Suzanne Ciani is a natural innovator. Over the course of her four-decade career as a syntheszier artist, new age composer and sound designer, she has constantly challenged—even reshaped—the world around her. She performs in quadraphonic sound on Fri., Aug. 3, at Ambient Church’s first-ever L.A. event. This interview by Christina Gubala." /> L.A. Record


July 31st, 2018 | Interviews

illustration by jay torres

Suzanne Ciani is a natural innovator. Over the course of her four-decade career as a syntheszier artist, new age composer and sound designer, she has constantly challenged—even reshaped—the world around her. As an expert controller of the Buchla modular synthesizer, she explored the limits of quadraphonic recordings, tested the relationship between human and machine, and developed a zen-like patience for technical difficulties. Now with a new surge of interest in modular synthesizers—and more broadly, electronic music in contemporary culture—Ciani’s audience is finally catching up to her, and so is the long-overdue respect from an industry that for too long couldn’t understand her genius. She spoke to me from her seaside home, watching the ocean and reflecting on philosophy, mentorship, and the waves themselves—in the natural, electronic, and cultural senses, too. She performs in quadraphonic sound on Fri., Aug. 3, at Ambient Church’s first-ever L.A. event. This interview by Christina Gubala.

The concept of waves has been a theme throughout both your identities with the piano and the synthesizer. What do waves mean to you—both the natural ones by your home in California and the ones you create with synthesizers?
Suzanne Ciani: I’m looking at them right now. I’m sitting here on the coast listening to them. If I tune into the sound I find it to be like the breath of the planet. It’s a very soothing consistent rhythmic … but rhythmic with a very slow energy and I consider that feminine. So it’s not a pounding energy. It’s something soothing and has a shape. So I call my compositions waves because they build to a climax and then they receded. That was actually the structure. In classical music you had the ABA forms or different types of sonata forms that were the architecture of the composition. My architecture was a wave. I also think in life in general that everything moves in this pattern … like women’s consciousness. That was at the peak of a wave in the 60s, and then that had a slow recession and now we’re back up again. Things move in waves. The energy of a wave … each thing is connected to the thing before it and the momentum moves the next thing. Even political changes! Most things are gradual in the sense that one thing produces the next thing … I don’t know how to explain it. The other thing is for me emotionally, the ocean represented a safe space. The earth was polluted, it was chaotic, it was noisy, it was dirty, it was … whatever, except for some places in nature. But the sea was this open palette of non-polluted safe space. Now of course that’s changed too. My concern is what we’ve done to the ocean. It’s no longer a safe space. We’ve invaded it. It’s polluted. It’s sonically polluted. We’re harming coral reefs and whales and sharks. The plastic is taking over. My love of the sea is complicated now. And I feel a responsibility to help reclaim the ecosystem. That’s not an easy thing to do. But it’s a thing that’s going to require a lot of partnership with a lot of people. It’s not a single heroic feat that anybody can do.
Do you use your music to inspire change or work for causes?
Suzanne Ciani: I’m so thrilled whenever I get the opportunity to contribute my music to a cause. I have done that—there is my piece called ‘Sargasso Sea,’ which is now being used by the Sargasso Sea group and we’re working to improve the ocean. I was just invited by a British company to design a sound for their new currency. It’s not Bitcoin but it’s a new form of currency and they’re going to use part of the value of this currency to impact ocean cleanup. So anytime I can align myself with somebody going in the direction I care about—and if I can do that in a musical way it’s much more powerful than giving my $40 a month to the Natural Resources Defense Council. That makes me happiest of anything.
You’re literally providing a voice for these causes. You’ve been recognized with quite a few different awards recently—the Moog Innovation Award, the Alumni Acheivement Award from Wellesley, the induction to the Pinball Expo Hall of Fame … Congratulations, first of all! Were any of these particularly unexpected or moving?
Suzanne Ciani: This is a while ago but I remember getting an award from Napster for being the most downloaded or whatever—most illegally downloaded independent artist in the UK! It made me laugh. I looked at my royalties and saw like $6 and I said, ‘I think you’ve made a mistake because I won this honor and there’s no royalties. How can I rectify this?’ And they said, ‘Well, exactly—you don’t get any money!’ And that’s why we’re here artistically. We had to go through it. But it was undermining on so many levels. There’s this confusion about what it means to be an artist. An artist is a professional. An artist makes their living as an artist! There’s this concept sometimes as artists as dilettantes or artists can’t take care of business or that they’re doing it for the love of poetic … I don’t know! You have to live! We have the same needs as any other human. We need to take care of our lives in order to function. Now we’ve made space for not denigrating an artist for having a practical side.
That’s something that will never die—the idea that ‘selling out’ will be leveled against you throughout your career because there’s supposed to be some sort of purity. That time was like a tornado that swept through the industry. It’s interested to see how everything’s settled.
Suzanne Ciani: ‘Selling out’—what is that? Selling out has nothing to do with money. You can sell out on many levels. You might make money, you might not. You might make money doing what you care about, you might not. I don’t think there’s any rational connection to those things. Selling out is no guarantee of anything. I remember talking to an artist once and she said, ‘I had a contract with a major label and I wanted to do what I wanted to do and they wanted me to do what they wanted me to do, so I did what they wanted me to do. And I failed. If only I had failed doing what I wanted to do!’ It’s much better to do what you’re destined to do and win or fail at that. Whatever—OK, I don’t know. No more philosophy!
Your story as an artist is one of persistence in the face of rejection, health issues, difficult equipment—you’ve faced all kinds of challenges. Have you faced a shift in the respect you’re accorded over the years? Or do you still have to prove your expertise?
Suzanne Ciani: I don’t feel I have to prove my expertise. In many ways I’m in my own world. I’m older now and I don’t have anything to prove particularly. There were always doubters. And there is that gender dynamic—that perception of doubt that comes naturally when a woman does something. But I think … what do I think? What we’re getting at here is that do I feel I have to prove anything? No, I don’t.
You’ve talked about how your musical life as a pianist and your musical life as a Buchla synthesizer artist have provided you with different identities. So since this reignited interest in modular synthesizers … have you felt those identities reconcile? Or do you still feel like you inhabit two different worlds?
Suzanne Ciani: When [I played] at Cinefamily [in 2013], I didn’t even want them to put my name up on the marquee. I said, ‘Please don’t publicize this!’ Because my fans are going to be very upset if they see my name and they come and instead of getting the Suzanne that they know, they’re getting a Suzanne that throws them for a loop. That was my original concern—that I couldn’t bridge those two fanbases. Now here I am a few years into this experiment and I find that there’s a lot more forgiveness and openness than I originally experienced. I know because when Finders Keepers released that album and one of my traditional fans saw it on Amazon, they had an apoplectic fit! They said, ‘This isn’t a Suzanne Ciani album!’ So I thought, ‘Uh oh—this is trouble.’ But you know what? People—I think because times are changing and everybody now is aware of and open to electronic music. It’s not this alien thing. And it’s moving quickly. It’s becoming more and more friendly every minute.
You’ve been working with artists like Kaitlin Aurelia Smith, and I see you as sort of a mentor in that relationship—is mentorship a role you ever saw yourself in?
Suzanne Ciani: I’ve often been in a role of mentorship. It’s a natural role. When I was growing up in this business, I didn’t have one! Or a traditional one—my mentor was a woman who was a photographer. And I related to her because she worked in a technological field—photography. She was 80 years old when I met her. I’m aware of the power that just being … just being who you are is the mentoring. And also it opens up naturally. I have an assistant now that I’m mentoring, and it’s a natural process. It’s a natural process where she starts to evolve and grow in a certain direction. It’s a trade for her. It’s an exciting thing. But by the same token as a mentor, you have to always be ready for the flowering of that person into whatever their unique role is going to be. If you have an assistant, they’re going to grow out of that! And that’s a good thing. They learn to fly. I’m ready for that at all times. I also think right now we’re at the crest of a wave in women’s consciousness that I haven’t felt since the 60s. It’s a very important time. The visibility of women to other women is very powerful and very important. Just being visible is a statement and an energy boost. I recently did this concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London and it was a series of pioneering women. One of the pieces was by Daphne Oram who was a true pioneer in technology. She had written a piece and it was premiered just last week—after 80 years! So oh my gosh—here are these women waiting because they didn’t have an outlet historically, so we think they’re not there.
And they’re written out of history often, too.
Suzanne Ciani: Yeah—so it’s important. We want the evolution to go on, but we also need to look at what’s already happened. Because we don’t know! So I’m excited about this time—this historic time. I think a lot of things have converged to make women aware that they need to seize this moment and take advantage of it. Use their energy to … I call is it visibility because women are so used to working in the shadows and being behind the scenes and I think there’s a self-confidence that is going to make a big difference when women see that women are in fact powerful, capable contributors to our arts and our culture.
In addition to being a meticulous artist, you’ve also been a small business owner—running your own sound studio and later your record label. How did you balance that with your artistic output?
Suzanne Ciani: It’s tricky. There’s always been an illusion that if you just had so much time, you could flower as an artist. The reality is always that 90% of the time goes into just maintaining the functionality of the environment. Business is an unavoidable partner in doing anything. So it is complicated. It’s good to be able to delegate where you can. I appreciate that. I think I grew all those muscles because I had to. That independence of spirit is something women have learned to do because we haven’t been allowed into the normal dynamics of business. For us to succeed we’ve had to find ways around. I couldn’t get a business loan because I was a woman. So here we are now in a much more powerful position because there are women in power now. We are not trying to compete in a man’s world anymore. We actually have our own infrastructure in the world. We can support each other and you know … nothing antagonistic to men. It’s just a separate satellite system.
World-making is crucial when trying to be true to your artistic self. When you’re negotiating with people who are not necessarily understanding of what you’re trying to do—and I don’t wanna say all men are misunderstanding or don’t have the capacity to understand, but I find it’s easier when you just don’t have to jump over the hurdles of having to establish yourself as credible by their standards. So it makes a lot of sense—creating your own world so you have the freedom to make what you want.
Suzanne Ciani: And also to get access to things. There are more women conductors now. There are more women choosing what content is going to happen. That’s what we need. We need gatekeepers who let us in.
Your recent release [LIVE Quadraphonic on CyKIK] was put out in quadraphonic sound and it came with a hardware decoder. How were you able to push the technology to put out an album that came with its own hardware decoder?
Suzanne Ciani: I had a very critical partner with that. I’ve been performing quadraphonic in a non-negotiable way. We did that in the 60s and 70s and now that I’m coming back it’s always in quad. There was a period historically in the 70s when quadraphonic was available. There were quadraphonic albums and the technology was there for LPs to be quad. But it didn’t fly because the industry couldn’t agree on anything. And also I think there was a problem with the content. The Buchla has always been natively quadraphonic. So moving the sounds in that space happens at the point of creation. It’s not applied later, like, ‘Now we have a recording—let’s spatialize it.’ It’s generated in space. Space is as natural a parameter as any musical setting in electronic music. We’re in a time where it’s a little bit retroactive because of kids—that’s why we’re looking at analog modular systems now because they wanted to go back! That’s why they want LPs. It’s like, ‘Hey—we’re not marching forward. Let’s go back to what there was.’ So with this conjunction of looking backwards and my coming forward again in this vocabulary of spatial sound, it was natural to look at what was done already in the 70s. And my partner on that—KamranV—he took on the responsibility of doing the research and finding how to manufacture this whole thing. He did all that. He chose the very comeback concert that I did after 40 years. That was the first one. And that system that I used, it’s still quite different from the one I’m using now. When I first came back, I was dealing with the [Buchla] 200E completely. But as I played the 200E, I could see that it’s missing a lot of things that we had in the past. By now I have clones of certain modules that were not available that were from the past … technology is always marching on. Like it’s getting better. And it’s not always getting better! It’s getting different. It might not be better.
Like the directional changes you would make—instead of back and forth, it was moving on a loop. Or envelope changes you would make. Little details that had become part of your practice somehow became obsolete because of the designer’s idea of improvement.
Suzanne Ciani: Exactly! Or it just got lost. The way of using these instruments is unique to every performer. A lot of times the people who are making the machines honestly don’t have as sophisticated a vocabulary as somebody who’s job is just to use it. I use it. And all my time spent evolving techniques for the machine … this is an old issue, this conversation between the engineer and the artist. It’s the nature of technology for everything. Our cars, our laptops … look at the new Apple! I love Apple but every once in a while people lose touch.
I don’t have a headphone jack any more!
Suzanne Ciani: Where are they? Where are those people designing that? Why aren’t they talking to us?
With technology constantly changing, how do you begin the conversational process? Like you’re beginning a new piece—what is your construction process like?
Suzanne Ciani: My work with the Buchla now is primarily improvisational. But as with any improvisation, things start to settle into certain … You choose things that you like and they become a more set part of it. But the starting point for me was I went back to a paper that I had written in 1976 about how to play the Buchla. I had gotten a grant and I had to write a paper to satisfy the grant. It talked about all the current techniques I had been using for live performance on the Buchla. So when I came back to doing the live performance, I read the paper! ‘Oh, yeah—look at that! Great idea!’ That was my starting point. I used the same sequences I had used in the 70s. The material was the same. The same material you’ll hear on a concert from 1975. But now it’s different. The machine is different. The time is different.
The space is different, too. And I’m grateful you’re returning to play in Los Angeles. Has your touring gotten any easier with your machinery now that more attention is paid to modular synthesizers?
Suzanne Ciani: It’s all still very high risk. So far so good! A new favorable thing is that the Buchla company now has an American—for a while it was based in Australia and I had no contact with them. Now there’s an American representative and I do have support now which is something new. That helps. But when you check it on the plane and the baggage handler drops it, you might not have an instrument! I’m open to that … I don’t know how I’m gonna face it when it happens! But I know what that’s like because it happened to me already in the 70s. Which is why I stopped playing the Buchla. Because it broke. There’s a wonderful book about Glenn Gould—A Romance On Three Legs. It’s his search for the perfect piano, and he finds the piano and at a certain point as it’s being delivered to a concert hall, it flies off the back of the truck and is destroyed. And he never could replace that piano. I identified so much with that vulnerability with he had. I had that. I’m surrounded by vulnerability! I live on a cliff, I’m falling into the sea, my Buchla is fragile … it’s the edge! It’s always the edge! But it makes me very very grateful for when things do work because I don’t expect it. I’m the one who’s totally thrilled when anything works.
I’ve read your old interviews extensively and you mention you had this intimate relationship with your Buchla synthesizer that was so fragile and that sounds like a very emotionally taxing relationship, like caring for an ailing family member. Have you developed relationships with other pieces of equipment that way?
Suzanne Ciani: I’d say that level of involvement in the relationship that I experienced was really special for the Buchla. That’s why after forty years I can go back to that relationship. It was so deep and so intimate—as if no time had passed at all. I’m happy to revisit that special relationship that I had. I have been given the opportunity to go back because of the revolution of interest now in analog modular. I never thought I’d be playing the Buchla again but here we are. There’s renewed interest but also renewed understanding—new understanding! Because when I played it forty years ago, nobody understood what it was. They didn’t know that it was even making the sound. Technology—especially amongst the public—was still very alien and not a understood phenomenon. But here I come out forty years later and I feel at home.
The world caught up to you.
Suzanne Ciani: Yeah! It feels very good. I never thought it would happen.