“Memorizing the Tristan Chord”: Hong Kong sound artist Samson Young – interview

What do Cantonese mnemonics,  Hong Kong politics and Wagner have in common? Samson Young.

Hong Kong sound artist Samson Young discusses the influence of his classical music, China rim culture and how he came to juxtapose random Cantonese phrases with musical melodies in his 2013 work Memorizing the Tristan Chord.

Samson Young during his interviews for 'Memorizing the Tristan Chord', 2013.

Samson Young during his interviews for ‘Memorizing the Tristan Chord’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Hong Kong sound artist Samson Young creates artworks that meld his classical music training with innovative multimedia techniques, questioning the didactic and ingrained constructs of classical music. Trained in composition at Princeton University under computer music pioneer Paul Lansky, Young is currently an assistant professor at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong, as well as the artistic director of Contemporary Musiking, an organisation promoting contemporary music experimentation.

In his 2013 work Memorizing the Tristan Chord (Institute of Fictional Ethnomusicology), Young considered the Tristan Chord, a melodic phrase from Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde”. Commissioned by the Goethe-Institut Hong Kong to celebrate Wagner’s 200th birthday, the work saw Young ask members of the public to make up random Cantonese phrases which fitted the melody of the chord. The results varied greatly: while some responses reflected political beliefs, other responses revealed the participants’ personal reactions to the chord.

Samson Young interviewing for his work 'Memorizing the Tristan Chord', 2013.

Samson Young interviewing for his work ‘Memorizing the Tristan Chord’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Art Radar sat down with Young in Hong Kong to discuss the project, his thoughts on Wagner and how his work reflects on China rim culture in Hong Kong.

Before you began Memorizing the Tristan Chord, what meaning did Richard Wagner and particularly “Tristan & Isolde” hold for you?

In this part of the world, when you are taught music in school you are mostly taught classical music and it is taken for granted [by students], so it’s not something that you think about or reflect upon until you encounter a different reality and you see that there are different kinds of music that you can learn about.

In any case, I studied music all through high school, through undergraduate years and graduate school and Wagner is one of those canonical, pivotal figures – not only in music, actually, but in a variety of different disciplines. Philosophers definitely study Wagner as well, so he’s certainly a very looming and important figure, but to a point where I felt almost like he’s been put on a pedestal, glorified as a deity within canonised traditional music.

I have a very complicated relationship with Wagner in the sense that I studied him, I knew his music intimately at school, but also I had to constantly negotiate my relationship with him and I had to think about why I was studying him. This is also because studying Wagner’s music is something that comes, perhaps, a little bit less easily than, say, studying Mozart’s music or Beethoven’s music. I mean, when you get to Wagner’s music, there are already complicated tonal things that are waiting to be conquered. It’s sort of like a complicated mathematical equation, sort of like calculus in that everything after it builds upon it. But it’s also something that’s very hard to get your head around, to memorise and internalise it, maybe against your will.

Alex Yiu in 'Memorizing the Tristan Chord', 2013.

Alex Yiu in ‘Memorizing the Tristan Chord’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Tell Art Radar readers about the inspiration for this project. Why inlay the Tristan Chord with Cantonese phrases?

I was thinking back to how, when I was a student, I would attempt to memorise things or words or phenomena that are difficult to memorise. Cantonese-speaking students very often use the strategy of inventing random Cantonese phrases to memorise things, because there are nine tonal inflections, which make for very nuanced mapping… so it’s actually very practical. When I was a student, I did try to remember things like the melody leading up to the Tristan Chord with Cantonese phrases myself. But of course, when I was a student, I was just trying to be pragmatic about studying the chord and then it occurred to me that it’s actually very weird, because you are basically [taking] text that has meaning and marrying it forcefully to some notes that have absolutely no relationship to it.

Also when I was researching this piece and researching language – especially the Cantonese language in music – I discovered that there is actually a very distinguished tradition of making up Cantonese lyrics to fill in classical music tunes. So these two things came together naturally.

Your work simultaneously speaks to your classical training and produces a novel approach to performance and installation. How do you combine classical and non-classical elements in your work?

I don’t know if I was thinking about classical versus non-classical. I was more thinking about where I belong and what belongs where.

In most industrialised cities and nations, we teach the European – the Austrian and German – tradition of music and we never really question the origin of it and why we have to study it… I have a sneaking suspicion that the idea of music as a universal language is invented by the Americans, first to legitimise their entry into the world of music-making in the Austrian-German tradition, but now they regurgitate it to sustain the capitalism of their popular music industry. I find that to be a topic that isn’t talked about because there are so many complications in it: the issue of race and the way I look. Because I’m Asian, I’m one step away from it, but even as an American, how do you bridge that gap in history and feel like you belong to that tradition? Why is okay for the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven years on end? How do you make that legitimate? I think that’s a question many people wonder about.

Lorraine Lau in 'Memorizing the Tristan Chord', 2013.

Lorraine Lau in ‘Memorizing the Tristan Chord’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

You divided the responses to the Tristan Chord into four categories within the essay that corresponded with the piece: auto-biographical statements, haiku-like poetic expressions, responses to the scenario of the interview itself and lists of things. The responses really varied in emotion and seriousness. Did you like any in particular more than others?

I liked all of them, but I was not expecting such a variety of different responses and I was definitely not expecting political content. There was also a group of words that were very heartfelt, so those were the two groups that I did not expect. In fact, the most surprising, I would say, is the heartfelt group of texts and probably my favourite because it points to a very precious moment in the interview itself. I feel like when you put a camera in front of people to get them to talk about music, for some reason, it becomes a confession either about their musical preferences or about their perceived lack of training or perceived lack of connection to this tradition of classical music. Many people came into the interview and the first thing they said was, “oh, I don’t know much about classical music, I’m not familiar with it.” Of course, they’re actually very knowledgeable about Wagner, but they still pervade everything with those proclamations.

Many of your works like the iPhone Orchestra and the Tristan Chord incorporate public participation. Why is this an important facet of your work?

I haven’t really thought about that so much, but I focus on it within pieces where I’m trying to amplify an idea by way of verification.

For example, in the iPhone Orchestra, I thought that if I make music this way so that people would start to listen to music this way, then I needed to verify it by being in contact with a large group of people. Same with the Wagner piece. I had the idea in my head and I kind of knew how people would [respond] and what the process would be like. I think the idea itself needs verification by repeated testing. In a situation like that, I like to involve them.

But then there are many pieces – I tend to go extreme – where I absolutely am alone in the studio and the whole process is very planned out and lonely that way. I work in both ways.

Albert Poon in 'Memorizing the Tristan Chord', 2013.

Albert Poon in ‘Memorizing the Tristan Chord’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

You grew up in Hong Kong and so much of your upbringing comes through in your site-specific and roving projects. How do you think your work describes Hong Kong and China rim culture to your viewers?

That’s a good question because it’s something that I’m still trying to think about and I think about it by way of actually doing and working these things [out] through making. I think what I take for granted is Hong Kong as a complete entity. That in itself is a substantial claim, but whether I’m ready to say that there’s a distinctive identity of Hong Kong or that we’re distinct from Mainland China in any way, I think those are issues that I’m still trying to figure out.

What I’m doing now – maybe more than trying to figure out exactly what the Hong Kong identity is – is more a reflection on an anxiety. Before we even have the time and space and opportunity to work all these issues out, it’s already fading and receding into the background, so I think it speaks to our anxiety. In any case, I think that an imagination of subjectivity is always triggered by this anxiety. The experience in the art scene in Taiwan maybe two decades ago is very relevant to Hong Kong. They are now basically faced with the same situation: mainland China and the Communist government is trying very hard to pacify the people of Taiwan with economic benefits and rhetoric of financial and economic opportunities. There [is] also lots of traffic between these regions. I think they’ve already sort of been through that period of anxiety and feel very assured of themselves. So you don’t see so much of the protectionist rhetoric that you see a lot being circulated in Hong Kong.

Yang Yeung in 'Memorizing the Tristan Chord', 2013.

Yang Yeung in ‘Memorizing the Tristan Chord’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Where do you think your work fits into the commercially-driven art scene here? Is your work meant to be collected, experienced, both?

I don’t know if the art scene in Hong Kong is so commercially driven if you look at the reality of how artists work in Hong Kong and how their work circulates. To give you an example, Lee Kit – probably one of the most (internationally) well-known Hong Kong artists of this young generation. Of course, his work is collected, but it’s not selling through the roof to such an extent that it would be enough of an incentive for one to want to do things one way or another… I think mainland Chinese artists have a different reality, definitely. In Hong Kong [mainland Chinese artists] sell well, they sell in abundance and there are waiting lists. I don’t think there are waiting lists for Hong Kong artworks, really.

The second response is that I’m very fortunate to have a teaching job in Hong Kong and that shields me somewhat from whatever market forces that affect artists’ decisions here. I don’t think that is such a widespread problem yet. As Robin Peckham – one of Hong Kong’s critics – famously said, everyone in Hong Kong is an emerging artist in a sense that, because the entire art scene is emerging, everyone is just emerging, so we are still at that very young stage. Maybe in a decade we might have people who are more commercially sustainable. If you’re talking about the commercial pressure, it usually isn’t directly exerted onto the artist by the market, it’s usually through galleries and how they choose to represent us. I think that whole situation with gallery representation in Hong Kong is still quite immature… so that shields us somewhat from what is going on elsewhere.

Kenneth Kam in 'Memorizing the Tristan Chord', 2013.

Kenneth Kam in ‘Memorizing the Tristan Chord’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Tell us what you’re working on these days.

Right now I’m working on the fabrication for a work for a biennale in Shanghai [the Westbund Architecture and Art Biennale]. The Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) acquired a very large piece of land with old oil tanks and also an old factory building, and the Shanghai government is planning to turn that whole district into an arts district. Pixar is already set to move into one of those oil tanks and use that as their campus, but before that happens they are planning to throw an art biennial there, so they’ve given me an oil tank. I’ve never made big works before, so it’s a challenge and I’m actually probably actually going to make tiny pieces in a very large space. It’s a piece about the history of chamber music, how chamber music came about, the cultural imagination of chamber music, the fact that it’s intimate, private, and all of these things. I’m trying to use that idea but do it in a large, irreverent space of the oil tank.

Elizabeth Brown

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Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, sound art, interviews, crossover art

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