wired for sound: suzanne ciani is the original synth mistress
She basically predicted the evolution of VR in the 70s and taught Philip Glass how to play synth. What have you done with your life?
After completing a masters in classical music composition at the University of California in the late 60s, Suzanne discovered the Buchla modular synthesizer through its creator, Don Buchla. She joined his gang of festival freaks and academic acid eaters and soon mastered the innovative but clunky machine bursting with criss-crossed rainbow wires.
Finding herself one of the few women in sound engineering and electronic music production at the time, she was turned away from record labels who suggested she take up the guitar and become a singer songwriter instead. Fed up with the attitude of a very male music industry, she turned to the world of advertising, who were more open to her weird and wonderful new sounds. The classic Coca Cola can opening sound? That was Suzanne. Also turning her hand to then futuristic washing machines and iconic pinball machine sounds, she appeared on Letterman in 1980, introduced as an "electronic wizard who has won award after award" before David pokes fun at her funny sounding instrument and the audience are left laughing at the whole affair. It's hard to imagine them doing the same had a male producer presented this revolutionary piece of studio equipment.
She's had quite the career, succeeding against the odds for the past half a century and being nominated for five Grammys in the process. Post commercials, she went on to be the first woman to score a major Hollywood movie The Incredible Shrinking Woman with Lily Tomlin in 1981before putting out a romantic, ocean inspired record Seven Waves. Then came two decades of new age classical meets electronic music and an impressive series of studio albums with a leaning towards the piano before she saw the synthy light once more and came back to her faithful instrument friend. Finding a kindred spirit in Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, the duo composed 2016 EP Sunergy together at Suzanne's San Francisco home overlooking the ocean, inspired by the beauty of the sunrise and set.
Having just received the Moog Innovation Award alongside Brian Eno, she's following up her following her lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal last year with a performance and chat with Red Bull Music Academy at Barcelona's Sonar Festival. Pre-show, we find a spot in the shade backstage with Suzanne and delve into her archive visions of the future.
Hello Suzanne. Can you tell us about the group you found yourself a part of when you began making electronic music?
It was a very eclectic conglomerate of people. Buchla worked with his friends, so if he liked you, you were a probably a sufi poet, an indian dancer, or a composer like myself. We worked there at his factory, which was very intimate. He was an unconventional oddball, an acid eater. This was the 60s!
Wasn't everyone an 'acid eater'?
It was a revolution! So everything in the whole world went upside down and changed. We didn't wear shoes for years, everybody's hair was down to their waist, it was a wonderful time. And as I look back now, I realise that this revolution in music was born at the same time as the social revolution, and that makes a lot of sense.
We hear that you gave Philip Glass lessons at one point.
Right… I thought because his music was very based in sequences, repetitive lines, that a machine would be better doing that. But as it turned out, he preferred to have human machines than electric machines.
But you prefer electric machines?
Yes, I find people to be very difficult. But you know what's interesting about Phillip? He's still working with the same people. He's always had very devoted humans, and those humans have been part of him all these years.
And in the same sense, you've had your Buchla that you've returned to, albeit an updated version.
Yes, a dependably ally.
And when it stops working, you'll stop working?
It's important that when you're young and you have that energy and ambition, you go for it. Women always think they're not good enough, and that's ridiculous.
I'm interested to know, when you started out making music, what advances you thought the music world would have made by 2017 vs. where we're actually at?
I always thought that music would become environmental, that in your home you would be able to interact with it, almost as naturally as with air. I used to keep my Buchla on all the time. I would walk into this sonic environment and naturally create and interact with it, not just listen to a recorded sound. I once designed furniture where twelve people sat in a circle and each one had a pitch. You could sit and tune your part of the sequence; it was interactive and alive.
The other thing I envisioned back then that I thought was just around the corner, was a new kind of theatre that would have 360 degree imagery and sound, and you could go into the theatre and experience this immersive environment. I think that it's finally happening now, with virtual reality, but I do wish there were more theatres.
Wow so you basically predicted VR. What do you think we still need to work on?
I hope that we really begin to explore this new dimension of live performance, because that's the area that we're missing. Everybody's sitting in their studios making music with their computers, but what we're missing and what we started back then with Buchla, is live performance, thinking of everything as a performance instrument. I rarely recorded anything.
When you began producing electronic music people tried to push you into being the singer or picking up a guitar. What are the biggest shifts in attitudes towards female producers and engineers that you've noticed?
I think we're taking over actually. I think the only thing women have lacked is self confidence, we still feel like, "Is this okay? Can I do this? Am I doing this right? Does anybody care?" Once you get your self confidence and critical mass, that changes. And I think that's happening.
Did you have any other women in music to look up to or to guide you back then?
My mentor back then was a photographer named Isla Bing. She was born in 1899 and she was a pioneer in photographer. When I met her she was already 80 years old, but she had had an amazing technological career. Her camera was the equivalent of my Buchla. You know, she discovered solarisation before Man Ray. What you realise, frequently, is that women have been invisible historically. It's not that they weren't there doing things, it's that nobody noticed.
They were discredited. Was there a particular piece of advice that she gave you?
She told be to play and not be too serious. She wrote me a poem with that line in it.
You don't need to infiltrate a man's world, you just create your own.
That's brilliant. What do you know now that you wish you had known back then?
Never sign a traditional record deal, or at least be cautious of the business and the rights of your music. Your music is your offspring, your creation. You have to honour it, respect it, and keep it. Don't give it away. You need to take care of it, because somebody else will want it, at least for a few years and then they're off in the Bahamas and they've taken your child.
Is there a particular project, whether personal or commercial, that you're particularly proud of?
Well my personal albums are a special world to me, but I've done fun things like the Xenon pinball machine, that was very special. But that was when I was hired to do something. Now I can't be hired.
Would you want to be?
I would be very expensive right now. You know, I was the first woman to do the score for a major Hollywood feature! Obviously I had the ability, but I was just never hired, and neither were any other women for about sixteen years. I think it's important that when you're young and you have that energy and ambition, you go for it. Women always think they're not good enough, and that's ridiculous.
In terms of defying what's expected of you and succeeding in a very male dominated world, is there any advice you have for women in music today?
Well I always ignored it, but now I think there are enough women that you don't need to infiltrate a man's world, you just create your own.
Applications for a place on the Red Bull Music Academy in Berlin 2018 are now open. Go on, it'll be fun!
Text Frankie Dunn
Image courtesy of Suzanne Ciani