Suzanne Ciani

The ana­log synth pi­o­neer is en­joy­ing a new wave of re-ap­pre­ci­a­tion


In­ter­sec­tIon Fes­tI­val presents suzanne cIanI and louIse campbell at Re­vue Cinema (400 Ron­ces­valles), Fri­day (Au­gust 31), 7 pm screen­ing of A Life In Waves, 9:30 pm con­cert, all ages. $12-$25.

Though she’s one of the first few women in the United States to have had a caby reer in elec­tronic mu­sic since the 1970s, Suzanne Ciani’s up­com­ing show at the Re­vue will be the first time she’s played in Toronto.

The 72-year-old com­poser is cur­rently trav­el­ling the globe, bring­ing her mu­sic to ap­pre­cia­tive au­di­ences thanks to a re­cent crit­i­cal reap­praisal of her 40-plus-year ca­reer that’s re­dis­cov­ered her ground­break­ing con­tri­bu­tions to the genre.

A new doc­u­men­tary about Ciani, A Life In Waves, screens be­fore her show, out­lin­ing her sig­nif­i­cance and the life­long jour­ney it took for her work to be rec­og­nized.

Ciani’s known for us­ing a Buchla 200, an ana­log mod­u­lar syn­the­sizer de­signed in­ven­tor Don Buchla, whom she calls “the Leonardo da Vinci of elec­tronic mu­sic de­sign.” They met while she was pur­su­ing her mas­ter’s de­gree in mu­sic com­po­si­tion at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley in the late 1960s.

“It was the late 60s, we were hav­ing a rev­o­lu­tion,” she re­calls. “Every­thing was topsy-turvy, up­side down and chang­ing. And that’s when I met Don.”

To a novice, a Buchla is a mess of mul­ti­coloured wires and knobs, but to Ciani, the key­board­less, quadra­phonic in­stru­ment de­manded a much more ab­stract way of think­ing and in­stantly ap­pealed to her.

Ciani ex­plains over Skype that the in­stru­ment also drew her in be­cause the tra­di­tional path for com­posers at the time was so ar­du­ous and com­pet­i­tive, es­pe­cially for a woman.

“Women were sub­con­sciously and con­sciously aware that we had to make a new ap­proach be­cause the tra­di­tional roads were not open,” she says. “When I al­lied my­self with this new thing, the whole world opened up.”

This new world of elec­tronic mu­sic al­lowed her to branch out into the realm of craft­ing what she calls “mu­si­cal ef­fects” or sound ef­fects for com­mer­cials. She founded her own com­pany, Ciani/Mu­sica, fa­mously sound-de­signed Coca-Cola’s “pop and pour,” and had clients like AT&T, Columbia, Atari and Macy’s. You can also hear her syn­thy swooshes on Meco’s fa­mously campy disco ver­sion of the Star Wars theme, re­leased in 1977.

“Things have an im­plied sound even if they don’t make a sound,” she says of the work in­volved in cre­at­ing those iconic ef­fects. “So it was in­stinc­tive, like a form of poetry, where things just spoke.”

In the 1980s, Ciani re­leased her first two al­bums, Seven Waves and The Ve­loc­ity Of Love, which fea­tured her trusted Buchla 200 and a host of other elec­tronic in­stru­ments. As the decade wore on, though, she left her mod­u­lar synth be­hind, which had parts stolen and bro­ken, switch­ing pri­mar­ily to piano to make her New Age mu­sic – a switch that earned her five Grammy nom­i­na­tions.

Af­ter spend­ing much of the 70s and 80s in New York, a move back to Cal­i­for­nia in the 90s found her re­con­nect­ing with the Buchla and even­tu­ally the 200e, a de­scen­dant of her beloved 200 se­ries model synth.

The call to per­form again came much later, af­ter UK-based la­bel Fin­ders Keep­ers Records started reis­su­ing her early, more ex­per­i­men­tal work in 2012. Her lat­est al­bum, 2018’s LIVE Quadra­phonic, is a live record­ing of her first public per­for­mance on the Buchla in 40 years.

“I feel this sense of grav­i­tas that I am con­nected to Buchla, but also to an era when it was pure and ex­cit­ing,” she says.

Ciani re­veals that con­nec­tion to the past in­vig­o­rates her cur­rent work and also gives her a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to help pass on her knowl­edge to the next gen­er­a­tion of ana­log elec­tronic en­thu­si­asts through her speak­ing events and as a scholar of elec­tronic mu­sic at Berklee Col­lege of Mu­sic.

“In just 10 years, you too can learn to play the Buchla,” she jokes.

In­ter­est in mod­u­lar synths is at an all-time high. “It’s just rain­ing mod­ules now,” she notes.

And so the cul­ture fi­nally seems ready for Suzanne Ciani.

“The youth, I give them credit,” she beams. “They’re the ones who said, ‘Wait a minute, let’s stop this in­evitable en­gine go­ing for­ward and let’s look at what hap­pened.’ That’s why LPs came back, tapes and now ana­log. We needed it. It was not fin­ished.”

But Ciani’s ex­cite­ment isn’t rooted in nos­tal­gia, it’s in the fact that be­tween mak­ing mu­sic, per­form­ing and teach­ing, there’s still so much work to be done.

“That’s the thing we love about tech­nol­ogy: it’s alive, it’s or­ganic and keeps grow­ing. And that keeps it in­ter­est­ing.”

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