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Welcome Suzanne Ciani!
Old 28th November 2016
Thumbs up Welcome Suzanne Ciani!

For our next Q&A guest we welcome the talented composer, musician and music teacher Suzanne Ciani.
I'll try to give you a brief overview of her carreer, and highlight some of her achievements.

Suzanne became interested in music when her mother bought a collection of classical albums, she then taught herself to play the piano, and read music.
At Wellseley College as an undergraduate in a classical music education she started to differentiate between performing and composing. After one of her classes took a field trip to M.I.T. she became interested in the use of technology in music. After graduating she continued her education as a composer at the University of California at Berkeley. During this time she met the "father of FM synthesis" John Chowning, a pioneer of computer music Max Matthews and of course Don Buchla.
It was then that a "relationship" with her synthesizer and composing using computers and sequencers began: In a 2014 interview with Self-Titled magazine she said:
Q: That whole relationship is kinda ironic; this machine that many people would view as less alive than, say, a guitar or a piano, became more alive than any other instrument around you because of how open-ended it was.

A: Well I was primarily a composer, and the life of a composer is very restricted in a traditional sense because you’re reliant on other people performing your music. In those days, I saw the politics of new classical music and it was very discouraging. Being female, they said, ‘Oh, you have no right to conduct.’ And this and that. So when this concept of a self-controlled musical environment struck me, it was a godsend. It was like, ‘I can control it; it’s mine. And no one can tell me what to do.’ A natural euphoria happened.

She would often go to the San Francisco Tape Music Center (founded by Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender) and work at Buchla’s factory, soldering and drilling holes in metal for $3 an hour, just so she could use his studio. After a failed attempt of starting up a furniture company, to pay for a synthesizer, she decided to get back into music, and moved to L.A. What made the difference between this Buchla modular and other instruments?
Q: What did these massive machines sound like when you first heard them? While it’s easy to access the sounds of most synthesizers now, it must have sounded very alien back then.

A: The most important thing about it was not the sound. It was the way the sound could move. I found the frequency range of traditional instruments to be really subdued, with no low or high end. With electronics, you went the whole gambit. Other music sounded kind of muffled. As a composer for traditional instruments, you’re limited by things like how long someone can hold their breath or the fingerings or the ranges. With the Buchla, suddenly all these doors opened. You could trans-morph a sound, like you could turn a bass to a wind, fly it around the room and turn it upside down. The other fascination in academic music at the time was the idea of complexity. You had to be complex or you wouldn’t be worth your salt as a composer. But with the machine, complexity was easy. That whole concept went out the window, so I could return to simplicity. Because I was in love with this machine, I was very patient. People would ask me what it was, and nobody understood it. So I wanted to develop a technique for it the same way people have a technique for playing the violin. You know, Don Buchla viewed it as a performance instrument, and I believed him. So I wanted to perform it. And that was really challenging. I try to base my playing now on what I did in the ’70s but I’m finding that new machines are more limited in terms of what I used to be able to do.
Q: How so?

A: Well the filters have been redesigned so they don’t sound the same. They don’t have the same response in terms of what I try to do. It’s little things, like being able to expand and shrink an envelope. And the heart of the system—the arbitrary function generator—goes in a circle now instead of left to right. I used to be able to flip switches on the fly during a performance and that’s a lot harder now. It’s an open architecture so you bring your own approach. And the things I developed as techniques weren’t set in stone. Don never knew about them; he never used them. Don and I play a lot of tennis now, so I’ll tell him how I’m having trouble with the stability of the machine when I do this or that. And he’s like, ‘Well, just don’t do that. Change your music. Just make noise.’ So I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll just make noise like all the other guys.

Suzanne's breakthrough didn't come as an album or performance. There was no way to monetize this music other than getting a record deal. So Suzanne performed a lot. And while doing quadrophonic sound (only) that didn't always work out, and she hit other walls, while trying to take ideas about performance into practice. She moved to New York in 1974 and, with no money, slept on the floor in an appartment of a friend, Phil Glass. But eventually the recognition for her talent, in doing her electronic music, came in advertising work, making soundtracks to go with TV commercials, to save up to buy her own studio and Buchla 200 of course. An article in the New York Times helped create understanding for what she was trying to accomplish. She had set up her own production company: Ciani/Musica for this work.
From a 2012 article in
Q: I was wondering if you could tell me what it was about this electronic instrument that made it the perfect form of musical machine for you.
A: Well, for one thing it was compact. That didn’t mean as I built mine up it didn’t get really big. When I did session work in New York I was followed by a truck that moved it from studio to studio. But it is a modular system and you can design your own congregation of modules and mount them in various holders. So eventually I built up a big system. The thing I liked about it was that it had a lot of feedback because Don was trying to invent a playable, performable instrument. So there was a conversation going on between you and the instrument meaning there were a lot of lights. If an envelope was triggered, there was a light.
Here's a picture of her portable Buchla system while at work for ABC.

In a Red Bull Music Academy lecture (Montréal 2016) she said:
Q: Was it easier to get your experimental ideas through in the add (avertisement red.) world than in the music wold at that time?
A: The music world, especially the recording world was definately closed, they look backwards. They say: "This is the hit we have, can we get another one like that?". They want what they already had, they were not looking to breakthrough really. Not those big record companies. Advertising is like "omg let's be different, let's be on the edge, let's be, we don't care if we don't understand it, we want something new, we want to be, you know, the first". So it was perfect, for me to break through, in advertising….. And all of this meant that I could launch my recording carreer.

During this period, Suzanne would do mostly session work for other musicians' albums, movies, and advertising work. Not only using a Buchla she put a rack full of processors together she'd call the "Voice Box" mainly to process voices and other sounds, it had a vocoder, a frequency follower, an Eventide Harmonizer, a Marshall Time Modulator (and a shephard generator, and some other pieces - source David Letterman show 1980)

Q: What was your experience, when it comes to how people were trying to incorporate the synthesizer into their composings? What were they expecting, knowing electronics so little, the composers that you worked with?
A: Well the whole thing went through… The technology kinda took a left turn. So when I came to New York and I had the Buchla, I didn't use a keyboard, and it opened up things in a new way of sound design. Then all these instruments (Minimoog, Arp Odyssey red.) started to come out that had keyboards. And it changed the perception of electronic music to something that was just a timbre, that you'd play on a keyboard and that you might replace or augment a traditional instrument with. Maybe you'd be part of the string section or you'd be a flute, or maybe an odd sounding flute. It was upsetting to me because it really narrowed the perview of what was possible with electronics. And it just kept going in that direction. Became more and more keyboard oriented. And for me electronics is, because .. you know I started with a Buchla, it was never about the timbre or the sound, really. It was about the way the sound could move. How you could control it…..
About the role of women in an industry dominated by men:
I got a feature film in 1980, and I was considered to be the first woman to be hired to score a major Hollywood feature. Another woman was not hired to do a major Hollywood feature until 1994. So.. the opportunities, the fact that I had this little edge, like being unusual, gave me this abillity. But even that wasn't enough to change the gears of the music business in any way. And we're still in the process of changing those gears a little bit. You know, I had wanted to be an engineer, no one would hire… The men were already coming from an already entrenched approach to sound. They were working in pop music or standard music, they could tweak a bass they could eq a drumset, they had all those go-to solutions. But what I was doing had no go-to solution, it was about "ok, what are we hearing right now, how does this sit in the track, what do we need to do right now with this sound that has no precedent". And the women that I worked with where not already stuck in something.
Leslie Mona Mathis was one of the engineers working in the studio for the recordding of her first solo album "Seven Waves" (1982). It was self financed, at this time, it was very expensive (100.000$) to record an album, and most of Seven Waves was recorded in other studios. The advertisement work could pay for that, and working with top musicians and producers allowed her to gain a lot of experience. But Suzanne wanted her own albums to be something different than a pop formula that was used in commercials. She wanted this album to be more of a work of art, with a different approach.

By accident Suzanne became one of the icons of the "New Age" music movement. She had made Seven Waves as a healing music record.
I noticed in electronics, that you had this perfect rhythm, that I thought; gave one comfort in predictabillity. Not only could you have a nice rhythm, but it could be really slow. Humans couldn't play slow perfectly. The whole beauty of the machine is that it could give you a safe place to be, it created a world of sensuality, something physical, something that felt good.

At some point Suzanne had hit a sort of bump and had a nervous breakdown. Her Buchla 200 was very fragile and broke. It was nearly impossible to have it fixed; because of the shipping it came back even more broken. Then came the radical descision to stop using the Buchla, and to go back to the piano as a main instrument. From her partner, something very close, the 200 System became her worst enemy.
Originally Posted by Selftitledmag
“When it broke down, I would break down. I had to wean myself from it just to survive. I had to have interventions. People would say, ‘You’ve got to do something else.’ So that was part of it—being too dependent on this thing I couldn’t count on.”
Suzanne moved in 1992 back to L.A. and proceded to make more albums, of which you can find most here, for which she recieved wide acclaim and 5 Grammy nominations. Her record label "Seventh Wave" was used to publish many of these records. Pianissimo became her best selling album, many dedicated fans loved her romantic sounding (my interpretation red.) compositions.

(please excuse the cute puppy dogs and cats in that video, this was the best quality audio youtube I could find )
But there was another reason for Suzanne to abandon the bustling life in New York, which became clear in an interview with Dazed:
“The reason why I came back out to California 20 years ago was because I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” “It was really early breast cancer so I was fine, but I thought of it as a signal. I can remember talking to a therapist after my scare and she said, ‘Suzanne, are you trying to say that you would like to have a personal life?’ That’s when I realised I didn’t have a personal life! So I moved out here and got married within a year. I entered another new world.”

But then, fate took another turn; Electronic music became popular again, and the modular synthesizer entered a sort of renaissance. Suzanne also became interested in electronic music again, partly because of the success of Lixiviation" a compilation album by Finders Keepers record label, she got into transferring 30 year old tape, and releasing this as reissues.

In an 2012 interview with she said:
Q: It has been a couple of decades since you last worked primarily in electronic music. Were you aware of the resurgence of interest in this field of music that’s happened over the last decade? Were you aware of people taking an increased interest in your music and that of the Radiophonic Workshop and people like Sam Spence?
A: You know, I didn’t notice but that’s because I live at the top of a cliff by the side of the ocean in relative isolation. I’m in a different world now. I’m doing concerts on the piano. I was getting inklings of it though through younger folks who worked at my company (Ciani/Musica) in New York, because they were still working avidly in electronic music. Frankly I didn’t understand the interest that much. But what you’re talking about is more of a passion I think. Maybe the same passion that we had back then; this sense of aliveness in the area of electronic music - that there is something new and exciting happening in that field. .....
At this moment, Don Buchla approached her with a proposition:
Don said: "Look if you're ever thinking of getting a Buchla again, then now is the time to do it, cause I'm about to sell the company, maybe we can make a deal. …. Don's car broke down, and he had a real trashheap of a car. And I had a beautiful Audi A6. And I decided I didn't want that car, I wanted a more environmentally conscious car, …. So I said "Don, I have an A6 and maybe we can do a trade. And so we did. He got the beautiful Audi, and I got the Buchla, plus some other things. The 200e I still have it and it looks great, my car, I took care of it perfectly, I love those machines, I took such good care of it. The last time I saw my Audi A6, at Don's, it was covered in mold, the mirrors were broken off.. I mean.. forget it. But don't tell anyone else."
Q: What do you think of modern electronic instruments, because it's much easier than playing the Buchla all these years? Do you have one (modern one) that you like, or love?
A: Ok, in my reincarnation in this world, I think what I'm interested in, is performance. And so I look at instruments vis-a-vis, their applicabillity to interactive live playing. And I think this is a sub-set or a sub-part of the big world of electronic music, and I'm interested in not-live mixing, or (in other words) using pre-recorded sounds, which is a viable approach, it's just not the one that I'm in, I'm interested into the machine that generates that sound, I'm interested in the spatial control of sound, I'm interested in imaginairy sonic spaces. You know even the early Buchla had a voltage controlled reverb …. and so you could change the dimension of the space. You can't do that now (on her 200e? red.), so, I'd like to take the things that I love about live performance, and somehow manifest those into a new instrument. It has to have (visual red.) feedback, the lights that tell what's going on. It has to have reliabillity, so you don't spend your first three hours tuning it. You know it's a complex world. What happened with Buchla going from the analogue to the digital world, it was a big bump in the road. A lot of his designs were seperate from the technology. He didn't design, saying "oh what can this technology do, and that is what I want it to do", he said "what do I want to do and how can I get the technology to do it." He designs from the outside in. It's tricky, a lot of the digital technology didn't work well, in an analogue flow.

One thing led to another. Suzanne got to know another musician living in the same town, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (known for her recent album EARS) and they collaborated on FRKWYS, a series from the experimental label RVNG Intl.

Originally Posted by
She started helping me in my studio and she was very professional. I appreciated her discipline and professional nature, and then she suggested this project.”
Suzanne then focussed on getting deeper into the new 200e and (in lesser degree) into modern production tools like Ableton Live software.
“I had so many techniques from working without a memory and had to get rid of all of those. Suddenly [when collaborating with Smith] I had a memory, and it required me to develop new techniques, but how you do it? [With] a memory you have a sort of starting point. You can get a situation in the instrument where you can improvise from a point and then change to another – but the process is really that the memory is giving you a starting point.”

We made a piece about the sun and its energy and optimism.

Welcome Suzanne Ciani, to the Q&A on this forum. Let's have two weeks of fun!
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