When Geary Yelton interviewed Suzanne Ciani earlier this year for the feature story Suzanne Ciani’s Marvelous Journey, we ended up with far more information than we had room for in print.
In honor of Ciani's upcoming performance at the 18th annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival on Sunday, September 10, 2017, we’re posting this bonus material for you to enjoy.
For you, what other things made the Buchla different from other synths?
Buchla's system was compact. You could keep the design breakdown to the suitcases. He didn't make anything without the support of how you could move it easily. Even today, the suitcase that I have for my performance Buchla is one that Don didn't design from scratch, but he became an expert in shipping needs. What is the proper design of a case that will protect the instrument and is also light enough?
We used to use those huge Calzone cases that weighed a ton, and that was never Buchla's idea, because once you get into that heavy domain, you're really not that portable. So, Don found these very light, kind of aerodynamically designed, plastic cases that were light enough so that maybe the baggage handler on an airplane would not be tempted to smash them down.
I played a Moog a few years ago. They asked me to play the reincarnation of the Model 15 at the NAMM Show, and I was, again, reminded of the cavernous difference between the approaches. The Moog has a wonderful sound, but it was never designed to be a performance instrument. It became even more apparent to me, when I did go back to electronics, that these original concepts are still operating—the difference between them. My loyalty to Buchla is that I think he had something very special to say about instrument design for performance, and that's what I care about now.
You hadn't played software instruments?
I've had them, but I've never been in love with them. My last studio album was called Silver Ship, and I did use some software instrument in that, but I also combined, as with my evolving habit, [hardware] instruments.
I had cello. I had Paul McCandless on oboe. Paul used to live here in Bolinas, in the same small town. I used a variety of sources, and yes, I used some digital instruments. But I was just as apt to use a Prophet of some nature. I can't ever remember, but I'm sure it's credited on the album, because I always credit all the instruments I use. So, what were we talking about?
Do you still play any software instruments, and if so, which ones?
Well, I can't wait to get back to them, but right now I'm doing live Buchla. When I go back, I have recently received all the Native Instruments, the Spectrasonics, and the Moog Foundation [software]. I've been teaching a little bit at Berklee in Boston.
What's the course?
I'm what they call a visiting artist, so I sit in on the EPD—Electronic Production and Design—and it's been absolutely amazing to be there, because this institution delivers the most comprehensive, intense education in this field.
One of the first things I did there, they have a live modular class, and I conducted six live modular players to do a quadraphonic (my favorite is quadraphonic) performance. Their instructor, Matthew Davidson, test designed some integrated software so that, for instance, any one of the performers—they have six identical Eurorack modular stations with a variety of manufacturers' modules—can control the tempo of the whole group. And they have communications software, so somebody can signal and say, "Hey, I'm going to slow this down in 30 seconds," or "Hey, I want to do this or that," whatever they decide they want to communicate. It was just such a revelation to me to see how far this possibility of live performance has come.
What I did, when [the label] Finders Keepers released the live Buchla Concerts from 1975…Do you know about those recordings? Inside the LP is a document that I had written for the National Endowment of the Arts, because they gave me a grant. I describe how you play the Buchla live. And I went back to this document that I hadn't looked at since then and saw those four sequences that were documented from the early performances.
I gave those four sequences to the students, and those are the four sequences that I've been using exclusively. In the album, for instance, with Kaitlyn [Aurelia Smith], Sunergy (FRKWYS13), that's based on those four sequences. My live performances now with the Buchla are based on those same four sequences. In a sense, I'm connecting to the DNA of my formative years in this, which were my most intense times.
So, it's as if you're collaborating with your previous self.
Yes, exactly. There are other differences, because the new system, the 200e, is related but has differences—some of them, a little sad.
You consider them limitations?
For instance, the module that related to the MARF, the 248, in the new system was called the 250. Instead of being the Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator, was the Dual Arbitrary Function Generator, and so I got two of them. I thought maybe with two of them, I can be multiple. Then I started to try to use it in the way that I used to use it, and I fed my sequences into the external inputs, or I decided to program the sequences internally, and they couldn't be tuned across more than two octaves, even though there are switches on the thing that are supposed to give you equal incremental transpositions, but it wouldn't. And I go to Don, and I say, "Hey, Don, I can't tune this."
And he said, "Well, bring it over." And I thought, well, maybe he thinks I don't know how to tune. So, I bring it over, we sit down, we do a few little tests, and he looks at me and says, "Hey, you're right; can't be tuned."
And I said, "What can we do?"
He said, "Well, do something else."
He didn't offer to redesign it; he put it on you?
Well, you know what the problem is? Here's the problem in this new world. It's like your car. In the old days, you could go to the mechanic down the street, and he could open it up and fix it. Now it's software. You've gotta go to their computer and plug it in, or you can't fix it. The problem with these hybrids is there's firmware, and anybody just going up to this thing to repair it doesn't have access to the firmware. Don himself doesn't know where the firmware is, because it was cobbled together by any number of people.
And I realized that there really isn't a replacement right now. That's another reason why I'm out there right now. I want to close the gap and be a spokesperson for this corner of the universe called live performance of modular electronic instruments.
I like Make Noise; I love Tony Rolando. I think he's a great designer. I find that a lot of people are designing modules, and yes, you can configure your instrument in a performable manner, but the consciousness of performance isn't the big umbrella of design. A lot of the modules don't have feedback. I'm not anxious to get into a world where I'm looking at one gray connector for everything.
I don't know what's going to happen. After I gave up with the 250, I got a clone. So, the heart of my system right now is a clone of the 248.
Who makes that?
Roman Filippov [of Sputnik modular]. He's Russian, but now he lives in Japan.
The instrument you take on stage is your clone?
It's the Buchla, and I just plug the clone right in there. It's slightly different, because the Buchla didn't have memory, so Filippov, to the best of his understanding, did what the 248 did and added a few things besides, and forgot a few things, too. But I have, right now, an 18-panel unit Buchla. When I first started performing, I had two suitcases. I had a 12-panel unit, which was nice and small and safe for the airline, and then I had a 10-panel unit, Skylab, which is something Don designed.
That's the one that goes in the overhead compartment?
All you need is one heart-wrenching experience, like you get on a small plane, and they say, "I'm sorry, that won't fit. We'll have to check it."
And I say, "I'm sorry, you can't check this." And there's a standoff. "I'm not getting on this plane." It's scary, and I thought, okay, I can't do this unless they want to fly me first class every place I can bring my Skylab. So, I compromised on an 18-panel unit and got rid of the 12. I went from 22 panels to 18. And to make up for some of that difference… because I'd been working with Moog, which is really surprising to me, but we're living in a new era. When I was in electronics the first time around, there were these major dichotomies. There was Buchla. There was Moog.
What some people call West Coast and East Coast.
Right, but also for our loyalties, I gave a cold shoulder to Moog all those years, because I thought they weren't...healthy...for what happened. The Buchla vision didn't get carried forward. Now, it's all this wonderful, warm sharing.
You know, I did my first solo performance of my comeback for Moog in San Francisco. They were honoring [Don] Buchla, and so I said okay. Then I played at Moogfest, because they were honoring Buchla, and I'm playing at the next Moogfest, surprisingly. When I did the first Moogfest, I said, "That's it. I've done my Buchla, and I'm done." I had no intention of making my life back into live performing of the Buchla. I wanted to go back and do my studio album that I wrote in Venice.
What changed your mind?
Emmy [Parker] at Moog.
She can be very persuasive.
Yeah. She said, "Well, wait a minute. What's between you and doing this? I mean, what's your real problem? What's your problem?"
And I said, "You know, I can not count on my instrument. It's not reliable, and it doesn't do what I want."
And she said, "Well, we can fix that. Let's really look at this. Let's see what we can do." And so that began this new outlook for me, that maybe this could be remedied. Maybe there was something to do about it.
I got deeper into what's wrong, what can we do to fix it, and maybe even...what would you want, ideally, in a performance instrument? And I started to think, sort of without limits, well, what would I want? You know, it's not that easy. I'm a Buchla person, and my concepts are Buchla-rooted.
When I'm turned out into the expansive open space in design, I see so many things. There are these wonderful graphic interfaces now. I use an Animoog [Moog iOS app] also in performance, because I have a small Buchla, and I just need, sometimes, a transitional bass note. The Animoog is an amazing little thing. It's not a whole performance instrument.
And then I started thinking about the new instruments of the future. I started looking at what I had to go through every time I perform. I'm like a Hell's Angel taking apart the motorcycle and putting it together. I have to patch in a hundred cables just to get started, and I'm good at that now. I can just plug in all those cables without looking at my diagram, which is what I had to do in the beginning.
Then I think, when you perform, you want a physical universe. You want to be able to touch something. You want to turn a knob. You want to feel a patch cord. You want to move a lever. You want to put your fingers over it touchingly. If you said, well, maybe we could just memorize all the patch connections, then you wouldn't have to make those physically. I just don't know.
I talked to one designer who worked for NASA, and she's working in 3-dimensional holographic designs. On some level, I think, oh, that's the future, where you can step into this 3-dimensional world, touch things, move things, but it's still all software. You need both.
And I think, how many years left do I have? Not that many. I admire Mort Subotnick. He's 84 now, and he's still traipsing around, God bless him.
And he's still very enthusiastic about it.
He is. And I'm not a baby. I'm not in my 80s yet, but I'm getting up there. Let's just say it's very interesting, and I'm loving being part of it, but it's not as if I have the answers. I don't. I'm confronting the issues and the problem specifically with the 200e. I see a lot of issues. Things were better in the old days. You had more than one control voltage input to an oscillator. Now you have one, and so you're forced to mix it in this horrible, distorting mixer. You had a filter that you could put a control voltage in, one way or the other, and attenuate it. The 291 200e filter has no attenuation.
What hardware do you have in your studio?
It comes and goes. I do have a Prophet '08, but I'm going to exchange that for something. I haven't been to Dave's place [Dave Smith Instruments] in the City, yet. The first thing I'm going to do is go into the City and check out his stuff, there.
When was the last time you were tempted to buy a new instrument?
I guess the last thing I bought was the Prophet '08. I do have some [Moog] Mother-32s that I got in exchange for some programming. The Mother-32 is a lovely instrument. I also have a Sub-37, which is not in my studio right now.
How do you like the Sub-37?
It hit me at the wrong time, because I'm into live performance now, so it wasn't the right timing for it to enter my life. But when I go back to doing the studio album, I don't think I'm going to have a use for it, actually. It's a wonderful instrument, I hear from people who love it.
What kind of programming did you do for Moog?
I did a set of sounds for the Model 15, the iPad version. I also did the sounds for the Library.
The Bob Moog Encore Soundbank? That's for the Bob Moog Foundation. That's a different organization than Moog Music.
Right. I need to make that distinction. I've been working with Moog. I did that NAMM performance of the Model 15. I did the performance in San Francisco at the Gray Area, and I just played at South by Southwest.
I'm curious, who chose the title, A Life in Waves?
They [the filmmakers] did.
How did you feel about that?
I thought, well, it has meaning to me, because the way it's been my life. My compositions are called waves. My first album is Seven Waves. My second album was also called Waves, but everything got relabeled. Now I live on the ocean and listen to the waves when I go to sleep, when I wake up. And I think the shape of the wave really is a metaphor for just about everything. It has electronic meaning. It has historic meaning.
I remember in New York, doing production in the studio, you'd get all your musicians in, you're recording a track, and there would always be the shape of a wave in the takes. You'd do a great take, and somebody would kick the microphone, so you'd say, "Oops, that was great, but let's do another one." And then it would go down from there. It would go down, down, down, down. You'd think, "Oh my god, they've already done it perfectly. How come it's not going to come out perfect again?" And it doesn't come out perfect. It gets worse and worse and worse and worse, and then it gets better, better, better, better, and you come back to the top of the wave.
How do you feel about sampling?
I don't like samples. I don't like anything prerecorded. I am a spokesperson for the live generation of sound—live, in-the-moment composition—live modular, without using Ableton. I don't use any of that.
What do you use to record your performances?
For live concerts, I use whatever is there to record them. I haven't started to release these yet, because I want to release in quadraphonic.
I know you've always been a big proponent of quadraphonic sound. What about 5.1? A lot of people have 5.1 systems for their home theaters.
5.1 is perfect. If you have a 5.1 system, you can play quad. The subwoofer is fabulous; you need that. The middle speaker, we don't need. We need just the four speakers. Maybe we can do it this time.
Nothing says you can't ignore the middle speaker.
Yeah, so there's a chance. So, I'm talking to a guy who says he can do quad vinyl.
I remember that from back in the mid-'70s.
I'm so glad you remember that! Weren't you sad, at the time, being in electronics, that they thought quad was about the back of the concert hall? They just missed the point, because only electronic music could make proper, meaningful use of the spatial dimension.
How did you go from music and sound design for television commercials to becoming a recording artist?
I was always a recording artist in my mind, but I couldn't get a record deal, and in those days, you had to have a record deal, because you couldn't make LPs. There were no CDs. I decided that I would finance the recording myself, and so I went to work doing advertising in order to get the money to do my recordings. I would do my recordings on the weekend and advertising during the week.
You'd buy studio time for the weekend?
Yes, and it was expensive. Kids don't know that we paid thousands of dollars for a weekend. It was a different context.
I know you love living where you do and having the ocean nearby. Where else do you look for inspiration?
I travel. I went to Italy many times to write. Hotel Luna was written in Italy. This new album was written in Italy. I used to travel to California to write. Also, traveling gives you the inspiration of the place, gets you out of your day-to-day life so nobody can bother you.
Do you think you'll ever hang up your patch cords and retire from making music entirely?
I don't think I'll ever retire from making music, not entirely. I mean, good God, it hasn't happened yet! I don't think it's going to happen, but I do want to get a balance in my life. I'm doing so much work now that my friends are getting angry. My tennis matches are suffering. My family misses me.
For more information, visit Suzanne Ciani's website, Sevwave.
Here's a little taste of "A Life In Waves"