Music is a social bond: a powerful form of common understanding and collective experience. The orchestra, which has its origins in Renaissance Europe, represents a particular communal structure – one that the artist and composer Samson Young understands as an agent of Western hegemony. Or, at least, this one of the themes that emerges in ‘Orchestrations’, his intelligent but cryptic presentation at Connecting Space, the result of a year-long academic research project realized in collaboration with Para Site curator Qinyi Lim and musicologist Giorgio Biancorosso.
‘Orchestrations’ introduces three new works: a video and accompanying publication (both Orchestrations, 2016) and a drawing in Young’s ongoing ‘To Fanon’ series (To Fanon [Leung Chi Cheung], 2016), which are installed alongside an older video and works on paper. On a circular music stand, a select reference library includes: The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650–1815 (2004) by John Spitzer and Neal Zaslaw; Play for Today (2009) on the legacy of British political activist, artist and founder of the Scratch Orchestra, Cornelius Cardew; and Music: Culture, Politics and Performance (2015) by Taiwanese scholar Huang Junming. .
Orchestrations deftly interlaces shots of awkwardly framed interviews – in which the camera lingers on an eye line, an ear or an elbow – with figures from local community orchestras (including Leung Chi Cheung of Yao Yueh Chinese Orchestra and Leanne Nicholls, who founded the City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong) and scenes from various rehearsals. It concludes with footage of the artist conducting a group of whistling teenagers. Together, they improvise sounds with pieces of paper in their mouths, teaching each other via finger pointing and eventually harmonizing. Very subtly – perhaps too subtly – the film underlines the homogenizing power of the orchestra as a form of organization that absorbs all demographics and forms of instrument.
The book opens with Young’s statement: ‘Stop telling me to stop dichotomizing the East and the West. I am not done yet.’ Its militant tone contrasts with the emotional attachment often expressed in the video. Printed in the style of concrete poetry, it mixes sparse paragraphs of personal statements and quotes from the critical theory of postcolonialist thinkers.
Among these, a special place is reserved for Frantz Fanon, whose thinking around the pivotal role of language in cultural, racial and political domination informs Young’s ‘To Fanon’ (2015–ongoing) series. These works comprise musical scores that the artist draws over and stamps with a quote from Black Skins, White Masks (1952): ‘Mastery of language affords remarkable power.’ Here, a new iteration, To Fanon (Leung Chi Cheung), uses one of the conductor’s rehearsal papers, to which Young has added yellows and ochres and annotations, such as ‘Thunderous’ or ‘Crisp like an Asian pear’.
The show contains many voices – quoted philosophers and theorists, authors and historians, the interviewed conductors – and the cacophony threatens to drown out its quieter element: Young’s beautiful ‘Studies for Pastoral Music’ (2014–ongoing). This series of drawings is based on the sounds of historic firearms and artillery (such as the Colt Walker or the Howitzer), which, despite their violent origins, take form as lyrical compositions of colour, shape and text, nodding to Wassily Kandinsky’s belief that combinations of hues are a kind of visual chord.
This fascinating investigation of classical music as an oppressive, colonial imposition demonstrates Young’s impressive proficiency across mediums; and, yet, the exhibition feels unresolved. The artist’s East/West dichotomy doesn’t acknowledge the complex realities of our contemporary globalized society. And while his new film addresses the potential for self-realization and positive transformation that the orchestra can represent for individual musicians and local communities, this position is contradicted in the publication. Ultimately, it seems as though Young’s identification with the show’s many voices has prevented him from fully empowering his own.
First published in Issue 181