A synth pioneer and adventurous electronic composer since the early ’80s, Suzanne Ciani has defied hasty assumptions about genre, sound design and nerdism ever since. Suzanne’s ongoing romance with the synthesizer started at an early age, precisely when she was first introduced to sound modulation via the Buchla synth. And as a trained piano and keyboard player (Suzanne Ciani was also the first woman on the cover of Keyboard magazine), she devoted a large part of her musical endeavours to coaxing feminine sensibilities out of the machines, providing a stark counterpoint to the inherent machismo of the tech world.
Besides lending her talents to movies and Madison Avenue’s ad companies, she found the time to record 15 full-length solo records, run her own label Seventh Wave, and put on performances around the globe. In this recent interview with RBMA Radio, Suzanne talks about her career in the electronic world.
Can you describe how you came upon electronic music for the first time?
I was in the right place at the right time. I met Don Buchla who is based in Berkeley, and then I had a good fortune to go to Stanford where John Chowning and Max Mathews were giving a summer course in digital music. Max Mathews was the father of computer music, so I was just in the right place at the right time.
I think it’s often hard to imagine nowadays that there was a time where you didn’t just turn the knob and there was a sound. There was actual computer music: You had to type numbers and letters into a screen to generate a tone. Can you describe the processes that you were using?
We used punched cards, so there were stacks of paper cards and you drew out the way that the sounds would add and multiply and so forth. Then you waited overnight while these things were calculated, and the next day you’d come in and get a great big reel of tape and you’d hear your composition. I remember one day I had forgotten to specify an output volume, so the whole thing computed, but it had no volume. The music was in there some place, but it couldn’t come out. You had to be perfect in some sense to get it all to work.
Obviously composers hundreds of years ago had to imagine a piece of music a long time before they would ever hear it.
For me, this question of the immediacy of being able to materialize and manifest music was so fundamental, because I realized early on that most composers died without ever hearing their music. When electronic music entered my life, it was the promise of freedom, independence, success, immediate satisfaction. I think also, as a woman composer, it was even more challenging to get my works heard. Early on, I noticed that there was a certain kind of built-in undermining of my confidence in music, in the academic world. Women weren’t supposed to be on the podium, they weren’t supposed to be conducting. I noticed all these kinds of difficulties that I wanted to avoid, and electronic music allowed me to do that.
I wonder whether – in the process of being able to propose something very immediate – there is something you lose. If there’s a certain quality in having to imagine a sound wave before you actually make it.
My first album, Seven Waves, was written out. There were scores. It combined my classical roots with my new electronic language. That was the approach that I used for my next several albums. Eventually, over the years I went back to acoustic music, surprisingly. Today, I listen to some of the new electronic music and I acknowledged the immediacy and the joy of being able to do something instantly, but I do think that the … What’s missing is maybe a little bit more resistance in the process. There are no rules. You can take a snapshot in a split second and have it be an eternal image. I think overall what one needs to find is a kind of bigger playfield where you can be more conscious in controlling the materials that it gets a little deeper, a little more sophisticated. It has more substance. I don’t know how to say that, but do you know what I’m saying?
I think I get what you mean. To go back to the time when you started at Berkeley, you started working at Don Buchla’s factory, right? I’m trying to imagine what that looked like. What were the courses you were able to take with him? Was it very technology-focused? Was there a lot of music history?
Dream on. When I went to work for Don Buchla, I was strapped to a bench and soldering for eight hours a day. We weren’t even allowed to talk to each other. It was very rigid and disciplined, but I love just being in that milieu, where all this was happening. The smell of the electronic, seeing these machines get built. In those days there were no books, there was never a how-to manual, so I asked Don, “Why don’t we have a class?” We got to ask questions, but he wasn’t the most communicative individual.
I was the only girl in the class, and after the first one, they said, “We’ve decided that women aren’t allowed in this class, but don’t take it personally.” I said, “How can I not take it personally? I’m the only girl!” There was a lot of discomfort in those days with… There was a sense of macho identity with electronics right from the beginning. We weren’t all equal back then. I don’t even know if you can imagine what it was like back then. You really can’t. It was before women were even considered people.
I was just... I had a passion. I just wanted to know something, to learn something. But there was always a backlash where the man was uncomfortable with the woman being there. Eventually that disappeared. I think it’s not entirely gone, sadly, and maybe it’s even getting worse. I don’t know.
When you moved to New York, you got invited to a lot of TV shows and presented your electronic music. Did you feel that the fact that you were a woman made them invite you? I mean, I watch the Letterman interview, for instance, and I don’t think he takes it very seriously. It makes me really angry to watch it. How was that when you became famous?
I do think that being a woman added to my cache. It was an unusual thing to see this woman with all the knobs and the wires, and doing these crazy things. In that sense, I think it did work for me. But on another level, it wasn’t really about that. There weren’t any men doing it. If you want to succeed, pick a corner where there isn't anybody. I picked something where I didn’t have any real competition for a long time.
How long did it take you to feel like a master of the Buchla 200?
My history with the Buchla was quite intense. From the moment that I was able to actually get my hands on one, that was my sole possession. I had a Buchla, I didn’t have anything else. That went on for ten years. It was my constant companion. It was on all the time. I never shut it off. It was like a living being in my space. The sound would be continuous, so I would have this kind of environmental ongoing sound and I would go over and tweak it a little bit. Some of the early pieces were like automatic compositions that took months to develop, the interaction of the modules. I had a big system.
Now that I have come back to electronics after all these years, I have noticed that it hasn’t all gone forward. MIDI kind of shortcircuited a lot of the thinking of what these machines could do. I was never a fan of MIDI. It belongs some place, but not in those performance instruments that were non-keyboard instruments.
Forgive me, Wendy Carlos, but I think that when Switched-On Bach happened it meant the demise of exploring new possibilities. What we were dealing with then was a possibility of a new language, a new way to make this. It was never about the timbre of the sound or the color of the sound. It was about the way the sound could move. Switched-On Bach was interesting, but it was all keyboard and it’s all based on timbres. They said, “Can you do me Vivaldi?” And they started to repeat the notion that the future of electronics was in this colorful sound. Nobody was looking at new composition. And, you know, even that’s complicated because I wasn’t a big fan of the academic proponents of electronic music either. It was a new language, but I think that there were some openings that weren’t academic and that weren’t retroactively keyboard that we just missed the first time around.
I got to do very short compositions. I did one thing for the telephone company that was a third of a second.
Do you think it’s going to come back?
I wish I could do it still. When I think the intensity of what it took to do what I did back then... Maybe it wouldn’t be as hard for me to come back to the medium again, but the instruments aren’t the same. My early instrument stopped working and I couldn’t get it fixed, so I did get a new one, the 200E, but it doesn’t have the multiple arbitrary function generator, which was like the central control for controlling. It was like a three-dimensional sequencer.
You talk about experimental thinking in electronic music, and I was wondering whether the world of advertisement was also appealing to you because there was a certain rebellious form of spirit in it?
Yes, it’s true. When I went to record labels in those days, they were all looking to what had already happened. Can you give me this, can you give me that? New happens, but it’s not because they made it happen usually. In advertising they had a complete different mindset. They said, “We don’t know what this is, but it’s new, it’s different, it’s exciting, it’s going to give us an edge, do your thing.” I got to do my thing with very little interference because nobody knew how to interfere.
I wish I could remember some of those sessions and the way people communicated. They would say, “It needs to be more fluffy.” It’s all poetry. There wasn’t a language for saying anything. It wasn’t like I need more B flat over C or whatever. It was a lot of fun. I got to do very short compositions. I did one thing for the telephone company that was a third of a second. For me, that had a beginning, middle and end. I love the microcosmic form.
Were sounds first for you in building something? Or did you approach things with an overall timeline of an idea?
In the beginning of my days as a session player when I arrived in New York with my Buchla, people would hire me and say, “Come in and add your magic.” Frequently, there was no space. There was no structure, it was impossible to integrate the electronics, even if it was a disco piece. Your space just start with the electronics, not added afterwards.
I started my company in order to control the total production so that I could blend the two things. There were some things electronics didn’t do well, like those massive powerful horn sounds, certain attacks. We wanted to just take the best of both worlds and combine them.
Later, you left New York for a very small village on the West Coast. Could you compare how your ideas were able to grow in New York compared to Bolinas?
I never planned to stay in Bolinas. I came out for one year. And suddenly it’s two, three, and now 23 years. In the beginning, I missed the New York energy palpably. One thing that was good was that I met my husband. We’re divorced now, but he was a lawyer and he eventually took over my career and allowed me to get an independent record label. I had two more albums to deliver to Sony back then, and I was not happy. It meant walking away from quite a bit of money, but it was all worth it.
I started to write music looking at the view, looking at the ocean, the birds, the moon, the butterflies. Everything that went past my window became a composition. Now, I’m actually doing the sunrise because the sun comes up right in my eyes. I’ve been trying to write this piece for years and it just hasn’t happened. I finally realized that it’s electronic, so we’ll see what happens.