SAMSON YOUNG: Sound and music was my original training. So although these days I'm making videos and drawings and objects, music is still one of the lenses through which I process the world.
As a student, I played the double bass. As a double bassist, you don't really play a lot. You spend a lot of time mentally prepping yourself for the passage to come and the way you would do it is to sort of silently finger through the passage. And I remember thinking what it might sound like if the entire orchestra started doing that as a way to practice a piece.
The Muted Situation [series], the whole series started with a pretty simple prompt. I was asked to make a series of works for a library. There's some interesting energy in that paradox: in that a library, you think of it as a quiet place, but it's not a place without sound. Certainly if somebody like a librarian sort of walking around with a cart and pushing books around, those sounds are heard and not judged against.
I started sort of thinking about the different situations where you could actually very selectively choose to mute one layer of sound I basically sat down and wrote twenty of these situations.
When I needed to make another one for the Sydney Biennale, I knew that I wanted to make that one the last one. So I thought about this idea again and I know the orchestra is just going to work, like, sonically. You need something that is almost too ridiculously romantic with big sweeping orchestral gestures, like one layer of sound colliding over another the entire string section speaking against the wind section.
Tchaikovsky's 5th is used in movies a lot. It's used in advertising a lot. So even if people don't know the entire symphony, there would be themes and motifs that people will recognise from here and there. So then you will get this effect of almost ghosting of the melody in your head. If you have a remote control, and you can mute specifically one layer of sound and then have the other layers of sound remain. That's what Muted Situation is.
Underneath that pitch layer, there’s rhythm, there’s bodily movement. You know there are all these things that exist, but they're just not being heard. There's an aggressive energy behind that idea of muting something.
The Sigg Prize is a biennial award that recognises artists born or working in the Greater China region. The inaugural Sigg Prize 2019 exhibition, which was held at the M+ Pavilion through 17 May, featured work by the six artists shortlisted for the prize: Hu Xiaoyuan, Liang Shuo, Lin Yilin, Shen Xin, Tao Hui, and Samson Young.
On 13 May, the prize’s international jury announced the winner: Samson Young, for his work Muted Situations #22: Muted Tchaikovsky’s 5th (2018). To create this spatial sound installation, Young collaborated with Cologne’s Flora Sinfonie Orchester, instructing the members of the orchestra to mute their instruments and drawing attention to the other sounds musicians make during a performance.
We chat with Young about his Muted Situations series, his experience making this work, and his practice as a whole.
Why did you choose Muted Situations #22: Muted Tchaikovsky’s 5th as the work to be included in the Sigg Prize exhibition?
Considering the works I’ve made over the past couple of years, Muted Situations #22 is one of my favourites, so I settled on it quite quickly. I showed it in Hong Kong once before in a cinema setting, but never as an installation with multi-channel sound, as was originally intended. It’s a work that I am proud of, and I wanted to show it in that form in my home city.
This work is part of your Muted Situations series. What is a muted situation?
I conceived the Muted Situations when I was asked to make a series of works for a library. The curator was specifically looking for a sound work, which in itself is an interesting paradox. The library is an environment where you're supposed to be quiet, but it is not entirely without sound. There are announcements over the speakers, the librarians push their carts around, and people fumble with their books. It is only certain sounds that are muted. I latched onto that idea—it’s like a remote control with which you can mute one sound, but have the other layers be present. That’s what the Muted Situations series tries to do.
It sounds simple, but there are a lot of variables. As soon as you try to mute one layer, all of the other layers change as well. I also don’t want to lose the original intensity and intent of a performance, even while it is muted. For example, one of the Muted Situations is a lion dance in which we muted the percussion music that is usually there to guide the dancers, leaving only the stomping of the feet. However, if you mute the music, the dancers can get quite lost. You have to think about how to effectively do this and still allow the dancers to perform as authentically as possible. The series becomes an exercise in considering what a performance actually is.
Tell me about the other pieces in the Muted Situations series.
There are currently twenty-two pieces in total. I initially sat down and wrote twenty different situations as instructional scores, including musical performances and even a boxing match. The twenty-first was the We Are the World performance for the Songs For Disaster Relief exhibition in 2017, and the twenty-second is Muted Situations #22: Muted Tchaikovsky’s 5th, which I made for the Biennale of Sydney in 2018.
Around half a dozen of the situations have been performed live and documented. Some are even situations that you can’t stage. For example, one is a protest in which the sound of people’s voices are muted. Anything else, like the rattling of signs and the sound of people walking, is supposed to be preserved. While that would be hard to ‘stage’, it’s more like an exercise in imagination—what might that sound and look like?—with the situations that have already been performed as guiding examples.
What kind of process do you use to mute the sounds in the staged situations?
I start by speaking with the performers and explaining what I have in mind. It’s very much a collaborative exercise. For example, with the chorus that performed We Are the World—in which the song was seemingly sung entirely through whispers—it was quite important to communicate to get the methods and the concept of 'muting' right. There is a difference between just mouthing or whispering the words, and thinking about the different components of sound production that are part of singing, even when muted. For example, the enunciation of the end of a word is important—if the performers become fixated only on the idea of whispering, they might not exhale through the full duration of the word.
Once this communication has begun, I leave room for the performers to think of possible solutions. It's a conversation, and we try to figure it out together.
What was your approach for Muted Situations #22: Muted Tchaikovsky’s 5th?
There was an initial meet-and-greet with the orchestra, and then there was a lot of discussion with the conductor and each of the section leaders. They would suggest things to try in rehearsals and send me phone recordings. They had a lot of agency in the process.
The two instruments that were the most complicated during the process were the strings and the timpani. For the strings, there is quite a variety of methods that could be used to mute the pitch. The challenge is to find the right one. We ended up wrapping a thin piece of plastic quite tightly around the place where the string usually comes into contact with the bow. In this way, you still pick up the sounds made by the hand sliding or pressing onto the strings.
There was always too much pitch from the timpani. We tried covering the head entirely, as well as stuffing things inside it. However, this ended up really getting in the way of the musicians being able to play. The conclusion that we came to, in the spirit of the piece, was that it’s okay if some of the pitch of the timpani comes through. We muted it as much as possible, but we didn’t obstruct the sweet spot in the middle of the timpani, to allow the stick to bounce. It's important that players feel good about still being able to perform, so we made a judgement call and gave up a bit of the ‘muting’ to allow the ‘performing’ to still happen.
How did you select the music for this piece?
It was a combination of considerations. I needed something that the orchestra and conductor could play and that they were familiar with, since it would be an extra challenge to play it muted. Secondly, it needed to be a piece with big, sweeping orchestral gestures. If you try to do this muted piece with something that has a very intricate, chamber-like orchestration, the impact will be lost. Finally, it was best if the piece was recognisable, so that even if I muted the pitch, the effigy or the ghost of the melody would still be there.
Have you received any response from audiences that made you reflect on the work differently?
For me, the most important thing was the musicians’ responses. Before we even showed the work at the Biennale of Sydney, I sent them the full film, which they loved and have been sharing with their friends.
How different is this work compared to your practice as a whole?
My work in the last couple of years has been quite research-heavy. It became very dense in terms of references. But the Muted Situations series as a whole is pretty intuitive. Once I decided on the idea, I just wrote the text scores.
The Sigg Prize exhibition was closed for most of its run due to health measures. How have the past few months made you reflect differently on your work?
I have still been going into my studio and working. I’ve kept my routine, and I keep working through this.
I think the pandemic will make me reflect on my work differently, but right now it’s a bit too soon. We're still in the middle of it. This is something so big that it is bound to leave a mark on anyone’s thinking, regardless of what you’re doing. But at this point I haven’t had enough perspective.
What was your experience of participating in the exhibition, looking back on it all?
It was a pretty relaxed experience. The framework was that you could either choose something that you've done within the last two years, or make something new. Once that decision was made, it was just a matter of adapting the work to the space.
Watch videos interviews with all the shortlisted artists, and online curatorial tours about each work. Learn about how Young uses sound—and removes it—as material. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.