Suzanne Ciani: The Emotion of Sound

Posted by on July 6, 2017

Suzanne Ciani (Ryan Snyder)

Suzanne Ciani has been on the electronic music frontlines since the seventies. A prominent figure on the West Coast, Ciani worked with Don Buchla as he developed his legendary Buchla modular music systems. Instantly enamored with its sonic possibilities, she became an expert in designing modular patches, becoming a lifelong devotee. During a time when musicians were first articulating electronic music’s language and the public was grappling with the sound’s place in culture, Ciani created works with personal as well as commercial appeal.

Her music ranges from expressive solo piano works to the purely electronic, which always focuses on the timbral beauty of the Buchla systems. With the recent modular renaissance it has also garnered new attention, across multiple releases from Finders Keepers Records, as well as her 2016 collaboration with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith for RVNG Intl’s FRKWYS series. The electronic community has taken notice: she is the first woman to win Moogfest’s prestigious Moog Music Innovation Award and is the subject of a new documentary, A Life in Waves.

Tristan Kneschke: How did it feel to win the Moog award this spring? Congratulations in any case!
Suzanne Ciani: Thank you! Nothing could have been more surprising. There was no hint about it at all. I think they told me the day before, so I guess they always keep it a big secret. I was flabbergasted really. But I’m very honored since the Moog company has been very influential to my resurgence in electronic music by prodding me forward. They asked me to play Moogfest last year, and a concert that I did in San Francisco to promote it was my first solo Buchla concert in 35 years.

How do you think about your performances? Do you start with a certain patch and improvise from there?
I actually consulted a paper I wrote around 1975 which was a report to the National Endowment of the Arts. I had gotten a composer grant.

The one that’s included in ‘Buchla Concerts?’
Exactly. I went back and read that and thought, “Oh, look at all these great ideas.” That got me back into the mindset I was so deeply into in the early days because live performing on the Buchla was what I did for years.

How does randomness play into each performance?
I start with what I call raw material. These days I’ve been using the same sequences of 4 rows of 16 pitches that I used in the seventies. Those rows work contrapuntally so you can put one on top of the other. They also work as a pitch domain to play in. So those are the raw materials, and then the rest of the performance is an improvisation on those four sequences, though there are also other elements like white noise. This time around I have a couple of additional dimensions like two Eventide H9s processors that I put on the output just before the quadraphonic spatial location. One interface is on an iPad, and the other is on a cell phone. Then another iPad has an app from Moog called the Animoog.

I had to downsize my Buchla because I ran into some trouble with the airlines who forced me to check this delicate instrument. So now I have just one 18-panel unit suitcase. The Animoog helps to fill in some of the gaps that were created by downsizing, and one of them is the bass. At first I was only using it to transition from one patch to another, but now I’ve started to play it as well as a melodic improvisation on top of some of the Buchla rhythm.

You and Buchla didn’t really consider the 200 a synthesizer. How did you conceive of it?
The word synthesizer was loaded then because we were trying to define the nature of what it all was. A lot of people thought of these new instruments as keyboard instruments. The word “synthesizer” had connotations of being synthetic or making a replica of a sound. And Buchla was very clear that for him this was an entirely new domain.

It’s interesting how that connotation has changed. I don’t think about it as replicating sounds at all. I think of it as creating really strange, alien, otherworldly sounds. Maybe the term has just changed over time.
Yes, but the other aspect of this for Buchla was that it was not about the sound. It was about the way you could control the sound. It wasn’t about coming up with some great sound and playing it on a keyboard. This was a new compositional system controlling sound in ways that were unique: spatially controlling and moving sound, creating artificial spaces, and transforming it.

This relates to your discussion on quadraphonic sound during your Moogfest talk. You realized pretty early in your career you had to perform that way.
Right from the beginning. It was always quad. When I played the Buchla, it just came with the territory. I didn’t know anything else. It was tricky when I came to New York City and actually got a gig at Lincoln Center, but I couldn’t perform because they wouldn’t put up two more speakers. It’s just very integral because electronic sound is by definition basically monophonic, and it comes to life when it moves, unlike acoustic sounds where we’re used to listening to them in an ambient space so the sounds frequently are recorded in a stereophonic dimension.

Suzanne Ciani (Reginald Stack)

Are these possibilities what initially drew you to electronic music?
I think it had to do with the fact that it was a self-contained system that a composer could interact with. Composing was challenging back in the day. You had to hire musicians who were skilled enough to play your music. With the immediacy of being in a live moment, there was no delay between the concept of the music and hearing it. It wasn’t like writing something on paper and then waiting to hear it. It was happening right there, like an immediately gratifying thunderbolt.

You’ve had several phases and incarnations throughout the years. Is there a constant theme throughout your work?
A lot of my music is romantic and melodic. Music is an emotional trigger. I ask myself, “What is it that I want to feel?” I love classical beauty, like Mozart and Bach. Beauty is when something is well-balanced and lifts you up emotionally, communicates emotionally. I’m not a big fan of mathematical methods for organizing sound. It leaves me cold. I want the emotion of sound. Seven Waves and The Velocity of Love were electronic, but they were orchestrated. They were studio albums where I could create a totality through the melodies, counterpoints, and the sounds that would deliver all that.

Now I’m going back to the Buchla, which is basically a performance instrument. I play through the instrument so a different kind of music comes out. It’s melodically based, but it’s more like jazz and abstraction. I feel a great deal of freedom and immediacy when I’m in the moment. My practice is simple: to be with the machine. It’s a source of joy to me. I really enjoy interacting with this machine.

That said, it can give me headaches. When I first started out, I was just in agony because I couldn’t get what I needed. The 200E wasn’t the same as the 200, and over the first year I replaced some of the 200E modules with clones of 200 modules.

The clones are literally the original analog pieces?
Well, one of the pieces that I depend on for live performance is something called the MARF, the multiple arbitrary function generator.

And now they have the DARF [dual arbitrary function generator], right?
Right. And the DARF is not as performable. When I started out, I was trying to have two DARFs make one MARF. But the problem was that it wouldn’t tune the way I liked it to. So I found a clone maker of the MARF. Don said it was fine. He said, “You know, I never liked the MARF.” He never even liked it! He said, “You know, that was a failed design.”

That’s funny. And you said, “Well, I used it for years.”
[Laughing] Right. The way one person uses these instruments is completely different from another person’s use.

Have you ever thought about using combining the Buchla with software like Ableton? I’m assuming that you’re recording takes right into the computer from the Buchla.
The recordings I release are live performances, yeah. My goal at this stage is to demonstrate live performance with an modular non-keyboard instrument. I’m not using any samples. I want to demonstrate the genius of the Buchla in hopes that future instruments will incorporate some of this man’s brilliant ideas. He gave his whole life to this concept of electronic music. It got sidetracked in many ways because of the keyboard that was put on the Moog, and then by the misunderstanding of what electronic music could do.

Perhaps it got sidetracked into dance and club music?
I mean, yeah, those are other dimensions. Electronic music is huge, and it’s all wonderful. The part I’m interested in is this little tiny part: in the moment, live, analog performance, where you design a patch that you have to practice. Once you know it inside out, when you know what every knob does at every moment in interaction with any other knob in any moment, you’re set free to have some fun and play live.

I was giving piano concerts for years, which is a different kind of fun. The notes are already decided and you’re performing into the feeling of the moment. You’re channeling the essence of the music’s feeling. That makes you feel very alive because you have to be there 100%.

It seems like Buchla and Moog initially had somewhat of a rivalry, but later developed into something else. What did it turn into?
Part of the evolution of electronic music is that when it started out, people were rivals. Geographical divisions were also much more accented because we didn’t have the communication that we have today. Now it’s one big family. Yes, people compete in the sense that they’re selling products, but Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim work together. Don Buchla worked with Moog. They did the piano bar release together. You know, Moogfest features Buchla events, and I think it’s a testimony to the evolution of this field that there is room and appreciation for all the distinct players.

Did that start to happen in the nineties, or are we talking about after 2000?
Gosh, I would say it was past 2000 when that all started to happen. Bob was a lovely, warm, sweet person. I met Bob many, many times. Because I was such a devotee of Buchla, I had my specific take on the whole thing. I played at the very first Moogfest but wanted to represent Buchla. That’s always been what I felt called on to do. I didn’t like that the whole industry seemed to be a one-pony show that Moog was becoming the generic term for electronic instruments.

I’ve been an outspoken Buchla person my whole career, but nobody at Moog seems to mind. I have a much deeper connection now with Moog, and I appreciate the differences without feeling that consciousness was taking away from understanding the potential of the Buchla. You know, I had a chip on my shoulder. I thought Switched on Bach set electronic music back. Here was baroque music with a manifested, mechanical keyboard. Yes, it had interesting timbre, and it was beautifully done, but it diverted awareness from what I thought about this new instrument with a new way of controlling sound.

You formed a company to provide scores and sound design work for commercial clients. The most recognizable of these is the Coca-Cola sound effect. Do you remember how you created it?
I remember very well. The bubbles are the harmonics of a sub-audio waveform with a very low pitch. But I could pick off the harmonics going up. The Buchla band-pass filters back then were quite amazing. So that was the bubbles. If you listen to the bubbles, they’re this perfect rising harmonic series. Then you can frequency-modulate some white noise with more white noise to get the fizz. I needed something that could work in a variety of keys because it was integrated with a jingle.

You spoke earlier about the concept of evolving timbre. What music are you listening to now that sounds like that?
I really don’t have time to listen to music. I try to keep my life as simple as possible. When I’m asked to do a mixtape, that’s when I explore what’s going on. I listen to things when I’m at festivals. I love, for instance, Alessandro Cortini’s music. Maybe it’s because he’s Italian. I always feel a strong presence in his music. If I hear it, I know it’s Alessandro. That is something that’s missing in a lot of modern music. It just seems more generic somehow. I come from the day of Vangelis. You know, you couldn’t miss Vangelis.

It seems electronic music gives you all these possibilities, but then a lot of people create nearly the same thing that a lot of other people are doing. If you can find people that are doing their own thing and it sounds like them, that’s pretty amazing.
It’s integrated with the tools we get. I played at Ableton’s Loop conference, and I love where they come from. I love what inspired that company, and they really have given a gift to a lot of young people. But I hate to see that as the sole approach. I’m happy to see kids playing Euroracks. For me, I don’t want to use a mouse or have to look at a tiny screen to figure something out. But that’s just where I am right now. Those tools promote a certain approach to music. You know, cutting and pasting, and the rhythmic ability to loop stuff very easily. Buchlas use different cables for audio and control voltage and timing pulse, and there’s color-coding of the cables and visual feedback in the system. It just seems so practical. Nobody else does that.

Do you ever face creative resistance, and if so, how do you move past it?
It’s funny you should mention that. I remember that my feeling every time I made an album was that I had said everything I had to say, and I would never say anything again. I always felt completely done when I finished. I never planned to make a lot of albums. My mother always used to say, “The world doesn’t need another album.” For me it’s always been about decisions. Once you commit to doing a project, you enter a system that’s completely absorbing, and you can’t do it halfway. There’s no middle ground. That’s why I frequently go away when I have something to manifest. But once I commit to it and allow those doors to open, they’re always open.

[Photos are via Ryan Snyder and Reginald Stack, respectively.]