BMW Art Journey: Bells, sounds and battles

Samson Young was the first artist to be selected for the BMW Art Journey. Supported by BMW, the 36-year-old traveled the world with the aim of turning his impressions into art. From this emerged a globe-spanning work on historic conflicts in a diversity of cultures, all united by one thing: their expression in sound.

Hendrik Lakeberg
Samson Young and

Mr. Young, you studied musical composition at Princeton University, but today your work almost exclusively involves a combination of sound and image. How did this come about?
Samson Young: Princeton was very open to anyone who tackled sound and music in very different ways. I benefited from that. The fact that today, I operate more in the field of contemporary art than in the field of music, has evolved over time. Early on, I worked with graphic and media artists; that inspired me to think more and more intensively about music and images in combination. I began to experiment and started to make my own videos to accompany my music. It was a slow process - I didn’t have my first exhibition in a commercial gallery until 2013. That’s really not so long ago.

“It is sound that actually transports us into the midst of events.”

Samson Young

With recording equipment in his luggage, Samson Young traveled around the world. His aim was to document the sound of bells and to capture their cultural symbolism in a work of art.

Do you regard yourself as a composer or as an artist?
Young: I’m not sure that I’m interested in making a distinction between the two disciplines. I learned composition, and naturally that affects the way I see the world. Sometimes I go down that route, but sometimes I try to resist the influence of my training as a composer. It’s probably a perfectly natural urge, the same way as we try to escape the influence of our parents.

As prize-winner of the first BMW Art Journey, you traveled around the world to record the sound of bells, under the working title, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Why bells, and what places did you visit?
Young: Whether it’s the chimes in the tower of the war memorial in Loughborough, England, or the prayer bell of the Kuthodaw pagoda in Myanmar, all the bells I recorded on my trip have a connection with conflict. The title I gave to my journey is appropriate and is taken from Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel set in the Spanish Civil War. For the BMW Art Journey, I mainly chose places that would have been difficult for me to access on my own. For example, it was thanks to BMW’s support that I was able to visit the Hermitage in St. Petersburg outside opening hours. It meant I was virtually alone in the vast museum – and while there, I recorded the sound of the famous Peacock Clock.

Where did you get the idea for the project you completed in the context of the BMW Art Journey?
Young: My last work dealt with the noise of explosions. I find that this sound and the sound of bells have many similarities. Among other things, because of their loudness, both lead to a brief overload of our sense of hearing. And, of course, there is a certain link between bells and explosions: both are often a sign of warlike activities.

Samson Young’s work is typically concerned with war and conflict. This print comes from the “Stanley” exhibition of 2014 and shows the sky over Stanley Beach, a popular vacation venue in Hong Kong. By contrast, the caption refers to someone interned by the Japanese in a camp that existed near that very same beach during the Second World War.

Samson Young at the presentation of his work, “Nocturne.” The output of the Hong Kong-based artist is multifaceted. He often combines sound performances and installations with videos, watercolors or drawings.

Samson Young at the presentation of his work, “Nocturne.” The output of the Hong Kong-based artist is multifaceted. He often combines sound performances and installations with videos, watercolors or drawings.

How did you set about your work on those trips?
Young: Like any traveling landscape artist, I make sketches and jot down musical passages, and I record the sounds of these frequently huge objects under the most varied conditions. The trip took me to five continents, and I now have an archive of sounds, sketches, objects and compositions. The work isn’t finished yet, so I’m still seeking its final form.

What interests you particularly about the sound of bells?
Young: It is harmonically very complex, with many overtones. It also takes a very long time for the reverberation to fade and become completely silent. That fascinates me.

Sound is something very powerful, but at the same time it can have an extremely subtle effect. We normally believe our sense of sight to be more important, yet our hearing is much more crucial than we think. To what extent can sounds tell us things about the world we live in?
Young: I don’t like to romanticize sound, or to separate hearing from seeing, as though the two weren’t connected. That’s a cliché. But I believe hearing has not been sufficiently researched as a way of archiving history. In history writing, for example, the sounds of war are seldom described or recorded. That may be because sound is pure experience that doesn’t convey hard facts. Yet it is sound that actually transports us into the midst of events.

A detailed account of the journey, with numerous recordings, can be found at:

Samson Young’s website, with a survey of his previous projects:

The church of Saint-Martin-sous-Vigouroux in France. The inscription on the bell reads, “I toll for the rich and the poor,” as Samson Young notes in his diary on Soundcloud.