Interview: Samson Young's iPhone orchestra in Hong Kong

Interview: Samson Young's iPhone orchestra in Hong Kong

The hauntingly beautiful sounds of Hong Kong's first iPhone orchestra show how technology can allow all of us to make music

Samson Young's "iPhone orchestra" performed in Hong Kong last weekend as part of the Hong Kong & Shenzhen Bi-city Biennal of Urbanism\ Architecture.

Apart from being yet another reason the iPhone is still buzz-worthy despite sexier phone models cropping up (such as the Google Nexus One), the iPhone orchestra is also an exercise in the liberation of music-making. Students at Stanford and Michigan Universities have previously attempted to create an iPhone orchestra, but the iPhone orchestra in Hong Kong is the first to be opened to anyone with an iPhone. An open call for musicians started two months prior to the performance.

This liberation of the non-specialists has already happened in dance, theatre and in visual arts a very long time ago ... music is coming to this sort of dynamic very late in the game. — Samson Young, composer

The video above shows Young, the conductor, leading the 'musicians' through a music score of matrix notations. Many have never played music before, but using the iPhone applications Melodicafree, Nlog Free Synth, Kalimba Free and Satori, they were able to put on a great performance at the West Kowloon venue for the Bi-city Biennale.

Young tells us more about his thoughts on the iPhone orchestra in Hong Kong:

CNNGo: Why iPhones?

Samson Young:
During my graduate years at Princeton I took part in the world's first laptop orchestra, then led by fellow graduate student Ge Wang who started the world's first iPhone orchestra. He was definitely an inspiration for me and nothing like that has happened in Asia yet so I thought, why not start one here?

Apart from the obvious novelty of it all, iPhones and laptops are actually very similar in that they have built-in gesture detection (touch pad, touch screen), which means that a musician could use those features as a musical interface wired up to computer software, making it possible for those with absolutely no musical training to perform music in an ensemble setting.

This is something that was not possible until the last couple of years, and I think it is very liberating. It means in the future perhaps musical performance in a group setting would not be the elitist affair that it is now.

CNNGo: What is your reaction to the resulting performance?

I was very impressed by how musical our musicians were. With only 30 minutes of rehearsal time, as you could tell from the video, the sonic result was actually already quite interesting. I am convinced that a lot of us are in fact very musical, we just need to make the instruments easy enough for people to play without requiring years of training, so that people can focus on the making of music.

iPhone in Hong KongSamson YoungCNNGo: So music should be made by everyone and anyone?

I think the traditional mode of music production should be preserved, particularly in the context of the classical music tradition where my roots are. There is something very precious about the years of devotion to the craft of music-making, from my own experience.

But that is only one of the many ways music and sound can be made. The violin is an instrument, the voice is an instrument, and if the iPhone makes sounds too why couldn't it also be an instrument? Of course, it's not fair to put an iPhone up against a violin at this point because the violin has had hundreds of years to perfect itself and its performance practice, while the iPhone is only a couple of years old.

That said, I see technology enabling non-specialists to finally take a significant role in serious music-making. This liberation of the non-specialists has already happened in dance, theatre and in visual arts. Nobody is going to give you a hard time for being a somewhat conceptual artist who couldn't paint a realistic self-portrait, but music is coming to this sort of dynamic very late in the game.

I don't think traditional music-making will die out, but in the same way that downtown and non-specialist theater has revitalized contemporary theater, non-specialist music-making can only be a good thing for everybody.

Samson Young was part of our Hong Kong Hotlist: 20 people to watch.

After traveling around the world on a fistful of dollars, Zoe returns to Hong Kong, where she grew up, to discover and write about all the inspiring stuff that happens here on a daily basis.

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