Samson Young in Conversation with András Szántó

As we speak, you are just about to set out on the first phase of your journey, which will take you to Burma, various European cities, then Morocco, Kenya, and Australia – all in search of bells. What is it about bells that fascinates you?

There are really many things. I actually hit upon the topic of bells quite naturally following on from my last project. I was thinking about how, before industrialization, the only manmade items able to make a sound louder than the sounds of nature would have been weapons, such as cannons, and bells. Before the dawn of machines, we had only these two classes of objects able to make loud noises.

This is common across cultures – it’s the same for Europe, China, Japan, all kinds of places. Each culture has its own use and form for bells. China has ritual bells, and of course, bells are very important in Buddhism. In Europe, bells call to prayer. There are secular bells used to mark time. And bells also spread through missionaries and via conquest. Different cultures have adopted bells for different purposes. In Buddhist temples, bells are rung in a certain way, while the British came up with their own form of bellringing.

Despite this diversity, as a physical object, bells retain a common form. They all look somewhat similar, and that has to do with acoustic science. There is a good way to make a bell draw out the nuance in the object. I find this very interesting.

What does a bell, as a metaphor, mean to you personally?

For me, a bell creates a kind of “information overload.” There are certain sounds that our ears cannot fully comprehend in the moment. An explosion is another example of that kind of sound. The sound of a bell is so complex that you can listen to it several times and each time it means something else to you.

If you get a recording of a bell, put it through the computer and look at the spectrogram of the sound, it has so many complex harmonics. Your ear cannot help but draw information from it while you are listening . You’ll hear something different every time. Which is remarkable, as the sound of a bell lasts for only a few seconds, but by listening repeatedly, you discover more. The other interesting thing about the sound of a bell is that, in your mind, you can delay the reverberation – you imagine it carries on for longer than it actually does. It is a perfect metaphor for the fact that something immensely physical is, in fact, psychological. It is a physical vibration, but really it is a kind of hallucination if you think about it.

*You are a composer as well as an artist, and the way you talk about all this is clearly informed by your professional study of sound and its cultural history. How do these two things connect?**

I don’t know whether I am really conscious of that split creative personality, as it were. What I am interested in is how my musical training structured my world and allows me to see and hear the world in a certain way. By being conscious of this, I try to work against it but also use it as a springboard.

The duality of the bell as a sound and also an object is clearly a fascination of yours.

Bells are such beautiful physical objects that sometimes that’s what we focus on. But what my musical training has given me is this enhanced attention to the way the sound actually spreads, and how the sounds that bells produce become this network of relations. I really think of bells both as stationary physical objects and something fluid and dynamic that draws communities in – something that spreads out and gathers, calling together individuals in a community, just by virtue of the sound being heard in its vicinity.

Describe your process when you come in direct contact with a bell.

So, for example, when I listen to a bell, I will try to listen to its color, and I’ll listen to the volume. Then I’ll try to translate those qualities into shapes and notations. Some things can only be dealt with in shapes, such as the color of the sound and the shape of its reverberation – these cannot be notated accurately, you have to use your imagination and invent a system. Then with things like the pitch of the sound itself, I can record the sound and feed it through a computer analysis program to look at the pitch content, which I note more accurately.

I also like to break things down into phases. For instance, there is a first phase when the bell rings, then a second when it resonates. So it is a combination of metaphorical and inaccurate shapes, plus metaphorical representation.

How did the project “For Whom the Bell Tolls” take shape in your mind?

The initial point of departure was this idea, this connection between bells and cannons. Then, as I was drafting my proposal for the Art Journey, I started to become very aware of the appropriateness of bells as a way to make a journey, as a point of focus for a journey. As I mentioned before, bells cross cultures and history. They have a long history across many religions and are mentioned a lot in literature. There are numerous references to bells in poetry and works of fiction, which I also refer to on this journey. And the sound of bells, of course, has a history in music, spanning Western classical orchestral music to ancient court music in China.

So it really gives me this incredible opportunity to go from fiction to reality, history to current affairs. When I was thinking of travel, I wasn‘t just thinking of travel to distant places, but I was thinking of traveling, really, in time, through stories and in ideologies. That, to me, is very fruitful.

Then I had to narrow down the topic somewhat. What I have been focusing on over the past few years has been the idea of conflict. So I started with one thing that blew up into this huge project, almost too big to manage, which I then narrowed down into one personal fascination that I have been working with.

Where will this journey lead?

A lot of the bells are in places outside of Asia. I did this deliberately because I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to go to places which would not otherwise be accessible to me – either because it would be too costly or because the bells are in collections hard for individual artists to negotiate access to. After this art journey, I will be in a position to see bells in China myself. This process is just the beginning. I will probably work on this for years and years. The bells have to do with conflict and they have to be far away or inaccessible – these are the criteria that shape my choices.

Give me some examples of an iconic bell that you plan to investigate, and the complexity and meanings surrounding it?

The focus of this project is to think about “for whom these bells toll .” In Australia, I found a bell in Darlington Point, a very small town in New South Wales. In 1880, an English pastor set up a Christian mission there, intended to serve the Aboriginal community as a way of raising their standard of living, and to provide them with necessities and an education. Unlike many other missionaries at that time, who despite their good intentions were actually implicated in a lot of violence and aggression toward the Aboriginal community, this particular pastor – at least according to archival documents – really did a lot to improve the life of the local indigenous people. But then the Australian government of the time forcefully disbanded the mission, as it was thought the mission was encouraging Aboriginal Australians to get together on a regular basis, which the government saw as a threat.

That mission had a bell, which was then put into storage. Afterward, the Australian government moved in and had the children forcibly adopted by white Australians as part of the White Australia policy at the time. The mission bell was reinstalled in another church in Old Arlington Point – now quite a suburban area – where it remains in use today. So this bell now rings for a very different community, and this is not a history that is mentioned that often.

I got in touch with the reverend of the church, and am going to record the bell and interview the reverend. She is also going to put me in touch with descendants of individuals whose lives were touched by that English pastor. This is in a town located six hours by car from Sydney. It’s a good example of the kind of research I can do on this journey.

Your process involves extensive research. Tell me a bit more about how you actually go about analyzing these bells.

I will visit foundries and learn about casting. I have also been learning about bells from Eastern Europe which were stored in Germany after the war and subsequently returned to Eastern Europe. Just today, I received a note from a museum home to a bell archive. They have a very extensive record of where bells had been returned to, and their archives also contain fragments of some of the bells that were destroyed. I am hoping they might allow me to do either a cast or a 3D scan of these fragments. I am not yet sure what I will do with them. You can now do 3D scans with your iPad, so I will scan the fragments.

There is another bell in Kenya, the slave-trading bell in Mombasa. I got in touch with the National Museum and they have a cast of this bell, which, again, I hope to scan when I am there. I can produce many different things from 3D scans, but they lend themselves to the production of objects. I am not sure how I will then present it.

One of the things you have in mind for after you complete this journey is to create a musical work with the bell sounds. Can you tell me more about that?

For that project, I want the orchestra to become an extension of the very complex reverberation of these bells. I am going to have all these recordings of bells and produce a multi-channel electronic sound piece with these recordings. But the ring of a bell only lasts for a couple of seconds, so I want the orchestra to draw out the bells’ reverberation and decay. It goes back to what I was talking about, the idea of hearing as a form of hallucination.

When you listen to a concert of, say, piano music, at the end of the piece, the musician often holds the last reverberation of sounds, and holds their posture, with the sustaining pedal down. And as long as the pianist holds their posture, you can almost here that decay going on forever, on and on and on, until they stand up to receive the applause. And that is a beautiful moment, because you can never tell when that musical moment will recede. Your imagination has become engaged. That is very interesting to me, and bells have that same quality. That is what I will seek to capture in this piece. I want to use the orchestra as a canvas to extend the sound. It will probably be quite minimal, but also lush and complex.

Has travel always been part of your artistic practice? What has it meant for you, and what do you think travel brings, in general, to the story of art?

Going to different places for a singular purpose has always been a part of my work. I did a piece earlier where I walked the border between Hong Kong and China. This idea of going to places as a way of collecting material and to complete a line or a system is something I have always been interested in. I see this project as an extension of that. Of course, I have never traveled this far and wide.

Another thing that interests me in terms of travel is that there is always the idea of the traveling landscape artist who goes to different places and does sketches of the landscape. There is a history in that. I was thinking to myself: What is the equivalent of that for a sound artist? I guess that is what I am doing: Going to different places and producing sketches of the aural landscape. I am sort of sketching the sound of landscape, in a way.

As an Asian artist who trained in the US, how do you expect this journey will change your perception of the world and of your work as an artist?

This is really very important for me as a project – the scale of it is something I have never attempted before. Although it is a big step up for me in terms of size, it is also quite organic. I am extending the themes and concerns I have been working with previously. This is the most international and the largest scale project I have ever attempted.

The projects I have worked on before have been very geographically specific. Many of them focused on Hong Kong, or wherever I was living at the time. This is the first where I have taken a more global view. Of course, each location has its own micro-narrative. But the scope is universal. That is something new to me, and I’m really enjoying the challenge. It also allows me to enter into a conversation with the works of many artists who have explored related themes before.

If there were a single overarching question that you are trying to answer though this journey, what would it be?

I want to find out how sound draws people in and draws the world in, and, at the same time, how it manages to keep the world at arm’s length.

By looking at issues which are common but universally important, I am able to take a stance that is both intimate and has a certain objectivity. That’s why I need to look at these issues through sound, and that’s what makes my work unique. Now all these ideas can come together.
Who is using these bells? Why are they still being made? As soon as you ask these questions, they become very intimate. You can almost hear the histories.

New York – Hong Kong, July 2015