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Samson Young’s Sonic Mapping of Uncharted Territories

Margaret Hong

As the infamous saying goes, “there are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns''1, which reveals problematic opinions polluting traditional ways of mapping the frontiers and authenticity that comes with it. What sound art challenges, or really offers, in this increasingly noisy world that we live in, is a lateral trajectory of the audience’s understanding of, and navigation to the knowns and unknowns. Samson Young, a Hong Kong-based sound artist, explores these uncharted territories through research-based audio

inspection, in conjunction with other artistic practices.“.

Maps are always selective. You always have to omit as much as you include,” said Professor Christine Leuenberger, a politics and cartography researcher at Cornell University.2 The complication of mapping and producing visual evidence of places, the battleground that strategically foreclosed the marginalised for political stability and legitimacy of history, are amplified by technological advancement and the subsequent disruption of information disseminated through digital outlets such as social media, mobile phone applications and the like. By adding sonic representation to the picture, Young’s work reexamines the mediation of

sound, and the ontologies neglected in conventional maps, providing an active explorative setting for participants to observe, acknowledge, and imagine space and bodies.

With a background in music composition, Samson Young engages not only with aural expression, but also with a variety of mediums like sound drawings, installations, videos, performance and more, after completing his PhD in music composition at Princeton University. “Listening is a full-body experience,” Young said in an interview, “we don’t usually separate our senses when listening.”3

Liquid Border - Courtesy of the artist

Along that assemblage of senses propelled by acoustic reception sits Young’s conceptualization of a psychogeographical approach to recording cross-border relationships. “Liquid Borders” (2012-2014) is an example of this. Combining graphical notation, sounds compositions and annotated cartography, Young probes into the symbolic meanings of the divider in both the physical and psychological sense. While being a ‘border wanderer’, an integral part of the process for him to think through complex issues, he essentially captured the vibration of fence

wires and running water from the Shenzhen River — the base of his multidisciplinary work — imprinting his organic findings in muscle memories and abstract transcriptions. Despite the public outcry haloed in anxiety and fear, the physicality of sound at the actual site does not reverberate the very idea of separation that border fences bring about. “It doesn’t really matter if you put the microphone on this side or that side of the fence,” Young explained, “It picks up the same sound. I like that as a metaphor.”4

So You Are Old By the Time You Reach the Island - Courtesy of the artist

Similar idea is also presented in “So You Are Old By the Time You Reach the Island” (2016), a multimedia walk with site-specific films, radio broadcasts, and live performance. “The ear favours no particular ‘point of view’ [...] We can’t shut out sound automatically. We simply are not equipped with earlids. The ear world is a world of simultaneous relationships.”5 Instead, Young disrupts participants’ point of view of the all-too-familiar Wan Chai and Admiralty, by supplying ‘earlids’, the headphone, and other small objects during the 60-minute walk to unfold a fictional story of a fictional character nestled in the blending cadence of political upheavals and urban development. At the climax of the journey, Young appeared on the footbridge, away from the audience, singing a song to each participant on mobile phone to end the walk. It is emotion overload. It is self/environment discovery. It is a subconscious imagination.

For Whom the Bell Tolls - Courtesy of the artist

Another overarching theme of Young’s work is the connection of sound and image. “People always talk about the musicality in the visual.”6 What about the visuality in music? On that note, Young drew on his interest in the sonic quality of information overload — something we aspire to receive as much as possible but our auditory apparatus simply won’t allow — and embarked on a 60-day journey to record and research on bells across five continents. Bells, one of the two sonorous objects that were capable of producing the sound that is louder than natural

phenomena in the pre-industrialization era7, carry a condensed and complex harmonic structure, which makes listening in the moment very difficult. Therefore, in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (2015), Young practises soundscape drawings in tandem with sound recordings, objects and a composition to represent the consciousness and experience of listening as a whole. Meditative, cathartic, and ethereal, the work aims to connect individuals, and ask: where does listening stop, and where does imagining begin?

Possible Music #2 - Courtesy of the artist

Following that interest in aural imagination, Young takes a further step to create imaginary auditory situations, portraying the unreachable in a whimsical fashion to open up potential relationships with our surroundings. “We not only utter sounds, we can imagine sounds.”8 As such, “Possible Music #2” (2019) and “The World Falls Apart into Facts” (2019) echo this proposition wittily. In partnership with NESS (Next Generation Sound Synthesis) at the University of Edinburgh, Young created sounds that do not exist: a 20-foot trumpet, a bugle that operates when blown into with dragon breath at 300°C. All of which were then playfully translated into an experimental installation, with parts of the enlarged and fabricated musical instruments surfacing above the ground. In the same vein, Young created an original composition comprising souvenir musical instruments, horse bells, electronics, the sound of a

harpsichord and human voices as part of the video channel in “The World Falls Apart into Facts”. It is an anomalous piece that mocks the blurry line of cultural purity and authenticity in the name of globalisation, where the seriousness of originality is juxtaposed with the idiosyncrasy of power dynamics.

The World Falls Apart into Facts - Courtesy of Tokyoartbeat

Young’s venture into the unknown largely lies in the known. “If I have asked the right question, then the audience will start to think about the strangeness of the situation.”9 While artists in other disciplines also do the same, sound art exudes this odd intimacy that speaks directly to the viscera. This fluid aesthetic operation, coupled with Young’s sense of humour, reminds, reconstructs and reframes our fragmented history and segregated system in a new light.

1 United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s response to a question at a U.S. Department of

Defense news briefing on February 12, 2002

5 McLuhan, The Medium is the Message, 1996

6 H.U.Obrist, Booming, Mousse Magazine, October 2016

7 Corbin, Village Bells, 1998 (also see

8 Barlingay, A Modern Introduction to Indian Aesthetic Theory, 2007


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