed very specifically towards Asians. So, I was thinking about these issues a lot and there was a point where I was … I think, slowly, in my artistic practice today, I think of what I do now as de-toxing some of what I learned during those formative years, and maybe a sort of reaction against those things. So [in thinking about] this piece, when you are trained as a composer, there are a number of things that you spend a lot of time [working on] to get your craft to a very high level. One of those crafts is the organization of pitch materials, or writing harmony. If you are able to write very intricate harmony, if you are able to organize pitch material in a very logical and robust way, according to that tradition, then you are seen as a composer with real craft.

But a lot of that has to do with pitch material, very specifically. Whereas if you think of the music traditions of a lot of other cultures, pitch material is not really the predominant concern. It might be the timbre of a tone that is a predominant concern. If you think about music from the African continent, it is rhythm that is the predominant concern. In our daily life, when we think about a musical piece, we usually identify it by its melody. If you think about ‘Fleur-de-Lis’ – la la la … right? If I sing that melodic contour entirely out of whack and with the rhythm all wrong, you would think, ‘Okay, I know what that piece is…’, but nobody would care if I sang a rhythm that was totally stretched out. Actually I was told by a friend in Taiwan that that tune is used a lot in cars as the signal that your car is backing up [laughter]. And they would often mess up the rhythm. For example, the correct rhythm would be dun-dun-dun-dun-dun… but they wouldn’t want to wait so long for the melody, so they would shorten some of the pauses [laughter] which was very interesting to me. So I was trying to do this experiment where if I call a piece ‘Brahms String Quartet #1′, the same title, and I take away all of the pitch material and I perform it with a very serious intent, how much of the identity of the piece do I still maintain? And I think that is a metaphor for how I think about my own training and my own relationship to my classical training.

My relationship to that training is complicated on two levels. On the first level is me just reacting against the tradition as any young composer would, in a very ‘Howard Bloom’ misreading your influence sort of way. The other level is me, somebody who was born in Hong Kong who has lived in Australia and America for a number of years … born in Hong Kong and thinking, ‘How do I connect with this tradition?’ If somebody asked me to write a symphony orchestra piece, [I am] then automatically granted the access to write a piece for these institutions and if so, at what cost? So that is why these days I no longer just write pieces for the symphony orchestra. I operate in many different [arenas] but everything that I do [is related] to this question that I constantly try to answer. Let me show you a second piece very quickly. It is an important piece to talk about because this piece is in the exhibition that Dajuin [Yao] is curating.

This piece is called ‘Beethoven Piano Sonata #1 – 14 senza misura’. Senza misura means to play without bar lines or that the passage has no bar lines, is without measures, basically at a speed that you can ad lib. #1 – 14 altogether, they are 47 movements. In this early set of piano sonatas it went up to 14 because that’s as far as I learned as a pianist [laughter], and then the later piano sonatas get a little more difficult and technically a little more difficult to master. So I took these 47 movements and I turned the tempo of each one of these movements into a small blinking, ticking [mechanism] so that essentially each one of them is a metronome. And they are blinking and ticking to the tempo of these movements at the speed at which I would play them if I were playing these pieces myself. I will play you a very short video of the effects of this …

So you get the idea … The result, I think, is meditative, a combination of sound and light. This is an important piece because this is maybe the first piece in which I felt that I understood what I was really trying to react against. This was the first piece in which that became very explicit for me. I started to use the titles of these very canonic pieces as a way to point to and refer to this repertoire that was important to me.

Audience member: Does this work exist as video?

SY: No. It’s a sound installation, in space. It is made up of these little pieces that actually live in a space and hang on the wall.

A new version of this was also just shown in the show Dajuin has curated. Another aspect [of my work] with music and composition that I want to talk about is the way we think of performances and the way we think of how perfect performances ought to be. If you were trained as a musician, especially in the conservatory sort of tradition, you were kind of trained as an athlete, especially if you are a pianist. I think string players are more relaxed… But pianists really live in the practice room, for hours on end. You get to the point where you are virtuosic, which I think to me means that you have a very high level of control of your body. To the outside world, you have this very precise control that almost makes you look non-human. At that point you have acquired an aura that makes you larger than you are and you sort of transcend the body for the audience. You become virtuosic and you transcend the limitation of the body but that requires a very high level of technical precision. That is a sort of technical perfection. But of course perfect performances are for me boring to watch. If I know that a pianist is always going to execute everything totally correctly with no margin for error, then that is boring for me. I am going to walk into that space and it is going to be fine. It is going to be a great performance, but that is not interesting to me. What is really interesting is the fact that although we are watching a perfect performance, a very virtuosic performance, there is always the possibility of failure lurking in the background. The possibility of failure is really what underpins virtuosity, particularly I think in a classical music performance. But nobody would come out and say, ‘I am going to try to fail or I am going to try to perform with inaccurate intent in this performance.’ That is not something that [people] throw out and say they are going to do. So I was very curious about that.

In this piece, which is called ‘I am thinking in a room different from the one you are hearing in now’, I tried to design a performative situation in which the interest of the performance is dependent or related in fundamental ways to the possibility of failure or the fact that I have to fail in the performance. So let me explain a little bit about what this piece is all about.

In this picture, you see me and another performer and we are each wearing an EG brainwave sensor. The EG wave sensor is measuring our focus level. When you are typing on the computer, your focus level is at about a 40 according to the algorithm on this sensor – it is not a universal thing. It is very specific to this sensor. So I set it around 60. If your focus level is around 60, then the instrument in front of you, those little wood blocks and drums, start to make sound because they have a motor inside of them. But of course, the paradoxical thing about this performance is that I could try to focus and try to make the instruments move, but as soon as they begin to produce sound that the audience could hear, I then begin to lose my focus because I can hear that they are moving too. So what the audience is really witnessing or what I am trying to present is not me trying to make a composition happen, but me in this constant ear and mind feedback loop, which cannot help but happen. I put myself in this situation which is very [nerve-wracking] because for the first couple of minutes of the performance, there is the possibility that nothing would happen and I would have to live with that… I want to play this very short excerpt of the performance that explains what it is all about …

So you see that we were rolling our eyes and the reason I was doing that was to make the instruments move, to get into a focused state, it is a state of becoming so you need to spend time and try and focus. In my case, I tried to count rhythms in my head. The other person is an actor, so he has perfected this craft of getting into focus by reciting scripts in his head – it is fascinating to me. He could always get into focus so much faster than I could, so his instrument was a lot more active. At a certain point, we have to stop the instruments from moving and the only way to do it is to move our eyeballs really quickly. Actually, there is an inaccuracy in my video – I thought that I was over-loading my brain with visual stimuli, but later on, a brain scientist explained to me that this was not what was happening. When you move your eyeballs, you are messing up your alpha wave, confusing the computer chip about what it is detecting. That is why the instruments stop moving. That is the only reliable way to sort of execute anything in this performance, and we designed those situations, so that at some point, the audience would get what we are actually trying to do. Although nothing much is happening when we are trying to focus and we are looking very intense. It is also a process of becoming for the audience – they have to slowly figure out what is going on.

I wanted very quickly to talk about another project that is close to my heart. It is called Liquid Borders and it is also currently showing in the China sound art show [‘Revolutions Per Minute’] that Dajuin [Yao] curated. For those of you who are familiar with the situation in Hong Kong … Hong Kong and China of course have been reunited, but we are still separated by a great wall of wire fence. And there is a big area of land south of the border [between Hong Kong and China] which is basically a no-man’s land. You cannot enter that land without an official permit. So there is a vast area of land south of the [Chinese Hong Kong] border which is basically not occupied by anyone, anything. It is wide open land and the government has, since April 2012, announced that they will very slowly make the area smaller, progressively, which means that eventually the border might disappear. At the same time, as those of you who follow Hong Kong politics might remember, last July [2012] there was a national education saga. A lot of people went into the streets to protest against the institutionalization of a national education in schools in Hong Kong [which was deemed to be overly Beijing-centered]. As you can see, before this my work had been dealing with my relationship to classical music, but I was really not very geographically specific in my dealing with these issues. After all of these events last year, I became very interested in why I am operating as an artist in Hong Kong and what it actually means. I don’t really have an answer, which is why I am doing this work.

In this work, I systematically go to the border, to the front of the enclosed area, and I apply for a permit and sometimes I trespass – actually I trespass most of the time – and I use a contact microphone to record the vibration of the fencing along the border in a very systematic manner. In this way, I travel from west to east; then I start with the edge of the border and I work my way inward. This is a very long process. I am only half-way done and I plan to finish it this year. I go to all these places and I record and then afterwards I put the sounds into a sound composition that is about 13 minutes long – at least in the first phase of my research. And then after I have taken all these recordings and put them into a composition, I re-transcribed them back into musical notation with graphical notation. When I show this work, I show documentation of my recording process. I show the scores and I also let people listen to the soundtrack.

I want to close with this anecdote: When I was at the border … this picture is very emotional for me because one side [of the border], it is entirely under-developed, not developed at all because it is closed and nobody can go in. But on the other side, you have the most expensive prime real estate because, of course, it is very close to the border and you have condos looking out over this vast, green space. The second day after I did these recordings, there was a typhoon number 10 in Hong Kong and a lot of those fences actually got blown wide open. I was trying to stick content microphones on the fences to record and a border guard started getting really nervous; he thought I was going to blow up the fence or something [laughter]. I couldn’t continue to record, so I started to talk to the guard. And then he said to me that I shouldn’t record here, that it is a sensitive area, that there are CCTV cameras, but that I could record ‘there’, that area is okay! And then he went on to tell me that when there is a typhoon sometimes the gates get blown wide open and it takes weeks for them to go back up. And then, I think why do you care that I am sticking something on the fence? Why were you so nervous about it in the first place?

That conversation is a metaphor of our relationship to China right now. We don’t know where to draw the line and there are places where we need to draw the line, where we are not drawing the line, but in situations where we should not be so protectionist, so insensitive, we are bundling all these issues with identity politics and that whole discussion gets really messy and complicated. So I am going to continue with this project and I don’t know yet what I am going to do when I eventually have all the recordings, but that is where I am right now. Thank you.

JD: Thank you Samson. One of the things that intrigues me about your work is that while it is sound or music related, there is sometimes a very visual side to it as well. The piece I saw at Asia Art Archive – and we can talk about that – was a sound work but it also had a very visual manifestation. Same with the piece that has all the little computer panels with lights on the wall – it is visually very engaging. How long have you been thinking about connecting the visuality of your work with sound?

SY: First of all, I don’t exclusively do sound-based works. I do other things as well. There are pieces where I am making visual objects which are not necessarily sound installations – they don’t make sound. So I do that too. I have that side of my practice. But to answer your question with some precision, I think about where I am showing these pieces. For example, when I am asked to show a sound installation in a gallery, the first thing that I think about is that I am going to have to make people listen, but I am also very aware that this is a gallery space where the logic of the eye is still primary. Unlike in a concert hall, where people buy a ticket and from seven o’clock to eight or nine they will devote their time to a listening experience. There is a beginning and an end to that experience. That mode of listening is sort of an imposition, but it is an accepted tradition that people will work with. But in a gallery space, you cannot really impose that sort of listening. All you can do is extend an invitation to listen. I think a lot of what I do when I make sound installations is I use a lot of visual or conceptual ideas – a range of different strategies – to extend that invitation to listen. People will still be listening to it – they may decide to just look at the piece and if they walk away without [listening], that is okay as well. I have extended that invitation to listen. But of course, if I was, for example with Liquid Border, given a completely blacked out space or a screening theater, I would prefer a completely blacked out space where people could sit in the theater and listen. I think a lot about the mode of operation in these spaces and I decide on my strategy that way.

Audience member: I wanted to ask about the relationship of your work to games – you started with the symphony piece which had the Nintendo playing and then the piece with concentration seemed very linked into a kind of game mode of operation in which, rather than thinking about the outcome of a piece as being pre-determined, it follows a set of structures that themselves might be kind of triggered or somewhat fixed sub-structures but that follow some sort of logic of real-time game relationships. I am just wondering if that is a strand that carries through in other of your works, or how you think about that in relation to this kind of Western classical music tradition.

SY: I am glad you asked that question. I started out being a lot more playful. I am kind of serious now [laughter]. I will very quickly scroll through some images of older pieces. I made this crazy work that was shown in Deutsche Bank in New York. It was basically a supermarket ride. And this is an installation with Game Boys. I have actually written a couple of games that you can play. So I have gone through a journey conceiving of myself as the most general kind of artist to the most specific kind of artist. When I say that, I mean that when I am dealing with my interests – I grew up playing video games and at the time I thought if I had to pull something out of myself, my experience, what would I reflect upon and I thought [about the fact that] I played a lot of video games as a child. I thought that if there was a child who grew up the same way I did, in a small apartment in New York City, playing video games, we would probably have more in common than a child who grew up in Hong Kong who did not have that experience. That is what I was thinking at the time. And so I decided to do these game things and be a playful kind of artist, but that was not satisfying to me. I don’t think I believe in that anymore, in the metropolitan experience as a common thread between people. I started looking into my own personal experience and my training and that is how I [began to focus] on classical music as something to react against. And that was not even specific enough for me. In the last several years, I have begun to look at identity politics again. When I was making the playful, game-like works, I was actually very actively resisting anything with a geographical label. I think it is a slow process from bigger geographic locations to geographically more and more specific locations. Not just geographically, but maybe ideologically as well.

Audience member: I am trained as an ethno-musicologist and jazz historian. I worked at a jazz radio station for many years and I know a lot about classical music. I’d like to know more about your transition from what you call pitch-based Western music to more percussion, rhythm-based music – I see that you’ve reduced things down and you’ve interpreted the monkey chant obviously in the Brahms piece. I love pitch-based music and so do most people. What brought you to that because I know you love pitch-based music also, otherwise you wouldn’t react to it this way? What was the process?

SY: I think maybe a lot of what I do is re-imagining, and dare I say, not misinterpreting, but over-underlining the prejudices that I think my training gave me. And then I try to react against that and I admit that sometimes I blow these things up out of scale and that is for me necessary in order to react against it. Of course, if I were more nuanced, then I’d be very critical about my thinking and also about my training. My graduate program was at a place where we had Carolyn Abbate and I was very aware of these things and I think I had a very balanced training, at least in my graduate years. That cannot be said of my undergraduate years. My music degree was in Sydney, Australia. We had Allan Marett there, and he taught this one Asian music class, but that was all we had. And of course, when I was in undergrad, I was not aware of these [concepts]. My undergraduate experience is lumped with my experience being an Asian in Australia. So now, I’m at a place where I am making these works and I am sort of re-imagining and remembering what I learned in those [earlier] years. Perhaps, some of these prejudices that I brought with me are fictional, but of course they are based on events. I think that it is important for an artist to operate that way. When I put on my theorist’s cap – I write as well – I tend to be concise about ideas, – but I think as an artist I need to operate in a different way. I don’t know if that answers your question…

JD: I know everybody is waiting to ask more questions, but I’d like to invite you to continue the conversation downstairs. Thank you very much Samson, we are delighted you could be here tonight.

All images, audios and videos courtesy of the artist.
Transcribed and revised by Daisley Kramer edited by Jane DeBevoise.


1979 born in Hong Kong; lives and works in Hong Kong
2013 PhD in Music Composition, Princeton University (Advisor: Paul Lansky)
2007 MPhil in Music Composition, University of Hong Kong (Advisor: Chan Hing-yan)
2002 BA in Music, Philosophy and Gender Studies, University of Sydney

Originally trained in music composition, Samson Young’s (b.1979) creative outputs now manifest in a variety of media and across disciplinary divide. His works are seen and heard in galleries, museums, concert halls, and performance spaces.

In 2007, he was the recipient of the inaugural Bloomberg Emerging Artist Award with his audio-visual project The Happiest Hour, which marked his entry into the worlds of art outside of the concert hall. Other honors include an honorary mention in the digital music and sound art category of Prix Ars Electronica – one of the most important awards in the field of electronic art; a Jury Selection award at the 15th Japan Media Art Festival; and the New York Society for New Music Brian M. Israel Prize. CNN’s global portal identified him as one of the  ’Top 20 People to Watch in Hong Kong,’ and in 2013 he was named ‘Best Artist of the Year’ in the Media Art category by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.

Young received a PhD in composition at Princeton University under the supervision of computer music pioneer Paul Lansky. In 2007, he founded the experimental sound advocacy organization Contemporary Musiking. He was Hong Kong Sinfonietta’s Artist Associate in the 2008 – 2009 concert season, an organization for which he’d developed a number of multimedia and music theatre productions. He is currently an Assistant Professor at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong.