A true synthesizer pioneer, Suzanne Ciani’s love of electronic music began in 1968 during a field trip to MIT. However, it was her decades-long adventure mastering the Buchla 200 that would define her career. Unable to secure interest from labels, Ciani worked on commercials, and starting in the late ’80s she redefined herself again as a five-time Grammy-nominated new age artist.
In this excerpt from her lecture at the 2016 Red Bull Music Academy in Montréal, Ciani recounts her initial difficulties finding performance and release opportunities in New York, and how writing music for advertisements proved to be an unlikely breakthrough.
I was living in Soho at a time before it was Soho, and at one point I was sleeping on the floor of Philip Glass’s studio. There were a lot of artists there – actually, a lot of them would be going to Berlin. Berlin was very hot, even back then. The artists had something to sell. They had drawings. They had paintings. We didn’t have anything to sell, because you couldn’t. There were no CDs then. A normal person couldn’t make an LP. You had to have a record deal to get an LP. There was nothing that we could monetize except maybe performing. That was the only option. I tried to get a record deal. I went every place with my Buchla and they said, “Why don’t you sing? Why don’t you play the guitar? What’s wrong with you?”
Even the concerts were hard. I had a date booked at Lincoln Center. I said, “Well, I need four speakers... I can only play in quadraphonic.” They said, “Well, we can’t do that.” I said, “Well, then I can’t play,” and that was the end of that. I decided to change the theater, so I started a corporation called The Electronic Center for New Music. They were about to rebuild Avery Fisher Hall, and I thought if I could get all these audio engineering people on my board, which I did, we would design a new theater that could accommodate electronic music. I went to Lincoln Center, I had my board and I had all my people, and I said, “This is what we need to do,” and they said, “Who are you? You’re not rich. You’re not famous. You’re not Leonard Bernstein.” I said, “Oh, you need rich and famous? OK. I’ll be back.”
The music world, especially the recording world, was definitely closed. They look backwards. They say, “This is the hit we have. Can we get another one like that?” They want what they already have. They’re not looking to break through, really, not those big record companies. And advertising is like, “Oh my God, let’s be different. Let’s be on the edge. Let’s do something. We don’t care if we understand it, we want something new. We want to be the first.” It was perfect for me to break through in advertising.
There was no synchronization of picture and tape machine in those days. There was no SMPTE timecode. There was no lock. We were working with a 2" machine. The video recorders were these cumbersome 3/4" pneumatic cassette machines, and you had to train yourself to start them manually, precisely, so much ahead of time so that they would actually start at the same time. Every single one of those beeps [for GE] was timed to picture. They gave me a picture, I had to make the beeps go with it. It was a huge, herculean job, because every time we had to check a beep we had to go through this primitive, manual starting of these machines.
I made this little sound for Coca-Cola called “the pop and pour,” and they used it in every commercial all over the world. All of this meant that I could launch my recording career because I, by that time, figured out that the record companies weren’t going to be financing my records.
I was lucky that I was doing something that nobody understood. That definitely gave me the edge. Nobody could argue with it, and nobody could interfere. In that way I was lucky, because I think if you are a woman and if you want to move forward, it’s harder to be noticed if you’re in a pool of men doing the same thing. I think it worked for me as a woman because I didn’t have any competition. There weren’t even any guys doing this, really. I found something unique with the Buchla and electronic music.
There are certain things I’ve noticed vis-á-vis that topic of women, and one is that I got a feature film in 1980. I was considered 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. The fact that I had this little edge by being unusual gave me visibility, but even that wasn’t enough to change the gears of the music business in any way. We’re still in the process of changing those gears a little bit.
I didn’t want my music to be coming through the machinery of pop music.
It took two years to do my first solo record in 1982, called Seven Waves. As I said, I looked for a record deal, and I couldn’t get one. It was very expensive then to record. We didn’t have computers, we didn’t have home studios... I did the film score and I used the money from the film score to build my home studio. Most of Seven Waves was done in outside studios. I would block out a studio for a weekend, and it would cost thousands of dollars. We’re in a different time now. The instruments were hugely expensive. I had one instrument, the Synclavier, that was over 2,000 dollars. Ten megabytes of memory for the Synclavier cost 50,000 dollars. The studios were really expensive, and you’d spend a 100,000 dollars recording an album. There were things that cost money, and I didn’t want that to be a deciding factor.
Not only did the ad world give me money, it gave me a lot of experience, because in those days it was like a renaissance. We worked in the top studios with the top talent. You could get Steve Gadd on drums, Michael Brecker, the Brecker brothers. You called one number and you could book any musician, any singer. A lot of the singers became pop singers. You had an amazing talent pool. You had the best recording facilities, and you got a lot of great experience in the studio. The weird thing was that even though I worked with all these great musicians in advertising or jingles, I didn’t use them on my personal albums. Just a very select few, like Elliott [Randall], the guitar player.
Because it was art, in a way. Even though I felt that I worked as an artist in my commercial work, because I had a lot of independence, freedom. I did go into a bubble, and I did what I wanted to do, but I made this distinction about it: I didn’t want my music to be coming through the machinery of pop music.