Hubert Burda Media

Yuri Suzuki: Sound Artist with Substance

Sound artist Yuri Suzuki tells us how Swarovski helped bring his eccentric vision to musical reality.

It’s a grey Tuesday afternoon in what sound artist, designer, electronic musician and dreamer extraordinaire Yuri Suzuki describes as the last enclave of the real East London. The cafe-cum-vintage furniture shop he has chosen is mid-century glorious: all colour and curves and a radio playing ’60s tunes. It’s the perfect spot to meet the man best known for quirky musical creations such as “Colour Chasers” and “Ototo”, both of which have been acquired by New York’s celebrated Museum of Modern Art. 

Suzuki’s wondrous sense of play is amply evident in his offbeat pieces. Who else would think to turn a London black cab into a music box? Or make a record in the form of a globe? 

Luxury crystal brand Swarovski clearly saw the Japan-born artist’s potential when the company named him one of its Designers of the Future 2016. To achieve the accolade, Suzuki created Sharevari, a mechanical “crystallophone” sculpture that produces sound through the vibration of Swarovski crystals. As well as being able to play pre-programmed compositions, Sharevari can also be played as a musical instrument thanks to an array of motion-detecting sensors, and visitors to Art Central Hong Kong, which runs on March 21-25 this year, will be able to try out Suzuki’s invention for themselves.

“Each crystal bell has a hitting mechanism,” the artist says. “You can become a conductor, in a way.” Suzuki waves his hands to demonstrate. “With this action,” he continues, “you can create sound. It’s quite simple but effective.”

A video of Suzuki putting the Sharevari through its musical paces can be watched on YouTube. The crystal bells form a semi-circle around him, and they chime with even the most nonchalant flick of his wrist. The tall-standing bells recall Lumière, the enchanted candlestick in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and perhaps that’s not entirely coincidental. Having worked for Disney, Suzuki is an ardent fan of the animation studio. Asked of plans for his upcoming debut visit to Hong Kong, he answers without hesitation: “I really want to check out Disneyland!”

Suzuki with Sharevari – a mechanical sculpture that produces sound through the vibration of Swarovski crystals

In preparation for his trip, Suzuki has been delving into Cantonese culture and, yes, Cantopop. “I’m thinking of composing new music for Sharevari in Hong Kong, and pre-programming it into the instrument,” he reveals. “It’s quite nice to relate it to the on-site location. Like a reflection on the festival.”

Swarovski is an official partner of Art Central for the third year in a row this year, and a long-term commitment to the arts has resulted in the Austrian company hosting exhibitions at Design Miami/Basel and Maison et Objet in Paris, among others. Swarovski’s history of artistic partnerships has also seen it push the boundaries of crystal use beyond the purely decorative.

In discussing the technical challenges of creating Sharevari, Suzuki is quick to credit the engineering team at Swarovski’s headquarters in the small Austrian town of Wattens. “Basically, they had to develop the crystal bells from scratch,” he says. “Swarovski has a lot of dedicated technology to create any shape possible in crystal, but they hadn’t done any work with resonation. This is the first time ever they worked on the acoustic properties of crystal. We were really lucky to find one amazing engineer there, Helmut. He is super-amazing.”

For those whose understanding of crystal’s acoustic properties is limited to the singing-wineglass trick, Suzuki explains the rudiments. “Crystal can make a beautiful sound,” he says. “In the 16th and 17th centuries there were so many crystal instruments, but somehow it all got abandoned. I don’t know why. If you go to a musical-instruments museum, for instance, you can see crystal instruments like the glass harmonica.”

Suzuki suspects that superstition may have been to blame for their disappearance. “I think these kinds of instruments came to be seen as ‘witches’ instruments’ because they have quite an eccentric sound,” he says. “People thought it made you go mad, or that it’s somehow related to magic. I wanted to bring back crystal instruments and combine them with modern technology.”

Speaking of technology, Suzuki ponders the rapid evolution of how we distribute music. “For me, it’s interesting how the medium itself has changed from records to cassette tapes, or CDs. I’ve seen the whole transition from analogue to digital. I find it really interesting to see how the sound quality became better and better, but there was also something missing as well.

Suzuki’s work space

“I do think for sound quality a CD is better than a vinyl [record], but at the same time the behaviour of the listener is totally different. I feel really bad, but when I listen to iTunes, I just keep skipping songs all the time, but if I play a record, I’ll probably listen for 30 minutes on one side without changing anything. There’s something pure about it. For me, it’s much more comfortable to listen this way. It’s meditative.”

Growing up, Suzuki’s father was a big record collector and nurtured his son’s fascination with music and sound. Today, Suzuki cites albums such as Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly and music videos like that of Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” as major influences. “Herbie was quite experimental,” he says. “The video clip for Rockit is really amazing, really strange with lots of robots. Swarovski actually commissioned the artist who created those robots, Jim Whiting, to create an installation at their Wattens headquarters, so for me it’s kind of amazing.” 

Suzuki beams, enjoying a major fan-boy moment, the usual six degrees of separation between him and his idol reduced to merely one: Swarovski. “They have a kind of crystal theme park in there,” he says of his luxury-minded benefactor’s HQ. 

Let’s hope Disneyland doesn’t pale in comparison.