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Suzanne Ciani: America's first female synth hero

One of the most influential electronic composers of the last 40 years, Suzanne Ciani, talks candidly about the highs and lows of living electric

Taken from the March 2012 issue of Dazed:

In 1968, the same year that Wendy Carlos and her Moog synthesiser helped reinvent the sound and image of classical music with "Switched-on Bach", Suzanne Ciani, an undergraduate composer at Boston’s Wellesley College, had an electronic epiphany of her own. On a field trip to the city’s MIT campus, she encountered a rogue professor who had spent the entire physics budget trying to synthesise the sound of a violin by separating its different elements and reconstructing them on a computer. Upon hearing his wild experiments, Ciani – herself frustrated at the constraints of classical instrumentation – decided to devote her music to this radical new approach to composition. It was a decision that would eventually lead her to become one of the most innovative, yet unheralded, electronic musicians of the last 40 years. 

“When I heard that a machine could make such sounds, a light bulb went off in my head,” Ciani recalls, looking out at the San Francisco Bay from her clifftop house. “There was a whole new world out there. I went to Berkeley to study for a master’s in composition but the school didn’t get what I was trying to do. It was completely ridiculous. I was writing traditional music and trying to convince them that electronic music was a viable, important, useful and incredible medium. One day I performed a piece for my class and was on such a high and so in love with the sound, but after playing it my teacher said, ‘What is this noise? What are you doing?’ All the air went out of my lungs. I was devastated. It was very frustrating. Back then it was a very transitional time.” 

Unwilling to cave in to the traditionalists, she applied for a summer course at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Labs and had the luck to be taught by Max Mathews, the father of computer music, for a semester. Gaining a glimpse at the spaced-out sonic possibilities of combining science with sound, Ciani was quickly hypnotised by Mathews’s pioneering MUSIC program, in which players created taped arrangements by punching notes and commands into a computer via paper cards. However, the young composer felt the need to go deeper, and made daily pilgrimages to the newly opened San Francisco Tape Music Center to learn more about these strange machines. She often wouldn’t leave.

“The Tape Music Center at Mills College was the first of its kind. It wasn’t officially affiliated with the college so anyone could go in there, and for $5 an hour you could rent a little studio with a Buchla or a Moog and have access to all these analogue electronic instruments. There was also a room full of spare parts that you could play around with. I actually lived there. I would stay there all night and no one would bother me. Although sometimes the candles would burn down and the wax would get into the machine!”

As the 70s began and Kraftwerk began tinkering around with tape manipulation over in Düsseldorf, Ciani found herself soundtracking the films and installations of abstract sculptor Harold Paris in local art galleries. It was through these performances that she met Don Buchla, the creator of what she considered – and still does – the holy grail of synthesisers: the Buchla 200.

Compared to Bob Moog’s gargantuan modular synths, Buchla’s machines – he never referred to them as synthesisers, as it implied that they were replicating sounds rather than inventing new ones – didn’t have a traditional keyboard controller, relying instead on an intuitive array of knobs, patch-leads and sound-responsive LEDs. Smitten, Ciani went to work at Buchla’s factory, soldering and drilling holes in metal for $3 an hour, just so she could use his studio. In order to save up the $8,000 to buy a Buchla of her own, she began making jingles, soundbeds and corporate logos for everyone from AT&T and General Electric to Merrill Lynch and Clairol. She even created sound effects for kung fu flicks and a B–movie horror film about a nymphomaniac who has sex with snakes. Eventually, the Buchla 200 was hers. 

“Buchla always saw it as a live performance instrument, but the truth is that it’s impossible to play that thing live,” the electronic diva laughs. “But I didn’t know that at the time, so I just did it. I was in love with it. I eventually tamed the machine but it took my whole life."

“When I finally bought one, the Buchla was my only piece of furniture. I lived with that thing. It was my boyfriend! I thought there was something wrong with me, because I was in love with a machine” – Suzanne Ciani

"When I finally bought one, the Buchla was my only piece of furniture. I lived with that thing; it was on all the time. It was my boyfriend! I thought there was something wrong with me, because I was in love with a machine. Then I went to one of those consciousness–raising classes and the big revelation at the end of the training was that humans are just machines. So, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m okay then’.” 

In 1974 she moved to New York. Arriving in the city with an expensive synth, three suitcases full of tangled wires and not much else, Ciani, like so many musicians before and since, found herself couch surfing at a friend’s apartment. Her friend happened to be Philip Glass. “I lived in Soho and slept on the floor of Philip Glass’s studio,” the soft-voiced composer remembers. “I tried to give Philip synthesiser lessons, but it was just too opaque for him. Even though his music would have suited the abilities of electronic music, it just wasn’t his cup of tea. He couldn’t get it.

"To tell you the truth, there was very little comprehension on the part of the public, or even the art world, to what synthesisers were. While I was still in graduate school, I would put my Buchla in a museum with the sound racing around the volume of space and nobody understood that the music was coming out of the machine, and that it was actually controlling the sound. It took a lot of patience in those days."

Although other female electronic musicians like Ruth White, Doris Norton, Wendy Carlos and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire had helped to popularise the epic possibilities of synthesised sound and musique concrète, Ciani felt that no composers she had come across – male, female or otherwise – were really pushing the limits of what was possible with synthesisers. They were fixated on recreating songs from the past – no one was trying to make music for the future.

“I think Wendy is an important historic figure for sure, but I thought things like "Switched-on Bach" really set electronic music back,” the glamorous 65-year-old explains. “My feeling back then was that there was a whole new music that was going to be written for these new instruments. It wasn’t about taking old music and plugging it into the synth.

“When I first tried to get a record deal for my original music, labels didn’t understand what these instruments were meant to be doing” – Suzanne Ciani

"It was charming what she did, but it didn’t have anything to do with the new possibilities of electronic music. All of a sudden everybody heard electronic music as something that could function as a traditional instrument. When I first tried to get a record deal for my original music, labels didn’t understand what these instruments were meant to be doing. It got cornered as a keyboard instrument, which was wrong.”

Putting her own pop ambitions on hold until she had raised enough capital to have complete artistic control, the 28-year-old Ciani set up her own production company, Ciani/Musica, and concentrated on winning over Madison Avenue instead of the Billboard Hot 100. At its height, Ciani/Musica was taking on 50 jobs a week.

“That work-rate does burn you out but you get high on the adrenaline; it’s addictive and so exciting. You’re on three phones at once, all of that action. I had a big staff but I missed that I couldn’t do anything for myself. Everything had to be done for me. I didn’t like that. To this day, I love buying my own groceries, I love doing errands because I can. But back then I couldn’t. With advertising in those days you’d get a job and it would be over in 48 hours. If someone called you a week ahead of time, I’d say, ‘Call me back when you’re ready’.”

What marked Ciani out from the crowd was the way in which she could replicate everyday sounds that were actually very hard to record in reality, such as a snowstorm, or the crunch of a potato chip. She taught herself to unravel different sound sources to their most basic frequencies and create a mood or texture within the space of a few seconds, or even less.

She eventually struck gold with her “Pop & Pour” sound design for Coca-Cola. “I asked if it would be used in just one commercial or others as well. They couldn’t answer me so I thought, I better be safe and make a sound that could be used in any space. So I created the sound of a perfect rising bubble. It had no pitch centre; it would work in any context. And they have used that sound in every Coke commercial across the world for ages. It was like being in Las Vegas and hitting the jackpot.”

Even though she could now afford to slow down, Ciani kept up a frenetic pace, adding sound effects to Atari TV commercials, Meco’s platinum–selling space–disco remix of the Star Wars theme and the original film version of The Stepford Wives. Yet although her sounds were being heard by millions of people, there was still widespread suspicion towards her choice of instrument. In much the same way that drummers feared that Roger Linn’s electronic drum machines would make them redundant, session musicians regarded synth players very warily – especially someone who looked as striking as Ciani.

“Oh my God, totally,” she says, giggling at the memory. “It has been confessed to me by various geeks that when Keyboard Magazine put me on the cover, my picture was stuck on quite a few locker doors! But I think, professionally, because I was so serious and so committed to what I was doing I didn’t feel like a distinctive quantity. If anything, being a female synthesiser player made it harder to be accepted. When I went to join the musicians’ union in New York, they panicked. They said, ‘No! What is this?! No!’ They thought I was going to replace the entire band. The union were scared. Eventually, they allowed me to join but punished me, which actually turned out to be a reward because every time that I recorded I had to be paid as a separate musician. So if I did an electronic song that had six tracks, I got paid as if I was six people. In trying to discourage people from making electronic music, they made it cost more.” 

Eventually the tide began to turn. David Letterman was so fascinated by her weird sounds that he invited Ciani on to his morning TV show in 1980 to demonstrate her arsenal of sonic weaponry. “Do the one where it sounds like the whole studio’s about to explode,” the bewildered host said after Ciani had blown the audience’s mind with her mastery of the vocoder. The following year, TV show Omni: The New Frontier filmed her as she recorded various robotic purrs and grunts for the pinball game Xenon. Host Peter Ustinov described her as “Suzanne Ciani, electronic composer. She captures the indefinable and turns it into music. Her instruments are synthesisers, her vocabulary words like reverb, delay, amplitude. She’s written whole scores for movies by touching buttons, patching chords.” That year she also became the first female composer to score a major Hollywood movie, The Incredible Shrinking Woman. Ciani even found the time to finally release her own albums, with "Seven Waves" and "The Velocity of Love" making her a star in the New Age genre. But after working at such an intense pace for so many years, something had to give. 

“The reason why I came back out to California 20 years ago was because I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” the five-time Grammy-nominated musician says. “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.” 

While Ciani has continued scoring, composing and performing over the intervening years, her beloved Buchla and Prophet 5 have spent much of the last decade gathering dust. Somewhat ironically, the object of her musical desire these days doesn’t have any microchips under the hood. In fact, it was once her sworn enemy. “Nobody was more surprised than I was when I went back to the piano,” she exclaims. “But you realise, as life gets longer and longer, that you don’t know what’s going on. Am I going to play the Buchla again? I said never, but now I know that I can’t say that because there’s no such thing as never. You just see what happens.”