This is La Feé Electriqué, a series where we look into some of the most innovative and inspiring females in electronic music. The story of electronic music is one of innovation, struggle and exploration. It begins in the 1700’s with instruments such as the Denis D’or keyboard, and the Clavecin Électrique, 2 instruments that used electricity to change the timbre (sound) of the instruments. Then in the 1800’s Elisha Gray and Leon Theremin created the first truly electrical incarnations of the synthesizer.
Whilst the very beginnings of what would become electronic music may have been started initially by men, the current incarnations of electronic music as we know it could not have happened without the work of some very innovative and brilliant women. In 1938, Johanna M. Beyer became the first woman to score a piece of electronic music with her haunting composition ‘Music of The Spheres’. In 1958, Daphne Oram explored the sonic capabilities of electronic music as we know it by founding the revered Radiophonic Workshop at the BBC, an institution that was later helmed by another iconic musician, Delia Derbyshire, who most notably went on to create the iconic sounds of Doctor Who.
Whilst the UK was abuzz with the new sounds of the Radiophonic Workshop, an electronic musical renaissance was simultaneously happening in America as well. Pauline Olivieros was a woman that not only explored the sonic complexities of these new electronic sounds with compositions such as ‘I of IV’, ‘Alien Bog’ and ‘Mnemonics III’, but changed the way human beings thought about sound and our perception of it by coining the phrases deep listening and sonic awareness. Another woman who has made amazing strides in electronic music was Laurie Spiegel. Laurie is an amazing composer whose work was featured on the legendary NASA Voyager probe. Her music is on the ‘golden record’ that was placed on the craft so that alien civilizations may hear sounds from the earth should they encounter it.
The women mentioned above only scratch the surface of women’s involvement in electronic music, but there is another woman who made such important strides that she managed to expose millions of people to the sounds of electronic music in a way no other before she has, as well being a pioneer of a completely new music genre the world would later know as ‘New Age’. She also shares something in common with Pauline Olivieros and Laurie Spiegel in that she has played a Bulcha synthesizer. That woman is Suzanne Ciani.
If you lived under a rock your whole life, only to emerge and find Suzanne Ciani, you would not be aware of her huge reputation at first glance. Her warm and charming character makes speaking to her easy, not what one would expect when speaking to a 5-time grammy-nominated musician. Once the conversation got going however her passion for her craft starts to shine through. Not only did she play the Buchla synthesizer, but she is also its biggest champion, making a career out of showcasing its seemingly infinite capabilities. We spoke to Suzanne about her life in electronic music:
C: So, where did your musical journey begin?
S: My musical journey began as a child in my home, in my family. I had four sisters and a brother and we had a beautiful Steinway piano in the house. That was something I felt an attraction to and I started to play. The next big incentive was when my mom brought home a pile of classical records from a fire sale and I just, you know it was the romantic composers. And it turns out I am a romantic so that music just swept me up. I also loved pop music but that was never in the same category as this classical, romantic music and so I fell in love with that. I think love really was propelling me throughout my journey, this sense of passion, this unexplainable attraction.
C: You have four sisters. Were any of your other sisters artists as well? Were you inspired by any of them or was it your journey?
S: We were quite different. My oldest sister is an artist and her painting is on my new stereo compatible quadraphonic LP that’s coming out, so I’ve always held her in the highest esteem as an artist. I think to me I take a lot of my concept of what an artist is from that visual world.
That’s my idea of art, those were the artists that I knew. So she’s been painting all her life. My next sister was a lawyer, the one after that an architect, and the one after that an engineer. We covered a lot of bases and we were all very stimulated by mental things, but my father was not ambitious for us. He was Italian and he thought that women should just get married so we kind of broke out of the traditional Italian mold.
C: Did you feel that it was a rebellious thing, to prove him wrong maybe?
S: It was also historical timing because when I went to graduate school it was 1968, and this was the beginning of a social upheaval that threw everything into chaos. We had a big wave of women’s liberation, there were big mounds of bras that women were burning, they were just saying we are people and you have to recognize us as people! When I went to college in my senior year, if you went down to breakfast at Wellesley College, which was a women’s college, all the girls had their engagement rings on and they would flash them in the sunlight. that was mostly the goal of highly intellectual women in those days to get married, so I lived in a transitional time. I had one foot in the past and one foot in this very permissive upheaval of liberation. I went from the east coast all the way to the west coast.
That was liberating. I landed in Berkeley, California during the free speech movement, during people’s park, during the protests against the Vietnam war, we were all arrested! Everything was in upheaval, and I think that timing in history was also what brought forward Don Buchla and his new concept of how to make music. It was all part of that historic time. I lived in Berkeley in the ’60s, I think an equivalent period would have been Paris in the ’20s. There are these epics of pure energy that change things and I was in one of them.
C: Sounds like an exhilarating time. You said that at the start it was more traditional music that inspired you. What was it that made you switch from a more traditional musical background towards electronic music?
S: When I was in graduate school I was very sensitive to any kind of belittlement of me because I was a woman and there was a lot of that. It was a man’s world. My teachers were all men, all the music was composed by men that you heard on the radio. I mean we loved Bach and Beethoven and Brahms, but where were the women? The messages that I got were that women shouldn’t conduct, that women couldn’t compose large-scale pieces.
Those messages really were undermining and at that same moment I discovered Don Buchla, I discovered this new instrument and I intuitively knew it was a life raft for me. That I didn’t have to deal with these men, I didn’t have to deal with the traditions of music permission, I could do it all myself. All I had to do was get one of these machines — which was hard to do and so I went to work for Don Buchla.
C: Who was Don Buchla, and what was your relationship with him?
S: I call Don Buchla the Leonardo da Vinci of analog electronic music instrument design. I know it’s a mouthful, but we didn’t use the word synthesizer because in this nascent period, the birth of these new instruments, the word synthesizer didn’t reflect the new language that was possible, the public didn’t understand it. But Don is credited with designing the first analog modular musical instrument in 1963.
Part of that had to do with again the historic period that we were in, that the transistor was available and that you could make these compact things. The concept of having a machine produce music goes way back. Cahill designed one that took 20 boxcars of a railroad train but the fact that now you could make one that could fit in a suitcase, and that a composer-performer could take it out into the world and perform with it was a uniquely Don Buchla concept in those days. Even in early electronic music, some of the instruments were so big. They were in studios; they were made for recording. Don made his for performing.
C: How did your discovery of the Buchla synthesizer change your conception of musical composition?
S: You know in academic music there are many chapters, so we went from Gregorian chant to early William Bird, to Bach to Mozart, Beethoven and always there was some evolutionary something that was happening that was changing over the historic time. By that time composers in my period had become very intellectual, they were no longer writing from an emotional core trying to communicate a message, a human connection of some kind. There was Xenakis. They were doing formulaic things, numbers, cells, 12-tone, all these systems.
I couldn’t relate to them. It just seemed for me music was about feeling. I was Italian, and I was therefore at odds with the academic notion and so were a lot of composers. As it turns out there was a huge general reaction against the pure complexity of contemporary modern academic music. People like Philip Glass went back to eighth notes and white notes and that’s still happening. Composers are just saying it’s not about being complex, it’s about something else, but those composers were looked down on. But what the Buchla gave me was magic because I was no longer stuck in making these decisions. Well, should I sound like Bach or should I sound like birds? I could do it! I never wanted it to be a keyboard instrument, so it’s funny.
Somebody gave me this the other day — everybody’s cleaning out their storage:
Somebody found this and I’m in conversation with Wendy Carlos from time to time, and I was always upset that people thought of the definition of these electronic instruments as keyboard instruments because what the Buchla gave me was a new form of compositional control. Voltage Control.
I had hierarchical ways of molding the musical material compositionally that weren’t available before, and it was a new language and one that I embraced immediately. I had compositions that could go on for weeks or months. I could program the machine to do variations in the process. I even experimented with integrating the Buchla with the piano to perform them together. But my major joy was playing quadraphonically, because when you played the Buchla, from the beginning it was spatial.
Electronic sound is essentially monophonic, but it comes alive when you move it, and the beauty is that you can integrate the movement with the musical message. It moves in time, it moves the way you want; there are many variations of movement and so everything I did in those days was with quadraphonic and that was the good news and bad news, because a lot of theatres didn’t want to put up four speakers and you couldn’t record it, you couldn’t release it. You couldn’t say here’s my quadraphonic recording… but anyway, here we are now, however many years later, and it’s all happening.
C: I know that in 2018 you released the Live Quadraphonic album, which at the time was the first record to be released in quad format in 30 years. When you used the Buchla was that your first exposure to it?
S: Yes, and you know for me I thought the whole world was with me. When you’re young your world is right around you and you don’t see that you’re in your own bubble, and then you start to be confronted by other outside ideas and it’s disturbing. I thought quad was everything and then the industry even embraced quad so we had quad LP’s for a period but it failed. It failed because nobody was playing the Buchla.
C: There were a number of brilliant composers as you mentioned that were using synthesizers in their work early on such as John cage, Trevor Wishart, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Daphne Oram just to name a few. Was there anybody at that time that inspired you to further your explorations of electronic music?
S: Well, when I came to New York, as a matter of fact, Vladimir Ussachevsky was very important to me. He came to my concert that was at Phil Niblock’s loft and he recommended me for a grant. We were all starving in those days, starving musicians, and any support at all was extremely valuable. I got a few grants then. I had one when I was still in Berkeley from the San Francisco Tape Music Centre. I got a Ford grant, then I moved to LA. I didn’t like it and I moved to New York.
In New York I got a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1976 and that resulted in a very important document called: Report to National Endowment, and in that report, something I would never have done if not for that grant, was that I documented techniques of live analog music performance. I was good at documenting, I was a well-trained academic of course, I knew how to write a paper, and so when I came back to performing 40 years later I went to this document and I was reminded of how I used to do it and that kick-started my current live performance chapter.
C: Was it difficult in the beginning at Berkeley to try and get people to understand your compositions with the Buchla?
S: You know I think that if I could communicate one thing it would be the vast wasteland that there was in those days: people did not understand what this was. It was like they say; the natives couldn’t see the ship coming when they landed from England because they had no concept of a ship. We think in concepts and it’s the same with electronic music: nobody had concepts of it and so it just didn’t stick, it didn’t impact. Nobody knew what it was so it was lonely, it was frustrating. I know I was hurt very much in my graduate school work when they made fun of my electronic music you know, but then I took on a kind of missionary role. I thought “well it’s just that people don’t understand, they’re scared, they don’t know what it is,” and so I became a messenger. I normally wasn’t patient with people but I felt with this role that I was supposed to communicate, educate, answer questions, explain, and introduce people to this world. That was so natural for me and I did that I think for a long time, that was my role in a lot of it.
C: I suppose the first time people really started to see the power of the Buchla, and also electronic music, was from your work in the advertising industry. What was it like working in the advertising industry especially being a woman at that time?
S: I always tell young women if you want to go forward choose an area where there isn’t anybody else. If you’re the only one in town who can do something, they’re going to come to you whether you’re a woman or not. I guess I was lucky in that. I was doing something that the record companies didn’t want so I couldn’t get a record deal, and in those days you had to have a record deal because there was no digital. You couldn’t make anything to sell.
I was so jealous of visual artists because they could make paintings, drawings, silkscreens. They could produce objects that they could sell but if you were me there was nothing you could produce to sell. So, I couldn’t get a record deal, I didn’t sing, I didn’t play the guitar and advertising was my brainchild. I just thought oh my god you know, I woke up. I was starving and I said one day where’s the money? I started knocking on doors. New York was the center of advertising, not LA. LA was film and I did work in film, but New York was number one in advertising and I had carte blanche. They wanted something new. I could do anything. I could make the sound of butter, I could make the sound of oranges, I could make any sound.
C: Did you also look at that as a form of composition? Or was it more for the money? Did you see the artistic side in it?
S: I always worked as an artist, always. I was in my bubble. I related to the project I was hired to do and my whole commitment was connected to that. Usually, I work to film, to a visual commercial. I didn’t know who my clients were, I didn’t care who my clients were, I didn’t have to care who my clients were, I didn’t know if they were in the room or not in the room.
I worked intuitively so my process was that if I were hired to do a score, say for a commercial, my requirement was that nobody talk to me and that I get to sit in front of that alone the first time I see it. And in that first scene, I would just be with that thing and the direction would come you know. It was just chemistry, just allowing without any interference, without thoughts or fears or whatever, just be with that and that would propel the creative idea. So, I worked as an artist and I loved it and that kind of instantaneous design was fun. Sometimes it was tricky, I mean in those days the way advertising was, music was presented.
You would go to the agency and there would be a lot of people in suits and they had a piano, you were supposed to present on the piano what your idea was for that score. There is no way I could do this on a piano, but sometimes I would go in there and I would talk and make a few notes. They would say; “okay wonderful, let’s book the session.” And then I would throw out all the notes. I certainly did some traditional stuff too, in fact one of my forte’s was integrating electronics into traditional music, like the Coca-Cola Pop ‘n Pour. There’d be a jingle and then there’d be the sound, but that’s another story.
C: From your time in advertising you then effectively went to start producing and releasing albums. Seven Waves was the start of your metamorphosis from a jingle composer into a professional electronic musician, and the start of an extensive discography. How important was this album to you and your development musically?
S: You know it’s interesting I always thought of Seven Waves as my first album, by the time I was in a position to self-produce my first album. By making all this money in advertising and finally bootstrapping the recording a lot had happened musically. I’d gone through those 10 years of playing the Buchla and being very lonely as I explained because nobody understood it. By the time I recorded Seven Waves it was really a synthesis of my classical background with my electronic voice.
It was all electronic but it was also scored, it was notes. There’s a score for each piece and it wasn’t until recently that my pure Buchla work was released, and that’s because the Finders Keepers label came to me and said; “do you have anything in your archives, your vault, that hasn’t been released?” I said “well, who would want to hear that?” and they brought out Voices of Packaged Souls which was an LP that I did for a visual artist, Harold Paris. They brought out a concert at Phil Niblock’s (loft), the one Ussachevsky came to, and one at the WBAI free music store. These were Buchla concerts that were in quadraphonic but not recorded that way, and then they brought out lots of things that I did in my garage in Berkeley and I thought, wow who would want to hear this stuff? It’s taken me years to understand that.
Those early pieces really are documents of the early analog history.
C: I watched a brilliant video of you on youtube of you in the recording studio working on your album. There’s a certain cult mentality around vintage audio equipment these days and as someone that used both vintage and modern technology do you have a preference?
S: You know I find that fascinating myself. I see old pictures of my studio because the nature of technology as we know is to change, so it’s never the same but you’re not aware because the changes are so organic. I had a studio in New York that was the beta test site for every music machine known to man. I had so much stuff and when I moved back to the west coast to this cabin on the sea I simplified, so all I have in my studio now is exactly what I’m working with.
If you live near me you’re lucky because I can give you equipment. I have the Moog One, but I keep it simple. I’m using only the Buchla right now. I know there’s a lot of fascination out there and I think it’s wonderful. Tell me about that, why is everybody into the vintage stuff now?
C: I’m not sure, it’s a lot of reasons I think. Like you said, technology is supposed to improve and make things better. I think stuff has maybe become a bit too digital, a bit too clean. Maybe it’s an audio file thing where people just enjoy the collection side of it i’m not sure, but it’s quite interesting to talk to people from the older generation because you get to see both sides of it.
S: Well yes and having lived through many generations of technology and what makes me happy now is I’ve decided I do just this Buchla. I’ve been through the studio albums and the digital recording in the menus and the hours spent with a mouse and I’m very committed now to what I feel is this lost period that had to do with performance: live interactive control of the sound in a spatial environment and the machine. I grew up on the Buchla. In a sense the Buchla is a tool, it gives me the possibility of doing these things and I’m definitely a voice in favour of having the design of the new instruments that look back on the old instruments, to respect that performance idea, it’s a completely separate concept.
When I came along in Buchla’s life, he’d already been designing instruments for five years. And when it started out the idea really was a recording device. I mean something that could make a sound, the tape recorder was there so you could tape a sound and then you could then manipulate it. The way music concrete manipulated things you could splice, you could construct, you could layer, and that was the initial approach. When I came along Buchla had already advanced his idea that he was an instrument designer in the tradition of instruments. We’ve had long, historic evolutions of instruments, I mean nothing came into being right away, but all those instruments were performative. You could interact with them live and produce music. That was Buchla’s desire, to make an instrument that you could interact with live, and I believed him.
So, I took on the role of performing live on this machine, it wasn’t easy. If you read that paper you’ll see the complexity of the choreography, how you get from here to here, how many things you have to patch, turn and set up. In the end it’s kind of like jazz. I’ve always said it’s more fun to play jazz than to listen to it.
C: It’s almost like you were destined for that machine. Although everybody can hear music, its creation and performance, at least for an artist, is quite a personal thing. One of your major collaborations was Synergy with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. Was the experience of going through the creative process with someone else new to you at that time?
S: Well you know the origin of that project was that it was generational. That record company took on the idea of putting an older artist with a younger artist, so that’s what this was. I wasn’t even aware at the time really that people even cared about analog modular, and so it was part of my coming back to this medium that I had left years before. I came back to California. I remember Don Buchla — we became great tennis buddies and I loved his wife. We were socially connected but I wasn’t playing the Buchla. I’d had a very traumatic history with the Buchla, it was stolen and it was broken. It was my instrument and suddenly it was gone so I wasn’t excited about going back to it. It’s kind of like losing your lover. You get a little gun shy.
Don was dying at the time, he was very ill the last part of his life, and I did get an instrument. Playing with Kaitlyn was really wonderful, she’s very intuitive. She’s very talented on the machines and since I’ve been back out in the world I’ve seen a lot of really talented women playing so I’m happy. It’s like for me, my job is done.
C: How does it feel to see this change? It must feel good that after all the years of the naysayers, to see it finally blooming into this amazing thing.
S: It is a miracle. You can’t imagine, when the dream was lost 40 years ago I mean it just didn’t happen. There was no quadraphonic performance, there was no analog instrument in the moment, and to see this it’s just amazing because we all know that the idea and the formula for technology is that it keeps going forward, right? That’s the promise of technology, that it will always get better and improve and the kids said uh-uh, stop. They put the brakes on this whole thing. If you look at the big picture, part of it is a marketing tool. When CDs came out you had to get a CD and not an LP. Your CD had to be DDD, all of this was some form of hype.
That’s my question to you. How did they do this? How did they put the brakes on? How did they say stop, we’re going back, we’re going to look backward and see what we missed… how did they do that?
C: It goes back to what you answered earlier about how you stripped everything back and now you just use the Buchla. It sort of challenges your creativity when there’s limitations and I think that’s because of the sound and the way some of those instruments work. Because they’re electronic, the components inside them sort of fault over years, and then you get a unique sound with that machine because it’s the way that the internals are. With digital, there are so many options. You see synthesizers now and they’ve just got a million menus and a million options you can do everything and you just don’t really know where to start.
S: Right okay, that explains it to me because it’s true. Here you want the sound of a cello and there are 450 different cello sounds. It’s like cooking in the kitchen with 2000 spices, I mean let’s just get back to Oregano you know, salt and pepper.
C: Definitely, I mean there’s a craze now with presets and sample packs. Everyone’s just using the next preset and the next sample pack. You talk to a lot of people and it’s rare that people understand the fundamentals of how synthesis works, how to use these parameters to make this sound. A part of its marketing. Once people find they can make money off this thing they push it out but people are definitely looking back to older models.
S: I remember when the DX7 came out and I had studied with Max Matthews, the father of computer music, and also John Chowning, the one who did that FM formula that then became the DX7. It seemed a natural thing to me to design sounds for it. I did a little package of sounds for them called East/West and it’s only recently that I’ve become aware that people, highly respected electronic musicians, would never dream of designing a sound for that thing so there’s always been a variety of relationships with the gear, and I don’t make a value judgment at all because as we know music is a huge playfield. There’s room for everybody of all levels. But now what it’s produced is a wave of re-examining the sources and that to me is the value, because the first time around we screwed it up, we didn’t get there. I’m not going to be here forever, I’m already older. I don’t know if I’m going to see this epiphany, this ultimate manifestation of these instruments.
C: I suppose the beauty of art is that anything can be used and recycled. Pretty much like in the universe the energy is recycled. Everything just sort of lives in this life cycle and I think with art that’s the beauty of it. At least from my perspective. It doesn’t matter about what things are, you can always take them and change them.
I suppose that might be where the innovation may come from, it’s about taking things that exist and just using them in different ways in conjunction with each other, as opposed to constantly improving something that might not necessarily need improvement.
S: Yeah, and you know there’s more than one place to look. It’s like you can make art out of a toilet seat. I guess on that one level the artist has something to say and what they choose to express it through is their instrument whatever that is. So we look at certain things and technology but is that really the place to look?
C: John Cage really opened that up for me. Just looking at what he did when he did his presentations, people laughed at him. It looks silly at first doesn’t it, with him turning the kettle on and banging stuff together, but when you look at it in the wider context it’s revolutionary and I think that’s what people might try to do with these synthesizers now.
S: Well you know nothing is everything, so cage’s conceptual art is just what it is and you can’t apply that to every possible expression of art. I remember when I was in graduate school, Cage came to teach a course and I signed up for it. Then at the very last minute, it said the course would be in mushrooms… mycology. He loved mushrooms and he was an explorer and I thought; oh my god, I’m much too serious, I’m here for my academics I’m not going to take a course in mushrooms. I kick myself now but I didn’t take the course. But I did play in some of his pieces. I played radio in a piece in New York. He’s amazing.
C: You said that you had the Buchla at one point and then you stopped using it and then you went back. How was your setup with the Buchla changed?
S: Well, if you look at pictures of my early system it was huge. It was portable to some extent. I had a cartage company when I first started doing session work before I had my own studio, that would deliver this stuff to studios, but now I’m doing concerts all over the world and I have had to reduce the whole system into one suitcase because I believe in a simple life. I’ve done the concert tours with truckloads of stuff and I’m not doing that anymore. It’s kind of a refined conversation to say what the differences are, but let’s just say that I think that the 200, which is what I played in the day, was really the apotheosis of Buchla’s designs. You know he did a lot of instruments that were very focused on digital because he was keeping pace with technology, but I think his real gift to us was the 200.
I have the 200e now, I miss so many things. I have a clone 248 which is the Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator, I have a clone filter and I do use the digital sequencer, which is this big as opposed to this big, but in the old days, I could interact with it because it wasn’t digital. You can’t perform it because you can’t say okay, I’m going to push this button, I’m going to push this button again, I’m going to turn this down… you know. You can’t interact with the digital menu live, so I see my approach to performing is in that sense frozen in that sequencer. That sequencer gives me frozen pitches. What can I say? I’m grateful that I have an instrument that so far has survived.
C: You’ve had a long career and been through many things, faced many challenges. If there was one thing you could take away from your experiences what would it be?
S: As an artist you get so connected to your art, you know, and you can’t forget to live, to be with people, to not just be completely caught up in your bubble of creativity. I’m just so aware as I get older. I think all of us as humans have our compartments, we have our openings and we have our private spaces, we have our timings you know? I might be ready to connect with you and you’re busy doing something else, so I do think we should be open to just life in general you know. I don’t even know how to talk about it so I won’t.
C: And finally, what does the future look like for Suzanne Ciani
S: Well, I’m trying to lighten up right now so as I say, I’m going through these 50, 60 years of recordings. I have tapes, I have videos, I have film, I have reels and reels of recordings. I have a thousand commercials that have just been sitting there for 35 years, so I’m trying to kind of clean up my history. That’s what I’m doing right now, It’s kind of a meditative practice. You get to sit and look. When you’re young you don’t know what’s going to happen and there’s a certain amount of stress in that, when you’re older so much has already happened that you’re not even worried about what’s going to happen because you don’t have enough time to worry about what’s going on.
It’s kind of a relaxing period of life at this moment, so I’m really grateful to be able to have a conversation with you and your generation and thank you for inviting me just to give a window on what that chapter was
We would like to give a big thanks to Suzanne Ciani & Sevwave for helping write this article.
You can buy Suzanne’s latest album here.
Interview & Words: Callum Martinez & Suzanne Ciani
Title image credit: NY Times