Machines for Noise


10 February 2017

Yuri Suzuki describes himself as a sound artist, designer and electronic musician. His approach to sound is unique: focusing on the notion that sound design might function as more than an element of industrial design, and actually become a form of industrial design in and of itself.

In 2004, Suzuki moved from Japan to the UK, and two years later he enrolled on the Royal College of Art's Design Products MA. Following graduation in 2008, he founded his eponymous studio, now based in a former industrial space on the Regent’s Canal, east London. Suzuki’s practice is diverse: products for giant corporations including Google, Panasonic and Disney are balanced with site-specific sound installations. In 2015, for instance, Suzuki created an Acoustic Pavilion in a Le Corbusier-designed modernist church, and in 2013 for London Design Festival he created Garden of Russolo, a series of machines installed inside the V&A that play with noise. In 2014, New York's MoMA acquired two of Suzuki's works to its permanent collection.

This year, seven years after prototyping, Suzuki will launch the Colour Chaser as a piece of commercial product design. Colour Chaser comprises a series of miniature vehicles that detect and follow a hand-drawn black line. Each time the vehicle rolls over a coloured mark, drawn at right angles across the line, it makes a sound whose pitch is determined by the mark's colour, which is detected as RGB data. Colour Chaser has been picked up by Hexaproject, a Japanese non-profit that plans to mass produce the design in collaboration with the toy manufacturer Cube‐Works. In that sense, the project is significant for Suzuki: it could, in principle, become the most mainstream project that his practice has ever launched.

For Disegno #13, the latest issue of the magazine, Suzuki was the subject of a profile piece, written by John L. Walters. Below, Disegno is delighted to share an edited transcript from one of the interviews that formed the basis of the article.

You grew up at a time when music was being democratised. Those who were perhaps unable to read music were suddenly able to produce it using electronic instruments. Do you have a techno-nostalgia for that period?

I used to be in a band but I grew tired of the cooperative aspect; people playing together. I was instead seeking music that I could create myself. Electronic instruments used to be expensive, but that was a transitional time for things becoming cheaper. The second‐hand market was taking off and you could discover so much in the music shops. I’m a designer, so I’m always looking at the aesthetic of equipment – that time saw so much movement between design, sound and interface. Even now, I’m quite geeky about the aesthetic of consoles and equipment. An interface should always be intriguing; if it looks nice then I want to buy it.

It's interesting that your practice explores ways of materialising sound, almost as if you're presenting sound as a piece of culture.

I’m not only interested in sound itself. The cultural context intrigues me a lot. Jeremy Deller is someone I respect a lot and he’s using sound in a cultural context. Jeremy is always talking about acid house, but is presenting it as an industrial part of things. It’s protesting culture under Margaret Thatcher, a bit like under Theresa May now where everything is upside down.

Your practice sets a really interesting precedence, not only for designers working with sound, but also people looking at the connection between physical objects and digital interface. How do you take something that is bodiless like music, and that could be alienating and difficult, and present it in a way that it is graspable and has an element of physicality?

To produce music, you used to need equipment and a studio, whereas now you can do everything in the computer. But in spite of that technological advance, there is still a human need for physicality. A recent trend for most music manufacturers is that they’ve started to make physical interfaces. Humans need something physical and tactile. It’s not just about clicking, it’s about touching. So, one side of my priorities is importing physicality to sound. I am dyslexic so bringing physicality into sound is interesting. When I started to think about the definition of sound design, I realised that sound design tends to be limited to sound effects within film. Understanding the physical format of sound is important in terms of communication with a user, so that’s what leads to my interest: how do you physicalise an invisible element?”

Colour Chaser seems a really good example of that in the sense that it blends the audible with a strong visual quality. It also captures a sense of whimsical delight in what can be achieved. Can you explain the thinking around that project?

Colour Chaser came from my experience. I didn’t realise until I got to the RCA, when I had an assessment, that I had dyslexia. I have a lot of passion for making and playing music, but the biggest difficulty was always reading a musical score. I’ve always thought about how musical notation doesn’t have any physicality, which makes it difficult for me. Music is quite playful and fun. It can be something quite cute. In Japan music is called 'Ongaku'. ‘Ong’ means sound and ‘gak’ means playing, such that the meaning of music is ‘playing with sound’. I always related to that. With Colour Chaser, it’s about bringing the fun elements of a toy into notions of musical notation.

There is a recurring notion of legibility in your work. It strikes me that there is always a commitment to find a very graphical way of showing something that could otherwise come across as technologically inaccessible. Why is legibility such a priority?

My brain is structured such that it cannot think of anything complicated which is why my projects are easy and direct to understand. I always argue with my girlfriend because I try to find clear definitions from complicated matter. In any aspect. Politics for instance. It’s the same with programming, I need a clear and simple way to understand in any context. That’s why I only understand things through a simple method, which is why my projects are direct to understand as a format. I always want to find clear definitions because I feel that systems shouldn’t be complicated. They have to be translated into something approximating a human language.

You have quite a complicated practice in terms of the diversity of the work you produce. There’s product design, installations, consultancy work and you work with corporations on the scale of Google, as well as much smaller and more independent organisations. Why have you cultivated this approach?

I feel quite Japanese in that I’m greedy. I want to bite many different things. Design crossing with art, interaction design, installation design, consultancy. My mentality is like a bento box, with a lot of different elements that I want to experience within one practice. Before coming to London I researched the Japanese aesthetic and Japanese gardens, taking up a lot of elements from all over Japan and putting them into one space. Also, another element is Japanese tourism. You visit all of Europe in one week. It’s totally crazy. Two hours for each destination. It’s important to be dedicated to a single project sometimes. But my approach means that I can generate a lot of ideas and then have the space to take them in whatever direction I please. I want to experience many different things within one practice.

I know you are interested in the definition of sound design. Do you have any reflections on why sound design is not more prevalent and why there is a resistant to it?

Sound is so immediate, which means that we don’t have a strong tendency to identify it as design. People focus on music or harmony instead, so how can we identify whether something is good sound design or not? What are the criteria? If we’re going to talk about sound design, then we need to identify clear effects. For example, if people listen to the same sound over and over again they become annoyed with the repetition. Psychologically how does sound effect us? Babies cry, but it's a white noise sound. I’ve never seen a book offering a definition and I’ve been looking for one and a half years. Sound is much more important than any other perspective in a way. But it’s totally invisible so people don’t notice or make it a priority. Yet, in your day-to-day life, for most people sound is one of the most significant elements.