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Acid Seven: Sound Without Precedent - An Interview with Suzanne Ciani

Suzanne Ciani is a natural teacher. It's hard for me not to absorb something new after every listen of her live masterpiece Buchla Concerts 1975, or the delicately layered compositions on her studio debut Seven Waves. Today, she's taking some time for a Skype call with me before giving a Moog lesson to her friend's son. "I don't normally do that," she laughs, "but I'm doing it today." Her penchant for instruction runs deep. My first encounter with her was through a recording of her 1980 appearance on 3-2-1 Contact, an educational program on PBS. Even in this brief clip, it is clear that the how of modular synthesis is intuitive to her.

This knowledge was just as much the result of necessity as it was of her curiosity. During her composition studies at UC Berkeley, she spent time out of class at the electronic music center at Mills College. The studio there, equipped with a Buchla 100, was her workplace for some time: here, she would compose 10 spots for Macy's. This foreshadowed her work as an incredibly prolific ad composer for the likes of Coca-Cola, Atari, and General Electric. At school, however, her fortunes were different.

She explains in the documentary A Life in Waves (2017) that her interest in electronic music was discouraged by her music professor at UC Berkeley who, after hearing her first electronic performance, plainly asked, "Why did you bring us over here?" This did not dissuade her. After she finished her composition degree, she went to work for Don Buchla, the inventor of the modular synthesizer. "I can't tell you exactly how I got the job," she says, "but I can tell you that I lost it the next day." Suzanne was fired, without proof, for a cold soldering joint.

 Frances Morgan of the Wire writes that "Ciani has often said in interviews that she saw the Buchla as a living being. Here (In Buchla Concerts 1975) her audible empathy with the instrument elevates such a remark above whimsical anthropomorphism."
"The fact that I wasn't regarded as an equal made me put a lot more energy into it," she says. She came to work the next day anyways. "That's what women did then," she argues, "they were better ... and that's how they earned their way into visibility." She continued her work, making three dollars an hour, and, along with grant and commercial earnings, saved up to get her own Buchla 200. It was around this time she produced her very first record, Voices of Packaged Souls (1970), to accompany a sound sculpture exhibition by Harold Paris.
(Note: a composition from one year earlier, entitled Flowers of Evil, is a good conceptual pairing with Voices... Both have been released on Finders Keepers).

In the early seventies, the Buchla 200 in tow, she left for New York to do a live performance. Once there, she decided she didn't want to leave. In 1976, she started her company Ciani/Musica and took on work creating sound logos, effects, commercial music, and even pinball scores. Her famous entrance into the ad world is another testament to her commitment; after securing a meeting, the head of the McCann-Erickson ad agency, Billy Davis, didn't show up. She explains, "I said, 'Where is Billy Davis?' They pointed at the control room door. I went right into the control room, and I said, 'You had an appointment with me.'" She was put to work immediately, and she produced the 'Coca-Cola Pop & Pour.'

Suzanne continued doing live performances, and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1976. She would go on to score numerous films and award-winning advertisements, and in 1981 became the first solo female composer of a Hollywood film. The following year, she released her studio debut Seven Waves, after traveling to Japan to get a record deal. Gradually, after her second album Velocity of Love, she transitioned into producing albums with acoustic instruments, finding herself again at the piano. These records are often categorized as New Age, informed in equal parts by Suzanne's classical training and her conceptual interest in romance.

With modular synthesis, Suzanne was tapped into something that very few people at the time understood. But in recent years, interest in her electronic work has -- to her surprise -- brought her back into the fold. The first piece mentioned above, Buchla Concerts 1975, was released in 2016 with a copy of her 40-page grant paper on synthesis. Together, they constitute a re-writing of the history of both the Buchla and electronic music as a whole. LIVE Quadrophonic, Suzanne's first live Buchla performance in 40 years, solidifies it: we have much to learn from Suzanne Ciani.

You've mentioned that, should your Buchla 200e ever stop working, that you'd just move on... How is the 200e doing?
Well, that theory was a result of my past, you know, when my Buchla broke in the late '70s and couldn't be repaired -- I had a complete traumatic breakdown. So I'm protecting myself from that. I have a more spiritual approach to this whole thing. It's a gift that is available to me right now and it could be taken away at any moment, so every concert is a small miracle for me.

But on the other hand, I have had improvements in the security of the system. For the first couple of years, I was using the light white case without any wheels that Don Buchla himself had prescribed.
Grudgingly, after several destructive incidents in London -- at London airports -- the Buchla company introduced me to a safer road case, which does still fit as checked baggage. I do feel kind of confident right now, but of course you never know. And in fact, right now, just yesterday, I decided it is time to make a backup system. So I'm putting that into the works right now.

That's wonderful. So you're planning on future performances with the Buchla, then?
You know, I really don't know, because honestly I am exhausted. All of the travel -- I live so far from the airport, and my trips are to Europe or Australia or Japan. They're long, and so just to do one concert can take six days. So it's not an easy recipe for me, but I haven't put the brakes on yet.

I'm glad to hear that. I have finally tracked down a copy of your 1976 grant report. I've been poring over it, and I have to ask: how did you compose these pieces? Did it start on the musical staff, or did it start on the Buchla?
Well, in those days the sequences were under your fingers. You had four rows of sixteen knobs, and I would feed those into the external input of the MARF, as I do today, which had a quantize function. This meant that it was very easy to tune those sequences on the fly. I had certain parameters that I thought were important: one was that they all start on the same note, so that if I wanted to stop them on that note, I'd know they were together. Now, the quantize doesn't work on my current MARF, which is a clone, and the sequencer I'm using is digital, so there's no way to interact with it live. I can't change those pitches. I'm sure those pitches that were in the paper were arrived at empirically -- in the process. You just do it, and they work. I love counterpoint, which was one of my specialties as a composition student. I think those rows do work very well together. So rather than make my life difficult [laughs] I just used those same sequences. So I'm using those four sequences -- and you know what? They have an endless depth of possibility. Maybe I'll get tired of them at some point, but who knows?

I'm glad you mentioned that, because when I hear one of those four sequences, they're immediately recognizable, but always slightly altered. I was wondering: is there potential for using these sequences with other instruments?
By the way, let me just mention parenthetically, that in the paper, Row A -- the first sequencer row -- does have a bad note in it. The B natural is a B flat. I don't know how it got in there as a b natural, but it's clearly supposed to be B flat. (Laughs)

I've given those sequences to students at the Berklee College of Music, where we do an improvisation class with an analogue ensemble of 6 Euro rack instruments, and they've worked wonderfully. I think that the 16-note sequence was something we were confined to in the early days, but actually it works very well. Even though I can have 256 notes now, I don't think that's a very useful quantity.

So yes, they can be! I'm working on a concerto for Buchla that I started at Berklee with a student, and those figures are translated into instruments. It's very cool!

That is cool! I was going to ask later about the potential for concertos after I listened to your FRKWYS performance with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. So you see a potential in this sort of collaboration?
Yes. I love collaborating now in my older age. When I was young, I had to have absolute control over everything. I was also doing studio albums. You know, now I am very open to collaboration and I do quite a bit of it in one form or another -- sometimes it's a remix, sometimes it's overdubbing, whatever. That project with Kaitlyn was a live performance, not a studio production, and that's what I'm doing now mostly with the Buchla.

It's just important that you have your clock sources synchronized. At Berklee, they have a piece of software that Matthew Davidson who runs that class has developed which allows any one of the players to independently affect the tempo of all the players. So it's very cool if you're always on the same wavelength. That's how electronic music works -- when you're working with sequences. Do you play?

I'm interested in synthesis and tape manipulation, but I'm not much of a musician.
Well, there's room for everything -- there are no rules!

You're right. It seems like every touchstone in your musical career -- from getting your first ad gigs, to traveling to Japan to release your first record -- required you to do so much extra work, or circumvent the structures that were there. Is this something, you think, that has pushed you forward?
Oh, absolutely. I was forced into an independent path. Really, on so many layers of life, you know. I think music itself is an independent path. Electronic music is something that you do with complete control, and that was part of my theory of why women were attracted to this field. It's autonomous. I think that, once you start to use that muscle -- that independent muscle -- it's very liberating, freeing, and it has a ring of purity to it. It's a good energy, because you're not compromising, you're creating. If you don't find the path, you just create a new one in your identity, and you make it work. It is a pretty cool approach to getting things done.

But you know, I got so used to the struggle, right? I remember once, I was doing a press event in New York with the B-52's... and I'm talking about how I had to do this, and that, and this, and they say, "Oh for us it was just instantaneous! It was so easy. We just woke up one day, and we were at the top of the charts, and we didn't do anything!" you know? So, I don't think struggle is itself a goal. I don't think we need to get too attached to the notion of struggle. It doesn't mean anything. It makes you strong, but you have to be open to other possibilities as well, you know?

Absolutely. You've mentioned that traditional composition wasn't the best place for a woman. It seems like that struggle shaped your path, in a way. But is it safe to say you wouldn't want to go back and do things traditionally?
I think that's safe to say. I think my one regret, in a way, was that I didn't get to do more film composing. Not that I'm interested in it now -- but I was, I really was at one point, and the doors were just closed. I'm so thrilled that this year a woman composer got the Academy Award. I don't know if that will establish any kind of trend, but I think it's really important to realize that there's this thought that women aren't there -- and that's not true!

The way the decisions are made, the pyramidal structure of the whole thing, is such that your chances of getting an opening are minuscule. I watched so many under-qualified men get the jobs that I would have done perfectly, that I was ready to do. I had this huge studio, I had invested all this money, I had a projection system and all my gear lined up, and I could not get a job. I did The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), luckily hired by women -- Lily Tomlin and Verna Fields -- and then there was no other woman hired for about 14 years.

Yes, it was '94, I think. There's definitely precedent there, too. One of the first electronic film scores was Bebe Barron's. Although this was also a conflict with the Musicians' Union, they told the Barrons they had to call the score "Electronic Tonalities" as opposed to a "Soundtrack" -- she got snubbed!
That speaks to other issues, too, that the industry had: accepting and legitimizing this new approach to making music.

I wanted to ask: what ultimately brought you back to electronic music?
A big surprise for me. I left New York, and went to this remote place outside of San Francisco. I got a little cut off here. I love working here, because it is this kind of bubble of quiet and beauty. But I didn't know what was going on out there. I had reconnected with Don Buchla when I came out here, but only socially. I came out in 1992, and we became tennis buddies. But what brought me back was a series of things conspiring to bring this about. One was Don Buchla. I honestly had no notion of coming back to that machine. I only had half of what I originally had in New York, and it couldn't be fixed. But Don called me one day, and he said "If you're ever thinking of getting back to this," which I wasn't,  he said, "now is the time to get a system, because I'm going to sell the company." And I thought Wow, this is an offer from Don himself -- I can't pass this up. 

So I put together a system, I made a list of modules that I would use. We assembled those, and I got that system. I wasn't gravitating towards it right away. It's a different mindset -- such a different mental set, that even today, when I go back to the Buchla, I do not play the piano. I cannot occupy both of those dimensions in my same brain. So, in those days, I was playing the piano, and I was touring and writing for the piano. In fact, I had just composed a whole new album in Venice, Italy. I still have those compositions -- I haven't recorded them yet.

Was it with the Wave?
No, it was a studio album. It was based on composition, orchestration, writing, composing pieces, and then I bring them to life in the studio. The Buchla is a special case: it's about life performance. The Buchla has always been about that for me. I know I used it as a tool in advertising and sound design, but everything that I did with it for my music was always live.

Andy Votel at Finders Keepers started all of this, because he asked me if I had anything in my archives -- and I'm sure you know this story, don't you?

I do, but I have a question about it! I think the most recent release was --
Flowers of Evil?

Yes, the Baudelaire poem set to your composition! I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how that came to be. Where was that recorded?
In Berkeley, I had a garage studio. A very simple setup. I had a quarter track tape recorder. I had my Buchla, and what I did -- the track itself is live, generated in the Buchla. I had wanted to do this French poem. I went through this philosophical period where I was attracted to romantics of all kinds: music, poetry, writing -- whatever. This poem struck a chord in me, but I realized my French was not adequate.

So I went on campus, and I found somebody -- to this day I don't remember who she was -- I just found somebody who spoke French, and I grabbed her and took her to my studio and said "Please read this poem." I processed her voice while she was reading. One of the things I liked to play with was spatial movement. Andy confessed to me later that he thought there was something wrong with the recording; he didn't know that what I was doing was intentional. I was making the voice close and far away through a voltage-controlled reverb and spatial movement. Those were the parameters I could use to bring life to the reading. That's how it was done! Probably, what I did was play the Buchla live, and feed her into it at the same time.

I've been obsessed with that record. Somebody sent it to me the other day, and I just responded "I KNOW."
[Laughs] Let me just say that I'm totally flabbergasted. I spent my whole life putting out these impeccable studio albums, and then Andy just puts out stuff I did in my garage, you know?

Well, I have to say, I do love all of the studio stuff too; I was listening to the Wave earlier today, and I have next to me the Velocity of Love, which is one of my favorite records. Now that I'm thinking about it -- I would really kick myself if I didn't ask about the San Francisco Tape Center. How did you find it, and what was the atmosphere like there?
There are actually some misconceptions about this. I've seen in some print that I had a job there -- that was not the case. I've seen that it was actually in San Francisco -- that was not the case. You know, maybe when it started. But I was in school in Berkeley, and the Tape Music Center was housed next door, really, in Oakland at Mills College. I found it through somebody on campus -- somebody said "Hey, did you hear about this?"

I had to have a car because I was taking classes at Stanford in computer music. It was a real broken down, old car. I learned all the parts of the car just from having it break down every week. But with this car I was able to travel to Mills College. There was nobody there! It wasn't like it was an environment of people sharing musical ideas. It was not an official part of the college, it was off to the side, and technically you had to pay five dollars an hour. There was nobody there to collect the money anyways. It was a wonderful place. There was enough supervision so that the studios were kept in working order. There was one with a Moog, one with a Buchla 100, and then there was one in the front that had more of an open-access studio with reel-to-reel tape recorders.

That's where I did my very first commercials. We weren't allowed to do commercial work, but I put the scripts in the drawer underneath the Buchla, and I'd open the drawer, read the script, and make the sound. So that was a very important tool. It was only much later that I could give any credit to Mort Subotnick. He was a thorn in my side for so long, because Buchla only had eyes for Mort Subotnick. I couldn't get any attention at all. And Mort really was a lovely person, but he was an obstacle for me in the sense that he completely absorbed Buchla's attention. And Mort was one of the founders of the Tape Music Center, so I would like to give him credit. I think it was a really, really important resource, and I think we need more of that today.

I agree! I've also seen photographs of Pauline Oliveros at the Tape Center.
Maybe when it was in San Francisco.

Listening to your 1975 Buchla concert is like hearing a different future. Since you've been back in electronic music, has there been anything you've heard recently that has hit that register for you, or piqued your interest?
I go out and play a lot of festivals, and a lot of the electronic music is DJ-sourced. It's still performance-oriented, and still electronic, but my particular purview is analog-modular. And yes, I have seen some promising performances. I am of the conviction that part of the problem is the instruments themselves. I was lucky to be brought up on a Buchla. The Buchla to this day is the most sophisticated instrument of its kind. I know some wonderful things are being done -- there are thousands of modules being designed and made available -- but there are some basic needs, tools, that you need. One of them that I'm always talking about is the MARF, the Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator.

If you look at this in a distilled and abstract way -- I mean, we're over fifty years into this instrument -- it's not that complicated. There are oscillators, there are filters, there are envelope generators, there are gates, there are sequencers, you know -- these specific types of things. The way you can interconnect them is part of the limitation that we have now. Limitations aren't bad, you can do magic with the five-stage sequencer. It's really not about the gear on one level. But on another level, I would like to see more powerful tools available.

I saw Caterina Barbieri live, and I was thrilled with her energy. I've seen an ensemble playing at Berklee that has blown me away. Six instruments all playing together with their clocks connected, in quad. I'd like to see quad be a fundamental parameter of electronic music. It's just the minimal. I know we have a lot of very fancy speaker setups now -- sixty speakers, a hundred speakers, et cetera -- but I think what we're talking about with electronic music is the fact that you can generate the space as you're playing. It's part of the language of the whole expression. That is unique to electronic music, that you're able to control the spatial placement at the same time.

I love that. I was just looking today, and I found a software synth based on the Buchla Easel, from Arturia. How do you feel about the proliferation of software synthesis?
I love Arturia. I just spoke with a company called Softube, who is also making a lot of these available. I think it is a wonderful learning tool. It's kind of like studying grammar before you write, but it's not a substitute, it's a preparation. The beauty of analog is that it's hands on. But we just don't have enough instruments! I think they do a wonderful job. Again, it's a form of preparation. I'm all about live performance right now. I'm sure if you were doing sound design or film, it might be useful to use those.

You're well-loved here among the experimental community. What advice do you have for electronic musicians?
Spend time with your instrument. It's a relationship, I always say that. You are absolutely rewarded for any time that you spend playing and discovering and relating to the machine. It's so beautiful because there's no one way to do it. It's open, it's personal, it's unique to you, and you will find your own relationship. That's why we love these instruments. They're so variable, and open, and available. Keep it on all the time. I know the electrical company will hate me for that. But it's alive.


Sincere thanks to Suzanne Cianni and Rachel Aiello for taking the time to organize this interview. 

Return to Shuttlecock on the seventh day of each month (give or take) for a transmission from Patrick’s ongoing journey into the experimental and genreless music of Kansas City. Follow them on Twitter. 

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