What does architecture sound like – a secret or a warm welcome? Playfully and sophisticatedly like no other, artist and Pentagram partner Yuri Suzuki explores the possibilities of sound in communication and design
Yuri Suzuki not only is an amazing sound artist who creates sculptures and installations that let you communicate in a different way, but also a partner at Pentagram London, where he develops distinctive sound identities. And sound also surrounded our conversation between New York and Mexico City: as construction noise was ringing incessantly through the Pentagram office in Manhattan, where Yuri is currently on a project, a mariachi band started playing under my window. But we did not let ourselves be put off and talked about the beauty of rolling waves, about how sound can bring you together, alert you, or take you around the world.
Sound is your main material as an artist and designer. How did it become your medium? Yuri Suzuki: My dad has an unusual amount of records. I remember that already as a child I was introduced to all different kinds of music. Back then, my parents hadn’t realized that I’m dyslexic and sent me to a piano school. But I couldn’t manage the musical scores. That’s why I gave up learning music that way and started with sound because I have a much better understanding through hearing than reading.
Lately, sound has become so popular in design and also in the rest of our lives. You talk to Siri, listen to podcasts and then there are all these electronic inventions getting sounds.
Absolutely. It’s a really exciting moment right now because people are realizing how important sound is. And because of the pandemic with its lockdowns, they’re also much more sensitive about it. At the same time, the field of sound has not been explored much in the design context. There’s no standardized concept about what sound should be, no benchmark or role model. But as sound is much more than all these provocative alarms, notifications, and beeps, I feel quite lucky to work in a field where there’s so much to investigate.
How far can you go? Electric kettles no longer whistle but why do electric cars still sound like cars?
The sound of electric vehicles is a sensitive topic because of safety. We have to design sounds that people recognize as speed. It’s like pavement that lets you hear that someone is behind you on the street. All sounds should have a reason. But what we could try is slowly shifting from an existing car sound to a future one.
You did some research on that topic at Pentagram where you have been a partner since 2018. But how does an artist become a Pentagram partner?
I was quite surprised as well (laughs). I have been so lucky that Pentagram partner Daniel Weil had been a long-time mentor of mine. And one day, he invited me for breakfast and asked me if I wanted to become a Pentagram partner too. First, I couldn’t believe it and also thought that I don’t fit in as an artist. But Daniel convinced me that you have a lot of freedom at Pentagram. And another wonderful thing is, that in my own studio, I never had anyone to discuss my work or develop my creativity with. That totally changed with being at Pentagram and with its unique partnership system.
Collaborating with all the other specialists from different creative fields at Pentagram must be a great experience.
Oh yes. I often collaborate with Emily Oberman in New York because she works a lot for the entertainment industry. She starts with the graphics and we’re influencing each other constantly while developing the identities. It’s always a hundred percent cooperation and I love it.
You also compose sound identities that completely stand on their own like the one for the Dezeen podcast. The briefing said it should communicate ideas of architecture and design. How do you find the right sound for that?
We have focused entirely on the identity of the sound, its DNA, how we call it. It had to sound modern but also prestigious to represent the architecture itself, its history and the great architects and designers you hear in the podcast. We also wanted it to sound more acoustic than electronic. As you never listen to podcasts on hi-fi systems, but always on small speakers or headphones, the sound needed a specific frequency, and we finally chose xylophone and marimba sounds. They keep the frequency in the middle and that’s the best sound you can get from tiny speakers. So, there was a lot of thought behind it (laughs).
Whatever you work on, you say that your design process always has to start subjective and never objective. That’s because sound is the most difficult thing to design. If there are a hundred people in a room and you play a song or a specific sound design, it’s already a huge success if 20 people like it. It’s so much more difficult to meet expectations than it is with graphic design. I think it’s because of the sense itself. Ears are so close to the brain and therefore hearing is much more sensitive. That’s why I mostly start from my subjective view, my knowledge and experience, and then propose it to an audience.
Did that also happen with your work for MUBI? It’s such a unique identity you composed.
Working with the wonderful streaming service MUBI was a real discovery for me. Logic is always important in my compositions, and based on that, I developed a modular style for their identity. But then Efe Çakarel, the CEO of MUBI, who is a very artistic person, had me consider that every beginning of a great film comes with a beautiful sound to open you up. That showed me another, artistic perspective on the beauty of a melody and in the end, we used different sound techniques from film history. We experimented a lot and also used taped music. We bought a tape machine, recorded many different sounds, cut the tapes with scissors, and put them back together. It was like film editing and kind of like creating a movie for the sound.
Is sound always just a tone for you? Or do you also see it as colors or shapes in front of your inner eye?
I don’t imagine much while composing because sound is always about the emotional aspect for me. I think about the harmonies, about making them a bit happier or adding more complexity to the feeling. Sound always affects emotions.
How do you deal with sound in your life in general? Are your ears always wide open?
I’m conscious about sound at all times and I’m lucky that I always have my iPhone with me. If I find something that sounds interesting, I record it. It’s like when others take photos. But sometimes I think that I’m way too considerate about the sounds that are surrounding me, especially noise. That is affecting me way too much.
This morning I submitted the sound from under my window in Mexico City to your amazing art project Sound of the Earth. Could you explain it a little?
Absolutely. Sound of the Earth is almost like my lifetime project because I’ve been working on it since 2009. Being from Japan, I never traveled before I came to England. And I was already 25 back then. But after I graduated from the Royal College of Art, I was very lucky to travel a lot for years (laughs). I think I visited thirty countries, and I was very intrigued about everything. But especially about the languages, the music, and the ambient sound that I started to record then. And this is how the Sound of the Earth came into being.
And it’s a project with three chapters now.
Yes, it’s a journey that started very subjectively with me collecting sound and evolved into an open platform that creates ambient sound and music now. After its start when I recorded sound and used it as material, it developed over time and in 2020, the Dallas Museum of Art commissioned me to create a multisensory Sound of the Earth installation. It lets you hear sound from around the world according to its geographic position. When the pandemic with its lockdowns hit, we turned it into a platform where people could submit and hear sounds captured during that time and feel a connection to the world again. And just now, at the 23rd Triennale Milano, we designed the third chapter in which AI uses the submitted sounds to create collective soundscapes you can choose from.
Another current installation of yours, the sculpture Sonic Bloom in a residential area in Mayfair, London, is also about connecting people, but very analog.
Yes, it’s an acoustic sculpture that encourages you to communicate through it. For me, any public sculpture should have a connection to the area in which it is placed, and it should provide an opportunity to gather and get to know each other better. So you can use the trumpets to talk into them or to hear through them. And it’s really surprising how actively people are using them.
And you can hide your face in the trumpets, and you can even share secrets.
Yes, you can stay anonymous and don’t have to be so shy (laughs).
You often use these trumpet-like mouths. Is the form chosen purely from an acoustic point of view?
There are two aspects. One is a purely functional reason because that shape amplifies the sound and distributes it best. And the second reason is, that through that shape people immediately know how the sculpture works. They don’t have to read any description to understand it. Being dyslexic, I prefer artworks that don’t require a concept that you have to read. That’s why my art projects are always self-explanatory.
And what about the colors? Some of your works are very colorful, others are elegantly black or in a brass tone like the one at Haneda Airport in Tokyo.
That always depends on the surroundings. But I also like to use primary colors because of my dyslexia. With them you can easily make a separation or a connection between different horns. Sonic Bloom is installed in a very quiet area, so we needed a kind of color explosion. The Crowd Cloud at Haneda Airport should express Japanese culture. And already in ancient times, clouds in Japan were depicted in gold or black. The installation should have welcomed people from around the world to the 2020 Olympics with vowel sounds and syllables that are Japanese but at the same time universal. But sadly, there was still the pandemic.
What do you think about the future of sound? Will new technologies change your work?
In terms of the composition process, artificial intelligence and machine learning have been helpful. Not only in making music, but also in helping you find new music. Through the algorithms, so many suggestions are coming in. Because of that our listening behavior will change. I think at some point, we won’t choose a specific artist or song anymore.
But isn’t this a sad thing?
Yes, of course. That way, the musicians lose their individuality and it’s already happening. On TikTok, a new generation is already listening to music that is only ten seconds long. That will make it very difficult for musicians in the future, I think.
You are using AI yourself, but you said that you would never start a creation with it because it should always remain a tool.
Automatically generated music still needs so much human assistance to make it good music. You always need a selection and also the instrumentation arrangement is much more complicated than digital composition. You can use AI as a tool, but it is not relevant for the creation process yet. But that might have changed in five years (laughs)
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