Three ring circuits
Samson Young tells Maddie Gressel about falling pianos and barking dogs in his latest madcap production
Circus & Spectacles
Imagine you’re in a performance theatre. To your left, a violist plays a series of notoriously difficult Paganini pieces… while suspended in mid-air. To your right, a fire-breathing juggler furiously throws his balls in the air. Crashing towards you, a ‘technological monster specimen’ wearing a leotard covered in interconnected iPods. Then a dog barks. And, suddenly, an upright piano falls from the sky. It’s chaos.
Who could possibly create such a stunningly surreal scene but Samson Young, Hong Kong’s most prolific multimedia artist? His newest performance piece, Circus & Spectacles, is a multi-layered collaboration with two friends and former collaborators, the German ‘performance technologist’ Chris Ziegler, creator and operator of an iPod-covered-and-operated bodysuit system, and the violist virtuoso William Lane, who will spend the performance precariously suspended from the ceiling.
Young is shifty when discussing the act because he’s firmly committed to maintaining the element of surprise. But the glimpses he does afford into the clockwork of the spectacle are enticing and slightly bemusing. The team refers to the performance as a ‘musical-technological-mechanical spectacle’, which seems to be a pretty literal description of what we can, and should, expect. Young warns audiences about what they might see: “The tone is really ridiculous. A lot of nonsensical things will happen in that theatre. There will be constant visual and sonic stimuli but this constant bombardment is a way to get you to think about certain things.”
Young conceived Circus & Spectacles as a way to explore questions he’s been asking since his schooling. From watching the performance, you might not guess he is a classically trained musician-turned-composer. “I’ve told this story so many times,” he says, laughing. “But when I first applied to college, I wanted to be a double bass performance major. I sucked at playing the bass at that point – well, I still suck, but I was really bad then. At the audition they said ‘we can’t take you in as a performer but we saw your portfolio, and you’re actually a talented composer’.”
Following his training, Young received his PhD in music composition from Princeton University, a liberal cross-disciplinary programme with particularly close ties to the Computer Science Department, and that’s where he began to meld music and technology into the sort of madcap multimedia pieces he’s known for today. The programme was a total revelation to Young, who began to question many of the assumptions implicit in his classical music training.
“People in the programme were doing all kinds of weird shit,” he laughs. “It was eye-opening because it made me realise that composers can do so much more than just write music. If you’re a choreographer, no-one questions your control over the lighting and the costumes but in classical music, the division of labour is quite rigid. The composer writes music, which then gets played in this very sterile, standardised concert space. I think my biggest breakthrough was to reject this assumption and try to think about everything that happens in the concert space.”
Young began to experiment – with technology and new media on one hand, and with theatrics and performance on the other. In one early performance, a cellist is seen playing on stage. Young then saunters out dressed as a Teletubby. The two then start playing ping-pong, the cellist with his cello and Young with a music stand. “That was quite naïve,” says Young. “But fun.”
The result of these experiments is Young’s critical stance against the formality of the concert hall, which makes up the philosophical basis of Circus & Spectacles. “What I always enjoy the most when I go to classical music concerts is watching the choreography of the musicians. In the institution of the concert hall, there’s this expectation that the performers be in total and utter control of their bodies. But I find it infinitely more gratifying to watch a performance with imperfections.”
In Circus & Spectacles, Young deliberately stages the failures that he thinks make a performance worth watching. He drew on his knowledge of each performer’s strengths and weaknesses to push them to their personal limits. For example, he knew that the Paganini violin pieces would be nearly impossible for Lane to perform on the viola – let alone in mid-air.
Young demands that performers offer no less than their humanity on a platter – but he cheerfully offers his own, and that’s part of what makes him so compelling to watch. At one point in the performance, Young will continuously spin a wheel for 45 minutes straight − culminating in the show’s secret denouement. Young says: “The essential question is: can we stage the failure of performance with some actual satisfaction on the audience’s part? Like in the circus, when a clown slips and everyone laughs! These moments are genuinely very gratifying. If I’m asking about the body at work and about the relationship between virtuosity and failure, then the circus is really the perfect metaphor.”
Kwai Tsing Theatre, Friday 16- Sunday 18. Tickets: urbtix.hk 2111 5999