As a new documentary about her life and work is released, we look at how became the Italian-American synthesist became one of electronic music’s most important pioneers
Suzanne Ciani is the creator of one of the advertising’s most universally recognisable sounds: the clink of a Coca-Cola bottle being prised open and poured into a glass, the bubbles fizzing intensely and colliding into one another. The sound was far richer and more effervescent than a real bottle could ever be – that’s because it was created using a Buchla modular synthesiser, an electronic instrument named after its inventor, the late Don Buchla. It was used in both radio and TV advertisements for the soft drink during the 1970s and became a hallmark of Ciani’s success.
But the Italian-American composer and synthesist’s work stretches far beyond the sound designs and scores that she provided for visual work. Her series of ambient, new age, and classical full-lengths reconfigured the way those genres could be composed, while her record label Seventh Wave showed that women could have agency over their work and not have to rely on other record labels. And more recently she started mentoring a new wave of likeminded composers by taking fellow Buchla enthusiast Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith under her wing in her Californian home studio.
Ciani’s drive for innovation, using electronic machines create music traditionally made with more conventional instrumentation, initially confused people in her industry. But over 40 years later, it’s clear how ahead of her time she was. Reflecting on her early days in a 2012 interview with Dazed, Ciani remarked, “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.”
Before A Life In Waves, a new documentary about Ciani, premieres at London’s Bertha DocHouse this Friday (July 28), we look back on the ways in which Suzanne Ciani became one of the most important pioneers in electronic music during the 20th century. Watch an exclusive clip from the documentary below.
SHE OPENED ELECTRONIC MUSIC UP TO A NEW GENERATION OF FEMALE COMPOSERS
When she was first coming through as a musician in the 1960s, there weren’t many visible female musicians in her field. People were confused at the thought of Ciani composing alongside her male counterparts. “There was a lot of discomfort and it was really odd,” she told Electronic Beats last year. “This was also during the moment of so-called ‘women’s liberation.’” Initial attempts to find a record deal left executives baffled. “They said, ‘Why don’t you sing?’, ‘Where’s the guitar?’, ‘You’re a girl’, you know, ‘You must sing’,” Ciani told The Guardian recently. She stood her ground, eventually making her mark through advertising, where there was more of an opening.
Her resilience and extraordinary musical talents have gone on to inspire a whole new generation of composers in modular synthesis. Along with artists such as Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, and Delia Derbyshire, Ciani is one of the women who have most visibly shaped the landscape of electronic music.
SHE CHANGED THE SOUND OF ADVERTISING
Alongside her Coca-Cola ‘Pop & Pour’ ident, Ciani also produced logo sounds and advertising soundbites for a string of companies, including Atari consoles and Xenon pinball machines. While she wasn’t interested in using lyrics or even real words in her own music, she did use her voice as a reactive tool in her advertising work (most notably in her pinball machine idents), utilising it as an extra instrument. She was also asked to produce sounds for other soft drink companies, with a pouring orange sound for soft drink brand Sunkist and a vanishing bottle sound for Pepsi.
SHE INDEPENDENTLY MANAGED HER OWN MUSIC AND COMMERCIAL WORK
In 1974, Ciani took her music and sound design pursuits out of the hands of record label executives and middlemen by creating her own company Ciani/Musica for her commercial work. Since then she’s mostly worked on her own terms – since 1994, for example, she’s released all of her original albums through her own label Seventh Wave. Coming during an era of major label dominance, a woman having agency to make music in her own right was mind-boggling to her male contemporaries.
SHE WAS AN EARLY ORIGINATOR OF NEW AGE MUSIC
Ciani’s debut album Seven Waves is a historic artefact of instruments that have since been retired from existence – as well as a beautiful incarnation of early new age music. Released in 1982, the album gave very early insight into just how unique Ciani was as a musician. At the time, record shops didn’t even know how to categorise it – they’d often label it as ‘female vocalist’, assuming Ciani was a singer given she used a photo of herself on the cover. It prompted the need for a proper new age categorisation. Seven Waves became a blueprint for Ciani’s sound, with its jaw-dropping use of futuristic melodies and crystal clear sound design. 35 years after its release, the captivating sounds of waves slowly coming to shore and sunset arpeggiated synth lines still sound incredibly thrilling and new. The record sold over 100,000 copies, a feat only distantly imaginable for a new age album in 2017.
SHE HELPED MODERNISE CLASSICAL MUSIC
One of the less frequently covered aspects of Ciani’s career is her work as a classical composer. She viewed the traditional classical genre through the lens of modern electronic music, receptive to the new compositional possibilities that her equipment presented her with. Classical music training came before anything else for Ciani, and this led her into an MA in music composition, where she first met synth pioneer Don Buchla. Many of her records showed her dexterous classical piano skills, including the Pianissimo trilogy, which ran from 1990 to the early 2000s. She’s one of the leading women in contemporary classical music and it has informed so many of her electronic compositions.
A Life in Waves plays at Bertha DocHouse from July 28