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Bringing The Noise: Yuri Suzuki's Sonic Bloom
Aida Amoako , August 28th, 2021 09:07

The Margate-based sound artist is trying to disrupt London's newfound silence, writes Aida Amoaka

Picture: Alberto Balazs

You can see Sonic Bloom (2021) from the street as you approach Brown Hart Gardens in Mayfair. The top of it peeks out a little from behind the dome-shaped pavilion at the eastern end of the former electricity substation: a bright structure against a typically overcast sky. Tubes in primary colours – red, yellow, and blue – rise up from a central column before sprouting outwards into acoustic horns which make the sculpture look like a flower in mid-bloom. Designed by Margate-based sound artist and designer Yuri Suzuki, Sonic Bloom, which opened to the public on August 23, is a multi-sensory interactive installation which invites visitors to consider the relationship between human interaction and sound.

It feels inevitable that public art created during this time will have some kind of Covid-related lens held up to it. Suzuki’s work, curated by the creative network Alter-Projects, was conceived before the pandemic but as has been the case for so many other works, the quarantines, lockdowns and social distancing measures have added new layers of meaning. In the early days of the pandemic, it was not just the emptiness of public spaces that was fascinating, it was the silence too. The city was without its usual soundscape, and as we moved inside, our relationships with sound altered as well. Speaking to Dezeen in 2020, Suzuki suggested that “people have become more sensitive to noise” during the pandemic, far more acutely aware of disruption, in particular.

Sonic Bloom’s inherent optimism seems to shrug at the awkwardness of the reopening of the country, designed with social distancing measures in mind for the public to hang around a while in a public space, rather than merely pass through it. The Friday before the sculpture officially opened to the public, children ran up the stairs onto the terraced deck of the gardens and immediately jumped all over the sculpture. They didn’t just speak into the horns, they screamed, sang and made the kinds of strange noises only young kids can make. The sculpture is not just a facilitator of conversation, which is how we’ve encountered sound the most during this pandemic, over the phone, over Zoom or Skype. Its focus is sound, even noise but somehow without the negativity that latter word can sometimes imply. Sonic Bloom celebrates the cacophony of life and argues that what we hear is as much of a connector between us as what we see and touch.

Picture: Alberto Balazs

The prohibition of so much physical contact meant interactions like shaking and holding hands, hugging and kissing were held up as the premier expressions of human intimacy. Suzuki’s sculpture posits sound as a means of communication ripe with underexplored significance. It is a public artwork, but it also looks like an instrument, and it is. Suzuki has created a communication "device" to encourage the reconnection of surrounding communities with one another. Consisting of several "voice pipes" or "speaking tubes", which were a popular method of communication over an extended distance in affluent spaces until the adoption of the telephone, the work reminds us of the physicality of sound: it travels.

The sculpture does not just provide a visualisation of the distances sound traverse, it actually emphasises the miracle of sound’s ability to close those gaps.

The sculpture’s horns are set at different heights to capture the sounds of the city and its inhabitants at different levels, from the slightly jarring clatter of ongoing construction work to the gentle clink of the golden bell-shaped wind chimes Suzuki has also hung in the trees that line the gardens. CADCAM-designed geometric pieces replace the traditional metal tubes. The colours here are gentler: brick red, a powdery blue, and mint pastel green provide contrast to the vivid colours of the main structure. The juxtaposition of the two highlights the contrast in how sound is drawn from either as well. The windchimes need to be physically moved to create their music, whereas the horns are open receptacles for the sounds of the city and the voices of the visitors. The necessity of people, both to hear and create sound, essentially for Sonic Bloom to function, reminds one of that now rather staid old riddle: if a tree falls in a forest and there’s

In that aforementioned interview, Suzuki also stated that the role of the sound designer is to make soundscapes “better and more comfortable” to hear. His use of acoustic horns, the tapered design of which serves to maximise the efficiency with which sound waves are transferred, aligns with that philosophy. The horns at both ends of each winding tube are large enough that one’s view is obstructed slightly when you lean in to hear or speak. In those moments, the sounds are disembodied from their sources. The roar of traffic feels a little bit closer and is made a little more intimate.

Sound creates atmosphere and can tell a story about a place and a time. In 2019, Suzuki created The Welcome Chorus, an interactive sculpture in Margate, where visitors could sing or speak into the acoustic horns and have their inputs “sung” back to them in a continuously-building A.I.-generated soundscape that explored the Kentish experience. This project will work with recordings too. A digital experience will launch during London Design Week in September to accompany the physical Sonic Bloom. Not only will participants’ voice recordings, made both on the website and at the physical site, be transformed into animations of flowers placed onto a map of Mayfair, but they will have the opportunity to collaborate with others. As the sculpture will remain in Brown Hart Gardens for a year, the resulting map is sure to be a fascinating auditory story of the social interaction in this small corner of London two years on from the beginning of this pandemic.