Almost any musician would envy Suzanne Ciani’s career trajectory. Now considered one of the world’s foremost synthesists, Ciani’s interest in electronic instruments hit a new level when she was introduced to synth pioneer Don Buchla in the late ’60s, and she soon became the Buchla modu-lar’s most accomplished and devoted evangelist.
Ciani’s move to New York in the ’70s led to a successful career producing music and sound effects for Fortune 500 advertising clients, including futuristic sounds that powered Bally’s Xenon pinball machines and the iconic Coca-Cola “pop-and-pour.” But it was in the ’80s that she helped define a musical style that eventually earned her five Grammy Award nominations for Best New Age Album. Between 1982 and 2005, she wrote and recorded a dozen New Age albums, gradually turning her attention away from synthesizers and toward piano performance and neo-classical composition. Remarkably, she was also the first woman to compose a score for a major Hollywood film.
After years away from the Buchla, Ciani has returned to her electronic roots and again embraced the instrument that once launched her lucrative career in television commercials. Two retrospective albums of her electronic music—Lixiviation and Buchla Concerts 1975—and a documentary film about her career, A Life in Waves, which premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, have introduced her work to new audiences.
Ciani was about to resume touring with her Buchla 200e when she spoke to me from her home, just north of San Francisco.
I understand that you returned to electronic music after giving it up for quite some time. What motivated that?
My reconnection with Don Buchla. We reconnected socially when I moved back to the West Coast in 1992. At that point, I did make an attempt to repair what was left of my original [Buchla] 200 system. Half of it was stolen, and half of it I still had, and I tried to get it repaired. I was told that it was impossible to repair the MARF—the 248, Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator—and since that was the heart and soul of the system for me, I then accepted an offer from somebody in Canada to put the system into a museum. As it turns out, though, I just found out that it actually didn’t make it into the museum.
After years of being socially connected to Don, we played tennis frequently. He was a very good tennis player, and we shared that passion. At a certain point about five years ago, he said, “Look, if you are ever thinking of going back to the instrument, now is the time, because I’m about to sell the company.”
And so I thought, well, okay, why not? So, I put together a list of the modules that I would like and purchased a small system, which I then expanded a little bit almost immediately.
How did you meet Don, and how did your relationship evolve over the years?
I met Don when I came out to the University of California Berkeley in 1968 to go to graduate school in music composition. A friend of mine at the time knew an artist, Harold Paris, who had the building right next store to Don. I had been searching for this electronic music phenomenon, and I didn’t really know what it was. Harold Paris said, “I’ll introduce you.”
So, I went down there and met Don, and of course it was an epiphany. Here was this warehouse full of blinking modular systems, and I decided that I would go to work there when I finished graduate school; so that’s what I did. I did spend a bit of time there—a year, two years—and cobbled together the beginnings of this system. I started doing work in commercials and advertising to make money, and I bought a system. And then I went on to Los Angeles and New York.
Once I moved to New York in 1974, things became difficult for me because the Buchla would break down. It’s a fragile system, and at that time, it was my life. I lived with it, I had it on all day, and when it broke, it was very hard on me. I looked desperately for somebody who could repair it: I wasn’t able to repair it myself. Apparently, nobody else could learn to do it, either. So, I would ship a broken part back to Don, he would ship it back, and frequently it would be damaged in transit.
Things went downhill from there. Because of the emotional difficulties, I had to wean myself from the Buchla and start looking in other directions. Of course, electronics was taking off then. Other manufacturers were coming in, and I ended up working with all of them. At first I was hesitant. I remember when Korg asked me to work with them, I was still a Buchla person, and I said no, because I had such allegiance. But as the Buchla failed me, I started to look in other directions, and I did work with Yamaha and Roland and Eventide and on and on. So, my electronic interactions multiplied, and my studio grew until I had the major electronic production studio for television in New York.
From your perspective, what makes the Buchla so different from other synthesizers?
The early version of the system, when Mort Sub-otnick was involved with Buchla, was not a vision of a live performance instrument. Mort wanted something that could make interesting sounds, and then you could record those interesting sounds and overdub them and make a composition that way. By the time I came along five years later, he had already evolved his own vision of the instrument as a live performance instrument.
The Moog was a very big, non-compact system. You couldn’t readily take it around, and it was relegated to the studio for the most part. Buchla’s system was compact. My case weighs about 38 pounds, so Don’s system was portable.
It was also designed with a lot of feedback, and that, to me, made it more human, because when you played it, you knew what was going on inside. It was like a living being. The pulses were telling you where they were, where the control voltages were. It was filled with LEDs that gave you information, and so it was very interactive. I honestly don’t know how people perform on live modular systems that don’t have feedback. You just don’t know what’s going on.
Besides the Buchla, what other instruments do you most rely on?
Well, right now I’m using just the Buchla. Don passed away last year, and that motivated me even more to get out there while I can and represent that vision.
Before all this happened, I was about to record a new album that I had written in Venice, Italy. I have a tradition of studio albums that I record with various digital instruments and synths. I’ve always had that side. This particular Buchla fascination is separate from that.
I did record one piece, because the Bob Moog Foundation was coming out with a new sound library from MOTU. They asked me to do a piece demonstrating that library, so I took one of the pieces that I wrote in Venice, and I had so much fun recording that. It came out great!
How do you feel about Eurorack modules?
A year ago, I thought, okay, I’m back in this world. Let’s find out who’s doing what. Let’s see if maybe there are some great new designs. Maybe it’s changed, and Buchla’s not the only one. I was playing at a lot of events where there were a lot of Eurorack designers, and I started looking at the format.
The Buchla world doesn’t really integrate easily. It uses a different voltage system. It uses a different-size module. And I like its approach. I like when I’m performing that I can see quickly what I’m reaching for. I can see, oh, that’s audio, this is control voltage, this is timing pulse, and I like that.
When my Buchla is crushed into bits, and if I have to move over to a Eurorack system, I’ll continue exploring that, but I haven’t seen anything yet.
What about clones of Buchla modules?
The heart of my system right now is a clone of the 248 [module]. I also have a clone of the 291 [filter] from the 200 series, the original one. There’s a healthy clone business out there, which is kind of open now. When Buchla was alive, it wasn’t cool, but now clones are okay. I am open to exploring the idea of integrating Eurorack with the Buchla, but right now, I don’t really have any real estate available. When you’re touring, you can’t carry that much stuff around.
Do you do most of your recording in your home studio?
Yes. My studio is tiny now. I’m in a cottage on the ocean, so I don’t have oodles of space. I could bring stuff in, I guess, for the recording.
Is that by design? Did you want a small space?
Yes. I wanted to simplify my life, because I moved out here from New York City, and I had a very big studio. My number one requirement out here was that I not have to have a patch bay, so I don’t have a patch bay in this studio. I work in a very limited, uncomplicated environment.
What platform do you use for recording?
I use Digital Performer. I love it, and you develop reflexes. When I first started in New York, we used PCs. I used a [sequencer] program called Texture. Then I came out to California to produce History of My Heart, my fourth album. I was working up here near San Francisco, and I could not find a soul who could assist on a PC here on the West Coast. I found a guy, and he said, “We all use Apple out here, so you’re going to have to transfer all your sequences to a Macintosh.”
And I said, “Nooo!” But that was what happened. I was forced by West Coast standards to go into the Apple, and, of course, that was the best thing to ever happen to me.
Do you record with the same Buchla system you take on tour, or do have extra modules there?
I don’t really use the Buchla in my studio recording.
Really? What do you use?
On the next album, I’ll be using software synths—Omnisphere, Native Instruments, and whatever else I can find. When I come to that point, I’ll start really exploring what’s out there.
And I am a huge fan of Dave Smith. He was part of my first album, Seven Waves. Who knows what magic produces a particular sound, but the sound of the Prophet in an orchestrated environment—it’s transparent, and it’s not a space hog. It allows the positioning of a lot of different layers and timbres at the same time. That’s why I could never use, in the old days, the Synclavier.
You had a Synclavier, didn’t you? I’ve seen a photos of you with one.
Yeah, I did have a Synclavier, and I rarely used it on my studio recordings, because the sound just ate up the whole track.
What can you tell us about your new documentary film, A Life in Waves?
It just premiered, so that was a breakthrough. The filmmakers are from Texas. They came to me, and they were intrigued by something. Their previous film was about lady wrestlers.
That’s an odd transition, from lady wrestlers to lady synthesist.
I looked at the film, and it was well done. It was a cult film. I just liked these filmmakers. There was something about them that I just felt open to, and so I said yes. It was low budget, because they did a Kickstarter. We started by going into the archives. I have a vault filled with old tapes and old videos. I made a list of some of the things that were in there. They made a list of what they wanted and transferred them.
When they came up here, I thought they were coming up here to talk to me about the film and the direction, to get to know each other, because all we’d had was lunch in Austin. They came up here with their cameras and started shooting. It was really kind of fast. Then they came to Moogfest. They didn’t do a lot of different locations. They came to Wellesley [College] because I got an award, and that was quite a time because there was nine feet of snow on the ground. They did some live shooting interviews, and I think they did a fabulous job on the arc of the story.
When they started, I wasn’t in total agreement about the direction, because I thought it was very tech-oriented.
What would you have preferred?
I’ve spent the last 20 years plus with my independent label, Seventh Wave, which has released my recordings of studio albums, often involving piano or orchestra or jazz group or any combination of things, and that’s really been my living, selling that work. That’s what I identified with. I was just starting to make this comeback.
You’ve been focusing on the music rather than the technology.
Right. I said, don’t put so much emphasis on the technology. Couldn’t we have some footage of the orchestra and the piano? But what happened was that over the few years that they were making the film, the direction of my career did change back to technology. So, in the end, their approach is not so out of sync. I said, “Couldn’t you, please, just put in the albums, those 15 albums that I made?”
Are you helping to promote the film?
That’s why I went to South by Southwest. My attitude at first was, you know, it’s your film. And then I thought, gee, they worked so hard on this, and they did such a nice job, you really should participate more. So, I did go to South by Southwest, and I worked. I did a performance for Moog, and I did a performance for South by Southwest. Now they’re screening it in Boston this coming Sunday, and I’m going to that. Boston’s my hometown, so I have 18 people from my family coming, and that’s really sweet for me.
Did the film motivate the tour you’re doing now?
No, people just invite me to play.
They just happened to invite you, one after the other, so you could arrange a tour?
It’s not the most accommodating schedule. I go from Philadelphia to New York to Amsterdam to Detroit. Just the same way I don’t want a patch bay, I want to keep my life simple. I don’t want an agent. I’m not the best organizer. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll be in Durham for Moogfest, but that’s a one-off. In June, I have two festivals in Europe—one that is sponsored by Red Bull, and the other one’s in Italy, where my family is. After that, I want to stop.
So, you can finish your album?
In the ’70s, when you were doing advertising music and such, what was your relationship with the piano?
For the years that I played the Buchla, for almost ten years, I didn’t touch the piano. I didn’t want to confuse things. [Don] Buchla’s one overriding concept was that a mechanical keyboard was an inappropriate interface, so I just hated a mechanical keyboard of any kind. And then on my second album, The Velocity of Love—that was in ’86—that was the first time that I had used a piano in all those years.
Your albums helped define the sound of New Age music. How do you feel about having been part of that?
It was a double-edge thing. I had a Number One radio song, and at the moment that I had licensed that to RCA, RCA was sold to BMG. And I was just crossed off the list. I had a Number One radio song with no distribution and no rights, because I had licensed it for whatever it was, three years or five years. Fortunately, eventually I got it back, but that was an eclipse of major proportions.
As this New Age category opened, it did allow better marketing for my stuff from then on, because there was a place to put it. When Seven Waves came out, no record store knew where to put it. Was it instrumental? Was it electronic? Was it jazz? Was it classical? What was it?
New age—I never identified with it. It kind of came after the fact for me. I didn’t even know what it meant.
But it was good for you that New Age became popular.
Yeah, it was, in terms of distribution. Then there was a category for the Grammy Awards. You could get nominated because there was a category.
How did your soundtrack for Lily Tomlin’s 1981 film, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, come about?
That was funny, actually. One day the phone rang and a guy with a British accent said, “This is Brendan Cahill from Universal Pictures, and we would like you to send over some materials right away, because we’re interested in having you score the Lily Tomlin movie.” And I hung up on him. I thought that was a joke. And then the phone rang again.
I said, “Who is this?” And then I realized, I’d better get some tapes out there fast. I did, and the only reason I was hired was that Lily is a woman. Otherwise, forget it.
There wasn’t another woman hired to score a major Hollywood feature until 1994. That was Shirley Walker. When she died, her memorial said Shirley Walker was the first woman to be hired to score a major Hollywood feature, in 1994. I was hired in 1980. I realized not only that I was the first, but there wouldn’t be another one for 14 years! Do you realize what that says?
Yes, unfortunately, I do. When you started doing music for advertising, did you encounter resistance because you were a woman?
I was lucky, because I was doing a field that nobody was doing. I was pioneering sound design. They had to go to me.
What direction would you like your music to go in the future?
All my electronic music now has been released on third-party labels, because my indie label doesn’t do that kind of music. I would like to release live performances of the Buchla, because I think that’s my message now. And then I’m going to do the studio album, the Venice album. Those are my plans. When I go to Philadelphia, I’m doing two nights, one Buchla and one piano, so I’m keeping my hands in the piano universe.
Read the entirety of our interview with Suzanne Ciani, here.