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Over cups of green tea in his pristine Hong Kong studio, the artist and composer Samson Young expounds on topics ranging from charity supergroup Band Aid to China’s borders and why music can be “dangerous”. We’re discussing his exhibition at the M+ Pavilion in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District. Songs for Disaster Relief World Tour examines the strange allure of the charity pop songs popular in Hong Kong in the 1980s-90s, cover versions of hits from the UK, US and Japan. He is not mocking these saccharine records, though, but looking at the circumstances that made them ubiquitous.
The exhibition was first seen in the Hong Kong pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Young has since added new works, such as “Carillon”, an unsettling self-playing piano that incorporates elements of the 1990 single “Gather All Our Lights”. “It was released after [the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989] because people started moving away and losing faith in the future of [Beijing]. The message of the song is that we should have hope in the future; it did not say that people should stay, but that is basically what [the authorities] wanted us to believe,” he says, stressing that the work is essentially government propaganda.
“You can logically analyse and intellectually scrutinise [“Gather All Our Lights”] — you can say ‘this is wrong’ — but what if the song actually moved you?” Young continues. “It’s like a bad movie that made you cry. It’s something I’m trying to think about. Music has the power to cut through the intellectual and that’s why music can be very dangerous.”
In person, the Hong Kong-born artist is intense but engaging. His talent is clear: he only started playing an instrument in high school and ended up with a PhD in music composition from Princeton University. His website, thismusicisfalse.com, reveals a staggering number of projects, texts and research initiatives, reflecting the myriad topics that preoccupy him. He also plays in groups, including Serious Grape Flavor, which he describes as a “synth-pop boy band”, and recently co-curated an exhibition called Notating Beauty That Moves at the ArtisTree space in Hong Kong, bringing together musical scores by composers such as John Cage and artworks including a tracing of Stravinsky’s hand.
His sound works may seem opaque but they are underpinned by careful research. For a documentary radio piece made for Documenta 14 in Kassel last year (“Such Sweet Thunder”), he recorded “historically significant bells” that echo racial and ideological conflicts, such as a slave trader warning bell in Mombasa and a bell confiscated by the Nazis.
For “Liquid Borders” (2012-14), he visited the restricted zones along the Hong Kong-China border “collecting” the sounds of the divide: vibrating fence wires and running water from the Shenzhen river. These recordings were made into sound compositions then transcribed into graphic notation. They capture a fleeting moment: “A new checkpoint is being planned. They’re changing the shape of that border as there is a push to redevelop all those areas,” Young says.
According to Doryun Chong, deputy director of M+ and co-curator of the Disaster Relief exhibition, Young is not simply exploring avant-garde composition but marrying sound art with pressing issues such as globalisation, conflict and frontiers. “I think that his version of sound art is much more impactful and accessible than what typical sound art is and does,” Chong says.
On leaving the studio, Young tells me about his next piece, “Possible Music #1”, which will be unveiled at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in May. “I’m making a bunch of military signal calls that play on a schedule throughout the day,” he says. They are played by a collection of computer-simulated trumpets constructed with software from the Next Generation Sound Synthesis research group at the University of Edinburgh.
It certainly sounds complex, but Young is confident it will come together. “In the moment of making, I will just have this conviction that a particular element in a far corner of the mind map works with this other element in another corner,” he says.
To May 6, westkowloon.hk