Electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani guides a new generation of musicians towards a Buchla renaissance

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It’s safe to say that Suzanne Ciani has a complicated, back-to-the-future relationship with the past.

In the 1970s, her embrace of the instruments built by Don Buchla and work in quadrophonic sound made her one of the most revered, forward-looking composers in electronic music. You would be hard-pressed to find any mention of Ciani that does not refer to her as a  pioneer of the genre. But she would abandon her Buchla synthesizer a few decades later, only to embrace it again within the past couple of years. Now, she finds herself in demand from ambitious young electronic musicians and composers, or the “kids” as Ciani calls them, who are finding their future by looking to an analogue past.

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“It’s astonishing, what’s happened,” says Ciani, in an interview with Postmedia from California. “We are living a Renaissance period right now. I don’t know how it all happened. It’s kind of a miracle. I credit the kids for putting the brakes on digital. I think that this inevitable technological march forward with digital had some difficulties because kids didn’t really enjoy mousing their way to music. There was an appetite to look backwards and see all these analogue music instruments, where you had hands-on, immediate experience of shaping the sound in real time. And that’s where Buchla came from.”

Ciani was more or less a “kid” herself when she first met Don Buchla in 1969 while doing graduate school work in music composition at the University of California, Berkley.  Six years earlier, Buchla had designed a synthesizer that is considered the first analogue modular electronic musical instrument. Ciani, who was a classically trained pianist, became a quick convert.

“I became an avid promoter of his vision of this musical instrument that was performable in real time,” Ciania says. “Now that the kids are looking back, I feel a calling to share the energy and vision that we had back in the 60s and 70s.”

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While Ciani is now rightly revered for her work on the Buchla 200, she admits there wasn’t much of an audience for it back then. The Buchla never caught on in the same way that Robert Moog’s Moog synthesizer did. People found it confusing.

Buchla stubbornly stuck to his vision. He didn’t want any association with the keyboard. Moog, on the other hand, put a keyboard on the synthesizer and his creation took off.

“All the rock and rollers said ‘Wow, I can make a big sound,’” Ciani says. “But Don’s instrument was really compositional and allowed more sophisticated ways of controlling sound. It was quadrophonic, it was spacial, it was immersive. It was a new world of how you organized sound live.”

Part of the Buchla renaissance will include Ciani’s upcoming role as a master in resident at the National Music Centre. She will be presenting a Buchla Masterclass as part of NMC ON, a music conference that will take place Friday to Sunday at Studio Bell, home of the NMC. She will be mentoring Canadian electronic artists Homesick, Joanne Pollock, YlangYlang and Korea Town Acid. On Nov. 16, she will deliver a masterclass that will include a demonstration of quadraphonic sound and lecture about the history of the Buchla 200 and its successor, the Buchla 200e.

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Ciani reconnected with Buchla himself in the mid-1990s and stayed friends until his 2016 death. But the reasoning behind her embrace of his synthesizers went beyond simple admiration of his vision.

“I always thought of myself as a composer,” she says. “I was raised traditionally with the piano as my instrument. I went to graduate school in music composition. I think they are lots of ingredients that impacted my shift to electronics. One was being a woman composer. Women did not have access to a lot of the necessary opportunities to build a composition career. That already was discouraging, that women weren’t seen as viable composers.”

Electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani in 1975. Courtesy, Lloyd Willimams
Electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani in 1975. Courtesy, Lloyd Willimams Calgary

While attending Wellesley College in Massachusetts before graduate school,  Ciani had met a professor at nearby MIT who was “trying to make a sound using a computer.”

“It was a new concept back then so I had this notion of an alternate reality,” she says. “Then when I went to Berkeley, I found the San Francisco Tape Music Centre. It was housed at Mills College and it had the very first Buchla 100. You could go there for $5 an hour. It was open access to electronic music. It’s something we need more of today.”

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At the time, Ciani didn’t see herself as being way ahead of the curve. She figured the Buchla would catch on within a few months.

“I thought, any minute now this thing would burst on the scene and everybody would get it,” she says with a laugh.

But it didn’t. In the 1980s, Ciani moved to New York and found success on Madison Avenue with a production company that specialized in sound design for commercials. She also scored film and television, including the soap One Life to Live. This is how she financed her own music projects.

Now known as the “Diva of the Diode”, Ciani released more than a dozen albums, starting with 1970’s Voices of Packaged Souls.  Flowers of Evil was released earlier this year. Between 1989 and 2000, Ciani received five Grammy nominations in the New Age category.

Now, with the Buchla all the rage, she intends to strike while the iron is hot.

“In the 60s and 70s, when I first started playing the Buchla 200, there was no audience,” she says. “Nobody understood it. They couldn’t even see it. There was no concept. Even if they heard it they didn’t know where the sound was coming from. So now I can go out and I have an audience; an educated, empathetic, smart audience that speaks my language.”

Suzanne Ciani will hold a Buchla Masterclass on Nov. 16 at 11 a.m. at  Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, as part of NMC On. Visit studiobell.ca.

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