Framing the note
Classical composer Samson Young makes his music sheet the canvas of political convictions
A suite of eight drawings, splashed with black, can be seen on the walls of the Experimenter gallery in Kolkata. The words: “I name”, “I urge”, “I promise”, “I beg”, “I call into question”, and more, shout out from the canvases. If you look hard enough, you can just about make out the crests and troughs of musical notations underlying the prints, stamps and pastels. That’s when you realize that classical music compositions form the base of these mixed- media works.
“It is unusual for a composition of contemporary music to be performed more than once—other than its premiere. It has only one life,” says artist Samson Young. In the past several months, as this Hong Kong-based classical composer and practising sound artiste lingered over his manuscripts, an idea struck him—to give these compositions a new lease of life. “All of these are original manuscripts, containing compositions from 2005 to 2015. In this set of works, they have been appropriated, vandalized and covered with new material to be looked at as drawings, independent of their original function,” he says.
These works form part of Young’s first solo in India titled Mastery Of Language Affords Remarkable Power, which will be on view at the Experimenter till 29 October.
While Young remains an active practitioner of concert hall music, he has been winning acclaim for using art to contextualize political and communal issues in a globalized world.
One of the key questions he has been asking is, what does it mean to reproduce the institutions of classical music outside the West? His unique approach to complex sociopolitical issues made him the inaugural winner of the BMW Art Journey Award at the Art Basel Hong Kong 2015. And it was at this show that Prateek Raja, co-founder, Experimenter, first saw his work. “It was a solo presentation about war sounds expressed as drawings, accompanied by a performative assemblage of instruments,” says Raja, who has seen Young’s practice flourish in the past two years. “Recently, his practice has received a lot of global attention—he recently had a solo in New York, he will be representing Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale next year and will have his first institutional European solo at Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Germany, this December—and yet he remains rooted to his practice,” Raja says.
A question Young is frequently asked is how he made the transition from composer to visual and aural artist. “I did composing for a long time. After studying in Australia, I moved back to Hong Kong. The two-three years that I spent there, before going to the US, were very important,” he says. Young became part of an artists’ collective, which featured one video artist, a poet and a composer. “We would keep swapping roles. I would sometimes do the video installations and the other member would do the composing, so on and so forth. Then, when I went to the US, I started working alone. I don’t like collaborating too much as I am a control freak,” he says. Soon, Young began to add a lot of non-music elements, such as video projections, to his performances. And in no time, he started taking part in exhibitions as well.
The show at the Experimenter comprises a series of works on paper, videos and a durational performance, which unfolds over a period of time during the course of the show. The works on paper, To Fanon, refer to psychiatrist-philosopher-writer Frantz Omar Fanon’s work on the key role of language in creating cultural, racial and political domination. “In one set of works, To Fanon (But My Mother Weeps Rich Black Tears), I have covered the entire manuscript with black charcoal,” says Young.
The surface treatment stems from the title of the manuscript itself. For instance, the charcoal work is inspired by the musical setting of a poem, But My Mother Weeps Rich Black Tears, by an Australian poet about the rape of an Aboriginal woman. Vandalizing the work in such a manner evokes a complex set of feelings within Young. “It is painful at one level, as this work can no longer be performed. Some of these works were very substantial, with seven different movements and with a duration of 10-20 minutes. I don’t have copies of these manuscripts and it’s not like the compositions are in my head,” he says. At another level, there is an exhilarating feeling of creating a new life, of treating these manuscripts as visual artefacts.
The two videos that accompany these mounted works are titled Muted Situations and feature a string quartet, a traditional Chinese lion and a dragon dance. “He has created situations which are muted but not silenced. You hear what you are not supposed to hear—the shuffling of feet of the quartet, sounds of breathing, the sounds that the hands produce as they slide up and down the finger board. These are fringe sounds, which also talk about his situation of approaching Western music as an outsider,” says Raja.
Mastery of Language Affords Remarkable Power will be on view till 29 October, 1am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Experimenter, 2/1 Hindusthan Road, Kolkata. The works are priced between $8,500-32,000 (around Rs.5.68-21.38 lakh).
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