Interview: Samson Young

The sound artist (and the first BMW Art Journey recipient) on bells and explosions

The only bells I hear on a regular basis are of the synthetic (and semi-annoying) kind: the preset “Chimes” and “Bell Tower” iPhone alarms signaling that morning has come. Not so easy to snooze or block out, however, are physical bells. With each strike, the bell’s ringing extricates itself from the ambient noise, soaring through the air, jolting attentions and uniting those within its audible reach. Artist Samson Young, like many, cannot resist the bell’s hypnotic, powerful impact—something he’s exploring in his on-going project “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” started in 2015. As the first recipient of the BMW Art Journey—a joint initiative with Art Basel offering emerging artists the opportunity to travel almost anywhere—Young searched for bells across five continents last year, from Cantal, France (where in the past, they believed bells could chase off thunderstorms) to Mombasa, Kenya (on the heels of a missing “slave trader warning bell”). Recording not just the bells’ ringing but their context and stories, Young also translated these into visuals (“drawing sound” has been a defining part of his work, resulting in nontraditional musical scores that incorporate color, for example) and will be creating compositions from the material. We asked Young a few questions to learn more about this unusual, travel-heavy work-in-progress—and how he finds bells and explosions to be similar.

Where does the fascination for bells stem from?

I landed on the topic of bells quite naturally from my last project, which was about weapons and explosions. I was thinking about how, before industrialization, the only things that could make a sound that is louder than the sounds of natural phenomena would have been weapons and bells. Before machines, we had only these two classes of objects that could make loud noises.

This deep connection between weapons and bells is common across cultures—same for Europe, China, Japan, all kinds of places. Each culture has its own use and form of bells. We have ritual bells in China. Bells in Buddhism are, of course, very important. In Europe, bells call to prayer. There are secular bells, used to mark time. Bells also spread through missionaries and via conquest. Different cultures adopt bells for different purposes. In Buddhist temples, bells are rung one way, and the British invented another way to ring them. But the physical object of the bells retains a common form. They look kind of the same. And that has to do with how acoustic science works. I find this to be very interesting.

What do you note and listen for in your bell sound sketches? Do the differences between the bells (tuning, location, religion, history, etc.) matter to you as much as simply their emotional impact?

[The] sound of [a] large bell, for me, is a kind of information overload. There are certain sounds which our ears cannot fully comprehend in the moment. For example, an explosion is another sound like that. If you get a recording of a bell and put it through the computer and look at its spectrogram, it has so many complex harmonics. It’s just too complex and your ear cannot help but drop information when you are listening in real time. So every time, you hear something different. That is fascinating, because the sound of a bell lasts only for a split section, like the sound of an explosion. But, by listening repeatedly, you discover more. The other interesting thing about the sound of bell is that in your mind, you can delay its reverberation—you imagine it goes longer than it actually does. It is a perfect metaphor for the fact that something immensely physical is, in fact, psychological. It is a kind of hallucinating if you think about it.

You not only record the sound of the bells ringing, but also each bell’s “context”: be it nuns chanting at the Buddhist temple or a French woman singing a folk song. What is the significance of this?

The physical object of the bell is so beautiful that you sometimes focus on it. But what my musical training has given me is this enhanced attention to the way the sound actually spreads, and how the sounds bells produce becomes this network of relations. I really think of bells as a physical object, as something that stands still, but also as something fluid and dynamic. Something that draws communities in. Something that spreads, and gathers, and implicated individuals in a community, just by virtue of the sound being heard in the vicinity of it.

Why was the aspect of travel crucial to this project?

The initial point of departure was this idea, this connection between bells and the sounds of explosions. 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 they are mentioned a lot in literature. There are numerous references to bells in poetry, in works of faction, which I also refer to in this journey. And the sound of bells, of course, has a history in music, used in orchestral music in western classical music as well as, for example, ancient court music in China. So it really gives me this incredible possibility to go from faction to reality, from 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 productive. Then I had to narrow down the topic somewhat. What I have been focusing on in 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 narrowed down with one personal fascination that I have been working with.

As you were the first recipient of the BMW Art Journey award, I’m curious to know what their support involved, and what future applicants can expect.

BMW provided the necessary funds to achieve the research—but more importantly perhaps they really went out of their way to connect me with individuals and organizations, and opened up possibilities that otherwise wouldn’t have been accessible to me as an individual artist. For example, through their arrangement I was able to make a clean recording [of] the Great Peacock Clock at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg after the museum’s opening hours.

Listen to Young’s up-to-date archive for “For Whom the Bell Tolls” on Soundcloud, where he also logs his travels in extended track descriptions. View the shortlist for the next BMW Art Journey online; the three artists/artist duos are currently writing their travel proposals, one of which will be selected in February 2016.

Images courtesy of BMW Art Journey