Noise has been defined as “unwanted sound” since the Middle Ages. Then in 1931 British physicist George William Clarkson Kaye classified it merely as “sound out place”. We have never been entirely confident about this distinction between noise and sound, though one thing is certain: Sound is essential to us.
Tens of millennia ago, groups of cavemen (and women) apparently communicated with sound as they groped through the darkness, every step or minute scuffle creating cacophony. There are passages of caves in places like Burgundy and the Pyrenees where archaeologists have found examples of cave art when the acoustics seems to be the most intense. The echoes were then like sonar, possibly helping people move around. In the absence of light, chance noise became an important navigational sign, which the ancient inhabitants indicated with markings on the walls. Today researchers are even laboriously re-mapping the dark tunnels, exploring the relationship between the rock art and sound in the depths of the caves.
Yuri Suzuki reminds me of this kind of activity. On his website, Suzuki describes himself as “a sound artist, designer and electronic musician who produces work that explores the realms of sound”. That’s an understatement: He is a playful master of sound esoterica. He is also truly global — Japanese, yet living in London (and Stockholm), and constantly on the move. When PingMag spoke with him, he had just arrived in Pittsburgh from London.
You’re Japanese, but you’ve been living in both Stockholm and London for a while now, right? Why is that?
Actually my time in Stockholm has just finished. I was working for a company called Teenage Engineering, developing musical instruments. At the same time I have a base in London, so that’s why I was in both countries for a while. It’s hard, though, to keep two lives in London and Stockholm.
Well, you haven’t been neglecting your London projects at all. You just worked with Dominic Wilcox on the ‘Sound Matters’ project for the Crafts Council in the UK. In an interview for the exhibition you say you use a “craft method” a lot. What did you mean by that?
Well, the definition of craft is quite vague. But definitely my work is not programming-based. It’s about physicality. The product process is craft, you “make” something. I’m more interested in things you can hold, the tactile.
And the collaboration with Dominic Wilcox is really interesting. He recorded the “sound of making”, collecting the sound of vinyl being made in East London. And then you re-mixed his field recordings. It’s very sociological. It’s like you and Dominic Wilcox are collectors of noise or sound.
Yes, this was interesting because I’m also interested in field recordings. I did a project called ‘The Sound of the Earth’ and this is based on field recordings. This time the Crafts Council commissioned artists to do something and they approached us. Dominic’s travelling a lot in east London and recording a lot of the crafts industry there. I also used to work for a book factory in Japan. If you work in such a place for three or four hours you become addicted to the rhythm of the manufacturing process. And when I listened to Dominic’s recording, there were so many industrial sounds there as well.
Yes, we loved ‘The Sound of the Earth’ as well. It’s a kind of three-dimensional LP player that plays samples recorded from around the globe. Travelling seems very important to your work?
I used to like sticking in one place for a while but after graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2008 I had to travel quite a lot, because projects were not only in the UK. I became bored with sticking in one place. Of course, that gives me lots of inspiration but at the same time, I’m quite tired now from all this non-stop travelling. In the past, recording was also quite difficult because you had to bring a big Dictaphone or cassette tape recorder. But now we have an iPhone and you can record any time you want, so there’s more chance to catch the amazing elements of sound.
I’ve never understood the complicated digital field at all! I use a computer to make work but I don’t know what’s happening inside it. I’m not technical at all! I’ve never understood programming. Like the Famicom [NES], it had such a simple and beautiful way of control. Just the A and B buttons and the joypad, it was super easy. But once they changed it to the Super Famicom and it became super complicated. The buttons almost doubled! I just couldn’t play it anymore, even though I was a child. I’m not really into the complicated things, but rather the primitive things.
I also used to be a DJ. I tried to be a professional DJ when I was 22 and 23. DJs are always talking about which media is better, LP records or CDs or just a computer. I used to collect music on vinyl because I was a DJ. But once I decided to move to Europe, I couldn’t bring any records, so I recorded everything into on MP3 or audio files, and stored it on a hard drive. But once I broke it! I used to have 500GB of music on that hard drive and I lost everything. I then got a fear of losing data. I’m a bit paranoid about it. The reason why I stick with records is quite a physical one. You may once lose electricity, but you can still play it just by turning the disc and with a stylus on top of the grooves.
A lot of your projects seem to use old materials and media. Vinyl is an obvious recurring one (, ‘Sound Chaser’, and so on) but there are also things like drink cans (‘Make Something from Nothing’). Are you interested in recycling old or abandoned things?
Getting inspiration is all about discovery. I’m always looking for possibilities for using materials. But I’m not really into “recycling” things: I think “re-discovery” is the right word. For example, re-discovering old technology that has been abandoned, say like the Fisher-Price PixelVision. You can record on the camera using an audio casette tape. That kind of reverse technology inspires me a lot.
And your work has a real analog and retro feel a lot of the time. Is that deliberate?
I’m not really looking for a retro look but, yes, I’m not so interested in new technologies. The reason why my aesthetic is so retro is because my aesthetic education stopped when I was a child, like at six years old. My parents never gave me manga. Instead, they showed me B-movies or TV programs. For example, they showed me ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘MTV’. I was really aware of that kind of trashy Eighties culture when I was a child.
Well, you say your aesthetic is retro but that doesn’t mean it isn’t forward-thinking. For example, your ‘Ishin-Den-Shin’ project for Disney Research invents a whole new way to communicate through touching other people. It’s super playful but it also works, right?
Yes, it actually works.
We recently published a discussion that took place between Taku Satoh and Yugo Nakamura about design education for kids. So much of your work is playful but also educational in an interactive way. For example, the ‘Denki Puzzle’ or ‘Colour Chaser’ projects. Are you thinking about kids when you design things?
In the beginning I wasn’t really thinking about kids at all but most things ended up a toy. After graduating many galleries and museums asked me to do workshops for children. Now I have almost four years’ experience teaching children! I know what kids are interested in and I think my brain structure doesn’t understand complicated things, just like a kid! Maybe that’s why my work looks like a toy or is more acceptable for children.
Let’s talk about your new book ‘B-side of Onomatopoeic Music’. It’s made in collaboration with Åbäke, Momus, DMX Krew and Tim Hunkin, and is a “visualisation” of your sound work. How did the collaboration come together? And how can a book visualise sound?
The contributors are people I really respect and like. A problem with my work is that it doesn’t work without sound or film. The book doesn’t have any text. The reason why is because I’m not good at writing; I’m dyslexic. So we tried to show the interaction and what happens with my work without any text – we tried to visualise sound. That’s basically the whole concept of the book.
Hmm… intriguing. Lastly, you have an exhibition coming up this September at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Can you tell us about that?
It’s just a short exhibition. They asked me to design something that people can interact with, so I’ll make a series of objects with which people can play with sound. I did a project called ‘White Noise Machine’ before. It’s basically a series of boxes with a speaker inside. When you speak into the speaker, it translates it into something. For example, your voice automatically turns into music. I will design four or five interactive pieces like this where you can actually play around with sound.
Yuri Suzuki, thank you!