Yuri Suzuki's Different Dimension of Sound Design
Throughout his varied career as an artist, designer and electronic musician, YURI SUZUKI has kept an unwavering focus on the interactivity of sound. He spoke with LOUDER about innovating at the intersection of design, technology and audio.
From sound installations for some of the world’s greatest museums to DIY musical instruments, his creations often combine intricate design with maximum accessibility.
“My practice is social engagement through sound,” Suzuki explains. “I focus on the experiential side of things.”
This could mean fashioning a horn sculpture that uses artificial intelligence to learn from singalongs with museum visitors, making a consumer-ready record lathe enabling anyone to cut their own vinyl discs, or crowdsourcing audio so people can express themselves during the lockdowns of the coronavirus pandemic.
Suzuki initially studied industrial design in Japan and looking back, it’s now easy to see that influence across his entire body of work. In the years since moving to London to attend the Royal College of Art, he has established himself as one of the world’s leading visionaries working at the intersection of design, technology and sound.
“In the beginning I wanted to be musician, but I eventually found out that I’m dyslexic,” he explains. “In 2002, I moved to Berlin to be a DJ. But that didn’t work out either. There was a totally different vibe there with minimal techno and tech-house.”
Decamping to London, however, proved to be a turning point for him. Suzuki found the perfect environment to experiment at the Royal College of Art. “It was a nice playground. I did a lot of interactive projects there,” he says.
While figuring out how to connect the digital and analog worlds in new ways, he also learned to deftly navigate between artistic and commercial projects.
Besides exhibiting at MoMA, Tate Modern, Barbican and Tokyo’s Museum of Modern Art, he has developed audio innovations in partnership with Google, Korg, Teenage Engineering and Moog. But as diverse as his endeavors may be, Suzuki is always searching for new ways to interpret and convey the sounds around us.
“We have so many opportunities to design sound these days, because many objects are losing their physicality,” says Suzuki, referring to the rapid digitalization of many areas of society. “It’s a very exciting time.”
A prime example of this transformation? His team has started developing sonic signatures for electric cars, which could endanger pedestrians since they are considerably quieter than vehicles with traditional combustion engines.
Yet music will always remain a key focus for Suzuki, who has collaborated with a diverse selection of high-profile artists over the years: He built mechanical sculptures able to perform will.i.am’s song “Dreamin’ About the Future” for one installation and created a bespoke drum machine for Detroit techno legend Jeff Mills using the guts of an old Roland TR-909 for another.
Hardware has always played a central role in his approach toward music, which makes sense, considering his abiding interest in people’s interaction with sound.
“Humans need inspiration through tactile touch. You can do anything you want with software. But people have been missing the physical component for a long time,” he explains. “For the last 20 years, it was all production inside the computer. In the last decade, there’s been more companies making stuff on the hardware side. You need a balance.”
As to be expected, Suzuki’s production process varies greatly according to the project at hand. “It really depends on the brief. We have conceptual requirements that have to fit a specific sound or design,” he says.
But when it comes to his own music, he prefers an almost random approach: “I use a lot of hardware like the Roland 303 and 909. I rely on a drum machine. I’m kind of designing sound on that. It’s all about coincidence and making an amazing melody or finding a phrase – a happy machine accident.”
Unsurprisingly, he brought that same sense of discovering new sonic possibilities to his duties as a curator for Shure24, a platform highlighting the people pushing the boundaries of audio culture.
Suzuki’s list of nominees for Shure24 ran the gamut from the all-female punk band Otoboke Beaver to the “pajama pop” duo Lullatone. He also picked the technology studio Counterpoint, which helped him create an updated AI-supported version of the Electronium, a legendary music composition machine dreamed up by the visionary inventor Raymond Scott.
“He was a pioneer of electronic music,” says Suzuki. “He wanted to make a machine that could collaborate together with humans to make music.”
Highly complex and requiring specialist knowledge to operate fully, the Electronium is in many ways the polar opposite of Suzuki’s own forays into instrument building. Take, for instance, the immediately accessible and fun OTOTO, a pocket-sized synthesizer that turns everyday objects like houseplants and glasses of water into conductive triggers. Homemade instruments cobbled together from carboard and aluminum foil, a stationary bike wired up as a beat machine, or a crowd balloon orchestra – the means of interacting with little black and white box are limited only by the imagination of its users.
“For me, it’s all about communication through sound,” Suzuki says. “And the possibility of playability.”
For an expanded interview on sound design with Yuri Suzuki, head over to our friends at Ableton here.
Images: Yuri Suzuki