Suzanne Ciani is perched high above the ocean. Her studio, which overlooks the royal blue waters of the Pacific, for many years has been the primary incubator for her sounds. Her windows remain open, allowing the sky and water to have a palpable presence in this space, along with the occasional blue jay, scavenging for pistachio nuts, that visits us throughout our interview.
Celebrated as an innovator in the realm of electronic music, Ciani has pursued a robust career spanning decades, moving between explorations in modular synthesis – famously with the Buchla at the core of her electronic work – and her first love, the classical piano. She has traversed various musical worlds, from groundbreaking early live Buchla performances to her work creating iconic sound logos for advertising, and onward to her 1990s rebirth as a New Age star with her album Seven Waves.
In her latest manifestation, Ciani has assumed her rightful place as a key figure in electronic music. In advance of a quadrophonic concert at Bushwick United Methodist Church presented by Ambient Church on June 2, she spoke to National Sawdust Log about her continually surprising career.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: There has been a huge resurgence of interest in your work as you transition back to playing electronic instruments, after years of acoustic piano-based music. Why did you decide to return to the Buchla after all that time?
SUZANNE CIANI: I think it started specifically with the Finders Keepers release of Buchla Concerts 1975. They really initiated it, because they called me and said, “We are musical archaeologists, and we like to release these historic things that are never been released… do you have anything?” And I said, well, who would want to hear that? It took them two years to interest me in this idea. Finally, I went into the vault where my tapes were being stored, and I found some and had them transferred. I wasn’t even aware that there was even an interest in early analog performances – I wasn’t aware at all. Andy Votel initiated all this, and then it just kind of grew from there.
What was it like to hear these recordings that you made so many decades ago?
Well, it brought me back to how much in love I was at that time with this music, and how there was no listening for it in those days. I did a lot of performances in those days, and we didn’t record things. I mean, it’s a miracle that I have recordings of those two live concerts because for me, electronics was not a recording medium per se – it was more of a performance medium, or for doing installations in museums or creating a piece that played for three weeks, or a live performance on the Buchla. But when I reheard those pieces, they’re like part of my DNA. I remember every second of making them. I remember being in them, and I remember also how rejected they were. So I was fighting a kind of uphill battle, and I finally just gave up. I took a new direction that was not purely electronic. It was now a combination of my classical roots and electronics, and that’s where Seven Waves came from.
Your live performances lately have a very different your sound from the material on Seven Waves and other work from that era – the music you are making now seems more focused on textural and timbral exploration.
It’s abstract. I’m like a painter who might have a period where they do representative art, and then they go on to do… you know, generally the trend in visual art is a freeing of some old some traditional mold and going into more abstraction, and I identify with that trajectory because I think that’s what I’m doing. I still love my romantic identity and the romantic music, but I know that my fans who love the romantic music have trouble with the electronic music. I think it’s a different audience; it’s more of a techno audience. When I play now, the people in my audience actually understand what I’m doing, whereas in the ‘70s they didn’t they didn’t know where the sound was coming from. They didn’t know what that thing was – they thought it was a telephone.
I was watching your interview on David Letterman, and it seems like you are often in the position where you have to explain what you do to people who really had absolutely no clue about electronic instruments and music – just no point of reference. How do you handle this? What is your strategy?
I can tell you that I was always very very patient, and that’s why I’m still a little bit didactic, because in those early days my role was really as an ambassador to the public. To take the time when somebody has shown any interest, I taught, I explained, I tried to make the connection. And I still do that. Now I don’t really need to do it, because all the kids have analog systems. But there are still differences, you know – there are differences like my interest in spatial motion as compositional parameters, which is not as prevalent as I wish it were.
Do you do much work in multichannel sound systems with spatialized speaker arrays?
I just did a performance at Moogfest with a Meyer sound system of 40-plus speakers. The thing is, you know, you have to be there for that. It’s an experience that can’t be reproduced. I noticed that the concert is up online, but it’s not the same experience listening to it online. It’s very situational. I think someday our theaters will be equipped to replicate sophisticated spatial sound. Here’s the thing: You can apply space after the fact, or you can deal with music that has been written for the space. It’s much more effective if the creation of the music acknowledges the space it’s in – it’s more organic, it’s not like moving a sound after the fact. The reason that spatial sound failed the first time around in the ‘70s was there was no content. There was no meaningful content to demonstrate what it could do. They did concert hall replications, and it was boring. So now they need artists to create meaningful content.
What are your feelings about existing in the genre of New Age music, and what that does label mean to you?
You don’t hear that term New Age very much anymore. I think ambient has really absorbed some of that consciousness, and it’s really about making a music that is kind of inducing an alpha state. It’s a slower music, as opposed to rhythmic. The definitions have never been particularly useful in a refined way, because they’re so broad; it’s really a marketing tool. For me, when that category came into being, it gave me a place in the store – you could find my LPs, because they were in a section that was labeled. I never identified with or thought of myself as making New Age music, so I was grateful – but also hated that I was put into this category. I mean, no artist really likes being categorized…
Your music has a distinctly spiritual or celestial kind of dimension. Is that something you strive for?
I always considered my music to be very personal, and my goal was to make a safe space, to make an environment where I felt safe and where people could feel safe. That’s where the machines came in, because the machines had a dependability, rhythmically, that I thought functioned subliminally in a way that they could be very slow, whereas humans had trouble being that slow and dependable. My ultimate criterion for my music was that I had to like it. It had to make me feel in a very secure place, like the ocean. You look out at the ocean and and it’s a spiritual place. And so yes, I think there’s definitely a spiritual element, but it’s more about that connection between our organic selves and the organic nature.
It’s funny that the machines actually allow that organic component, because people sometimes think of machines as unnatural, but the rhythms of the machine are rhythms of the universe: the rhythms of the moving of the plants and the motion of the waves and the slow rhythms that we experience that I think are very feminine. I think men just by their nature are more into faster pulse rhythm, and I think women by their nature have a slower rhythmic pace. You know, it takes nine months to make a baby…
What are your thoughts on being a female artist now versus when you began? What challenges did you face when you were starting out, and do you see any vestiges remaining?
I think we’re in a very positive moment right now for women. We are at the crest of a wave. Women’s hope for visibility goes way way back. You know, women have always been there but have not always been recognized. And that push to make that change comes in waves. My first round in the late ’60s was the crest of a women’s consciousness wave, much like it is today. So it’s very cool the way these things cycle… and in those days, we didn’t invent it. It had happened in the ’20s. It always happens that its periodic. And so right now women are actually taking an active role in fostering their own visibility.
There was a recently released breakdown of gender balance of various experimental music festivals called the New Music Report, which shows that there is still a huge amount of ground to be gained in this regard.
Yes, and I think that the tools for doing that are maybe not about knocking on the doors of the traditional systems but creating new systems. You know I did a concert a couple of years ago in New York called Dame Electric. It was started by Dorit Chrysler, and it was transformative for me, because it’s the first time that I experienced being backstage with just a bunch of women doing all the performances, and it was so cool!
You know, you have to feel the new dynamic, you have to be in it. We were outnumbered, and we just don’t feel the power of our identity. We’re already diminished just by numbers. So in that situation, if you can create contexts that actually favor women, you start to build the momentum. Women are a force and they don’t need to be enfranchised by existing structures. My mother used to say if you don’t find something, you are looking in the wrong place. So if you’re looking for the men to say, “Hey, come on in, let’s balance this out…” – that’s not happening. That’s just the wrong place.
You seem to have been very focused on being independent throughout your entire career, whether it’s starting Seventh Wave or Cianni Musica. How do you think this independent sprit has shaped your path as an artist?
It’s the best way to accomplish your goals. I think it was necessity at first. I did get a record deal in Japan with Seven Waves, but I never wanted to give up ownership of my music. To me, my music is like children—it’s a maternal connection. And you want them to grow and leave you and have a life of their own. But I knew right from the beginning, instinctively, that I was the only one that really cared about my music. The basis is that nobody cares about you as much as you do, and you are the source.
In the documentary A Life in Waves, you talk about how electronic instruments can sort of exist in or activate the thresholds of our perception. They can achieve notes so low in pitch that humans can’t hear them and they can cycle up to a supersonic range that is also a similar kind of threshold. Has this been guiding your work with electronics?
One of the things that struck me in the beginning was just the sonic expanse of electronic music, the way you could move through that expanse. In orchestral music, instruments were combined within certain layers of frequency, and orchestration is a process of layering those limited ranges in a way that they blend—it’s harmonic. You know, you have the basses down here, then you leave a big space and you put the violas in, then you put the violins, and then you’ll go all the way up to the piccolo. And that stratification is not what electronic music is about. Electronic music moves over an entire range at any time, and then those constraints don’t exist. I don’t use traditional keyboards in my electronic music, because it’s not, as they say, an “appropriate” interface. I don’t like traditional keyboards because they are limiting—meaningless in electronics, because it’s a different paradigm.
A lot of synthesizer builders are focusing on innovating the interface and shifting away from not only keyboards, but also traditional modular systems toward things like touch sensitivity. Have you seen anything in your recent travels that has been really exciting to you in this realm?
Yeah – there’s a lot at first I was disappointed with when I came in however many years ago. I would go to these synth enclaves where everybody had their instruments, and I thought, oh god, it hasn’t progressed at all. And that’s why I started doing the Buchla again, because I felt I had to get out there and just show what this instrument is about. Buchla was the unparalleled genius of interface design. He did not only what I play; he made the Marimba Lumina, The Thunder, The Lightning. He was the Leonardo da Vinci of interface, so I wanted to have that consciousness visible.
But there is also a feedback with that: if you have a graphic interface, you still have to decide what is important to accomplish. There are two ways of thinking, and that’s why it’s a collaborative art form. Artists are more involved in the outside of the instrument, its touch and control, and engineers can be more involved with the technology that implements those things, but they have to meet in the middle.
So I love, for instance, the Eventide H9 interface on the iPad. You can affect parameters by tilting the screen, there’s a gyroscope, there is a boomerang, etcetera I love the graphic interface for the Animoog. My dilemma is that I’m aware now of all these new ways of interacting and I don’t know how to integrate those and if I wanted to make a real machine for me, it’s a bit overwhelming, but I think the place to start always is to know what’s meaningful to control.
Any instrument that’s electronic should have spatial control. You definitely want processing control. There’s no instrument now that allows you to create illusionary spaces the way we did in the ’60s with that voltage controlled reverb, the sound flows so far away. So I think it’s a fertile thing to look at the early designers and a lot of instruments from when they initially started; there was a burst of conceptualizing that comes with the birth of the instrument.
In the documentary you also describe going from studio to studio with a truckload of gear, which luckily for us is not so much the case now. What’s your take on the increased accessibility of electronic instruments?
Well, that’s the whole definition of where we are right now. That’s why there’s an audience for this, that’s why there’s an understanding of it, that’s why we are in a whole new era – because kids have it. It’s like a rock ‘n’ roll grew because kids had guitars, and they could have their own bands, and they had drums, and electronics couldn’t until there was an understanding of what it was. So everybody who’s got a Eurorack synth has some kind of gear habit. They’re the ones that are relating to all this music. And, you know, it’s a very broad category: techno, dance music, it’s trance music, it’s ambient music. There’s openings for just every type of expression that has to do with machines.
Ambient Church presents Suzanne Ciani at Bushwick United Methodist Church on June 2 at 8pm; ambient.church
Lea Bertucci is a New York-based composer and performer whose work describes relationships between acoustic phenomena and biological resonance. Her discography includes a number of solo and collaborative releases on independent labels, including 2018’s critically acclaimed Metal Aether on NNA Tapes.