It's not everyday you get to speak with a living legend, and if anyone deserves that title, it's synth pioneer and five-time Grammy nominee Suzanne Ciani, whose groundbreaking work with the modular Buchla synthesizer is the stuff of ambient folklore. And while she may have left electronic music for several decades in favor of traditional piano compositions and commercial work (which included coming up with Coke's famous "pop/pour" sound effect), her most recent release makes it feel like the "Diva of Electronic Music" never left.
Working alongside critically-acclaimed newcomer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith for RVNG Intl.'s intergenerational FRKWYS series, the two created the stunning Sunergy -- an improvised masterpiece defined by its lush, slow-burning oscillations and the way its romantic oscillations eerily recall the motifs from Ciani's standard-bearing 1982 debut, Seven Waves. Accompanied by a documentary of the same name (filmed by Kanye West's "Only One" director, Sean Hellfritsch), it's evident that Ciani is still as dynamic as ever -- so we reached out to the trailblazer herself to talk a little bit about man's relation to the machine, sexism in the industry and how things really sometimes do end up coming full circle.
Let's talk a little about Sunergy, the album you just put out with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. Can you tell me a little about your collaboration, the dynamic you had together and how you went about composing?
I met Kaitlyn by sheer coincidence in this very small town where I live. So that in itself was unusual -- to meet a sister Buchla player out here. I hired her at first as an assistant to help me get ready for a tour that I was doing in Europe. She brought up this idea of the FRKWYS collaboration and brought [RVNG Intl. label head] Matt Werth out here. We talked about it, and then it kind of got put on the back burner. At a certain point, we had an incentive because she was going to move away to L.A., and we looked at it and said, "If we're going to do this, we have to do it now."
So we took a few days in July, and it was just really impulsive -- not a lot of preparation. I had done some live Buchla concerts in 1975, which were recently released -- and as part of the release, I included a paper that I wrote that year describing how you play the Buchla. It was a paper for the National Endowment for the Arts -- they gave me a grant, and I had to produce something. [And this paper] turned out to be like a little recipe book, a starting point. We took some of the sequences that were specified in that paper. There were four 16-stage sequences, and we used those as a starting point for our collaboration together. She played a Music Easel, and I played a 200e -- both Buchla designs -- and we kind of took turns driving. So you have a clock and one person's clock controls the other person's clock. So that how we got locked together.
I'm also curious, I know you were doing strictly acoustic piano compositions for a while, so why decide to go back to the Buchla? And why now?
You know it's funny because when I moved back here to the West Coast in 1992, I reconnected with [Buchla inventor] Don Buchla because he never left Berkeley. Our friendship reconnected and mostly, what we did was play tennis together. I had no intention of going back to that instrument, but you know life is funny and things happen, and before you know it, I had a 200e in my studio. It was a multi-inspiring event.
But I think that Andy Votel at [record label] Finders Keepers had a great responsibility in retriggering my early conscience as an electronic musician. I had done electronics exclusively -- the Buchla -- for 10, 12 years [and then stopped]. And Andy approached me and said, "Gee, could we go into your archives and find some unpublished early stuff?" I said, "Well who would want to hear that? Why would I do that?" And it took a year, a year and a half, whatever for me to even come around to the idea. Part of [the reason I even agreed was] that when I went into the archives, I realized that the tapes there were deteriorating. They were 40 years old, and it seemed that if I was going to rescue anything, I had to transfer them -- so I started a project of transferring some of these old tapes. Andy would ask me to send him stuff, and I did. He released something called Lixiviation, which was a compilation of both really early Buchla things that I had done in my garage in Berkeley and some of the early commercial [commissioned music I made]. I thought, "This is a very obscure label," but before I knew it, the release got a lot of attention.
But it caused havoc with my [newer, acoustic] fans because my fans when they saw a new album -- a new electronic album -- they would rush to buy it, and they would say, "What is this?" And you would see some of the reviews on Amazon like, "Don't buy this. This is not what you think. It's not what you want. It's not what you expect." So I became kind of paralyzed. I thought, "Oh my god will this just go away?" And of course it didn't, and my way of dealing with it is that I really haven't promoted my electronic music. I don't send out announcements. I don't have it on my website. I don't sell it myself even though I have my own record label. So I'm kind of pretending it's not there. But meanwhile, I had come back to the Buchla for better or for worse. It's triggered a lot of old things and new things because technology is a complex field.
So what's keeping you from just sticking with piano?
I did MoogFest. I was going to quit then, and I analyzed what the problem was, the problem was that I couldn't depend on an instrument that could break. There was no backup. And so some people stepped in and said, "Well look. We want it to work for you, and we'll help you get some dependability in this. So kind of now, I'm at a stage where I haven't turned in the towel, but I think if I were to continue in this field, I would want to actually have a lot of input on the design of the instrument. It's technology. It's fragile. Music technology is a collaborative field, like the performer isn't expected to go in there with diagnostic tools. An it's more complicated now because it's a hybrid -- analog and digital. So if I do continue in this, I'm thinking more and more about the special needs of performance instruments, and a lot of these module systems are designed without that concept. And if you did have that as a concept, how would that affect design?
But I thought I had something to contribute because the idea of this as a performance instrument is not generally the norm. People use synths for a lot of reasons, but a lot of times, it's just for recording. And live performance is a different animal. It's a different set of approaches, and I thought that I had something to contribute in that department, because [performance] has been my full focus in my early days. Don Buchla's vision evolved from [seeing his equipment] as a performance instrument and not as a keyboard instrument. So I worked for him, and I adopted his viewpoint, and I decided that I would perform this instrument. It was very challenging. I don't know if it really is a performance instrument.
Do you think you'll ever compose something on another synthesizer?
I am loyal to the Buchla, because I think that [Don Buchla] analyzed the needs of the performance better than anybody else -- and he's kind of a genius that's special. There are people who stand out above the crowd always -- Da Vinci or whatever -- he was somebody who represented a height. Those things haven't really changed. Now we're coming back to module synthesis, analogue digital synths and the issues that he dealt with in the beginning. And even if technology was different or the circuits might have been different, the principles are the same -- how do you relate [this machine] to the human body? How do you help the human mind...interact live with this thing? So those principles are still functioning, and he did a lot of the groundwork for that.
[Don] always said, "don't worry about the inside of the instrument. Worry about the outside. What do you want to touch? What do you want to reach? What do you want to control? Design the interface and then let an engineer figure it out on the other side," and I do think if you're technology-led -- if you say, "Oh this circuit is going to do this, this circuit can do that" -- that's different [than approaching it as], "how can this human body interact with this and perform?" As a performer, I have very clear ideas about what's needed to do that.
Okay, so rewinding a little, you're truly a pioneer in the field, and that hasn't changed in the decades you've been working. Unfortunately, what also hasn't changed is the fact that electronic music is still overtly dominated by men today. What was it like getting started for you though?
Honestly, here's the thing for women in my generation. In the '60s the concept of women's liberation started. Women weren't aware up until then that they were even in the backseat. And then awareness came, which was "Oh my God. We are not getting all of the options that we deserve." Before they had the concept, they couldn't even see it. So we got the concept in the late '60s that women could be liberated and one way that we dealt with it is that we just ignored all of the other stuff. Like when a guy would say "Hey nice legs," you didn't even bat an eyelash -- but that's how it was. You were never acknowledged for your skill or your ability. You were acknowledged for the way you looked, the way you dressed and whether you might be available for sex. That was about it. We learned to ignore all of that, and that was very powerful -- to ignore it.
I was also lucky because I chose a field where there weren't even that many men at that time. When I went to LA with my Buchla, there were maybe two other guys who were doing synth work. And when I went to New York, there was basically nobody.
Yeah, I suppose the dynamic changes when you're one of the few people doing electronics, period. But since you've been here from the beginning, I'm curious as to whether you have any insight into why things have been so slow to change.
Nobody is more shocked than I am. Because my generation, we were the breakthrough generation. We did the first this, the first that. Something that brought this clearly to me was when I did a feature film in 1980. I was hired by Hollywood to do a feature film and I was hired by women -- Lily Tomlin, and Verna Fields, was the new head of the music studio. So as a woman, she had suddenly achieved this huge notoriety and was given power. She had power, Lily had power, they hired me. There was not another woman hired to do a major film, I found out later, until like 1994. And I found out because I was reading a story about Shirley Walker -- in her obituary [it said] she was the first woman hired to do a major Hollywood feature, and I read it, and I said, "No no no no. She wasn't the first because she was in 1994. I did it in 1980." And then the horror of this reality sunk in, like, "oh my God. What's going on?". And here's what it comes down to: the day-to-day functioning of these situations. In Hollywood, the day-to-day thing is that there's a man on the phone talking to another man on the phone, so even though breakthroughs happen, the everyday hasn't changed. You need it not just from the top, you need a ground force. You don't need just a few breakthrough powerful women. You have more women booking the festivals, more women [teaching electronics]. You need an army. You need the lower level.
It's complicated because it's a complex system. You have the publications, the visibility. How does anybody get visibility? Well there are those trade magazines, this and that. There are women's magazines. But I don't think it's going to be done in isolation. I think the partnership of men and women has to become more natural. It's not all "women have to do it on their own." Men are blind still too. Women are still viewed as an exception. But it is changing. It really is. I'm shocked because when I came back into this electronic field, it seemed to me that there were women every place.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani's Sunergy is available Friday, September 16th via RVNG Intl.