"They really didn't have a perception of women as people." Suzanne Ciani explains the obstacles she faced en route to becoming one of early electronic music's most respected composers.
Ciani remembers the story with a laugh. Now 69 years old and living a quiet life in the beachside town of Bolinas, just north of San Francisco, she knows how ridiculous it sounds. "Those were the days," she says. "You can't even imagine them actually, the dark ages and the cultural norms. Young men who have grown up since that time aren't even aware of that dichotomy that existed then."
Despite such obstacles, Ciani has put together a body of work that towers over many of her contemporaries'. Although she's best known in electronic music for her early mastery of the Buchla synthesizer, her accomplishments go much further than that, spanning several decades and multiple fields. In the late '60s and early '70s, she was a Berkeley hippie dabbling in electronic composition, working alongside Don Buchla and hanging out at the San Francisco Tape Center. After finishing college, Ciani applied her talents to the world of advertising, dazzling Fortune 500 companies with her futuristic sound palette. People started referring to her as the Diva Of The Diode. "My theory was, if somebody else can do it, let them," she says. "I wanted to do something that nobody else could do, and that was to be my contribution."
Around this time, Ciani became the first woman to appear on the cover of Keyboard magazine and was even a guest on David Letterman's short-lived morning show on NBC. Bally hired her to do all of the sound effects and music for Xenon, the first speaking pinball machine—a job that led to Ciani's 2013 induction into the Pinball Expo Hall Of Fame. Soon the TV and film industry came calling, most notably commissioning a soundtrack for the 1981 film The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
Ciani also contributed sounds to numerous jazz and pop albums—she did the sound effects on Meco's platinum-certified disco version of the Star Wars theme and the swoosh on Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight." At one point Jellybean Benitez approached her about working on Madonna's first album, but she declined when he insisted that Ciani come and check out the NYC club scene with him—going out all night was not an option given her work schedule. A record deal of her own, however, proved elusive. It wasn't until 1982 that she officially became a recording artist, but once it did happen, Ciani's first albums helped put new age on the map long before most people were familiar with the term.
Ciani has been nominated for five Grammy awards over the years, and even though she essentially abandoned electronic music altogether in the '90s and '00s, there's no question of her standing in the genre's history. Still, when Finders Keepers—a UK label Ciani hadn't heard of when they got in touch—started reissuing her music, her legacy got a shot in the arm.
In conversation Ciani is light and bubbly, often recounting the most fantastic bits of her story in a refreshingly casual manner. After all these years, she's still slightly surprised that anyone is interested in her old synthesizer experiments, though she seems to get a kick out of revisiting a chapter of her life she thought was closed. "I feel as if I crawled out from under a rock," she says. "There's a huge audience out here for this tech stuff. It's been a gradual increase for awareness, for me, of what's going on out there and I still don't have a complete grasp of it, but I am playing the Buchla again."
Ciani may be humble, but she's also determined. On her first day working at Don Buchla's lab, she was actually fired when someone discovered a cold soldering joint and blamed the new girl. Ciani, however, refused to accept the idea and simply showed up the next day. Years later, the Motown veteran Billy Davis came to New York to lead the music department at McCann Erickson, the world's leading advertising agency. When he no-showed on multiple meetings with her, Ciani barged into a studio session he was conducting and wound up booking a job with Coca-Cola. And when labels in the United States and Europe refused to give her a record deal, she headed to Japan—the second-largest vinyl market in the world at the time—to shop her music, bringing Davis along to help negotiate.
The plan was a success. Victor signed on to release her debut album, Seven Waves, an LP that Ciani had essentially recorded and financed on her own. She was living in New York at the time, running her own company, Ciani/Musica, which was frequently hired to make music and sound effects for the likes of AT&T, Atari, Columbia Pictures, Black & Decker and countless others. "I did a lot of work in commercials so that I could support my art form," she explains. "I was never in it for money's sake. I never had any hunger to be rich. I just wanted to support my art, and in so doing I did make a lot of money."
That money came in handy—the record industry could barely comprehend what Ciani was trying to do, even from a technological perspective. "They would say, 'Well, what do you need to do a demo?' I'd say, 'Well, I need a week in the studio.' They said, 'Well, we'll give you a guitar and a bass and three hours in the studio.' And I said, 'No, no, no, no. It's not that kind of music.' And they said, 'Well, don't you sing?' And I would say, 'No, I don't sing.' There was a complete chasm between me and the record business."
Ciani realized that she was on her own. "I started recording on weekends," she says. "I did commercials during the week and when the weekend came it was a sacred space. I had to book outside studios because I didn't have the recording gear, the multi-tracks that I needed. It cost money, so I would save up the money, book the studio, lug my stuff over there on Saturday morning and record in one weekend."
Listening to Seven Waves, it's hard to believe it came from such a struggle. Full of washy, oceanic atmospheres and sparkling melodies, the album is a peaceful, almost Balearic collection of intricately crafted electronic music. It's also largely devoid of percussion, an element that has never much interested Ciani. "For me, the rhythm was propelled by the sequencer," she explains. "The beauty of electronic music, to me, was this purely, perfectly dependable rhythm that was the underpinning of the machine. You could relax because the next beat was guaranteed to be right where it was supposed to be… It doesn't have to be done with the drums. I was never a big fan of drums and I was never a big fan of a lot of the components of pop music—lyrics, for instance, or words—which, to me, distracted from the other things that could be going on."
Not surprisingly, when Seven Waves came out the industry didn't know what to do with it. Ciani saw her music as a fusion of electronic synthesis and classical, but it also resembled new age, a then-nascent genre that had been bubbling throughout the '70s but hadn't become established in the mainstream. All of this made marketing the LP a real challenge. "At that time," says Ciani, "there actually wasn't a new age section and the album didn't have a category. If you could find it [in a store], because I had my picture on the cover, they thought I was a singer, so I would either be in 'female vocalist,' I might be in 'electronic,' I might be in 'classical,' I might be in any number of categories." By the time Ciani's second album, The Velocity Of Love, was released in 1986 (with a US record deal), things had improved. "As much as I didn't like the idea of new age," she says, "I was grateful that now you could tell people where to go if they wanted to find my music."
Listening to Ciani's early albums, especially her commercial work, it's clear how central of a role the Buchla played in her creative vision. "One reason I play the Buchla, as opposed to another instrument, is that it gives me a lot more fine control and feedback," she says. "I can make subtle changes and the instrument talks back to me. I find it very hard to play an instrument that doesn't communicate back. I think that's one thing that the Buchla excels in."
When Ciani first moved to New York in 1974, she was communicating with her Buchla a lot—the instrument was one of the few things she actually owned after moving to the city on a whim. It was a tough time in her life. She had been welcomed by New York's artistic community—she received grants, was featured in The New York Times and was sleeping on Philip Glass's floor at one point. But she had one major problem: she wasn't making enough money to survive. She often jokes that the Buchla was her boyfriend during those years, a sort of companion that she would leave running for weeks and months at a time. "It was a breathing thing," she says. "The lights would go up and down and flicker here and there. It did have an anthropomorphic dimension to it, plus it was responsive. It was warm and responsive and you could interact with it."
The Buchla is often referred to as a synthesizer, a term its creator, Don Buchla, had tried to avoid. In his mind, the machines were capable of making new sounds and weren't created with the intention of emulating existing instruments. Unlike his rival Bob Moog, Buchla refused to adopt a permanently attached black-and-white keyboard as an interface; he encouraged the possibilities of programming and essentially saw the keyboard as obsolete, a belief that Ciani shared at the time.
"There was nothing useful about mechanical action in an electronic system," she says. "A keyboard that produced one event or one action was too primitive. With a touch keyboard, you could program the keyboard to do any number of things. You hit one key and ten things happened, not one… Even though I had been raised as a pianist, there were about ten years where I didn't even touch a keyboard because I didn't want to blur that consciousness about the unique place of this electronic instrument."
Despite her fondness for his creations, Ciani didn't get along with Don Buchla when they met. Although she now considers him a very good friend (the two often play tennis together) she describes their initial relationship as "almost adversarial." She explains: "He didn't see me as a viable artist because he was very preoccupied with the guys that he was already working with. Don was a generation older than I was and they really didn't have a perception of women as people. That was a real problem."
Ciani's professors at UC Berkeley, where she arrived in 1968 to complete a master's degree in music composition, weren't exactly supportive either. When the school acquired a new Moog, Ciani was told that she "wasn't qualified" to use it. "Really, it was just the head of the department protecting himself," she says. "They were afraid that they didn't really know what this Moog was and they were damned if they were going to let one of the young students take over and do it before they knew how to do it."
At the time, Berkeley was considered to have the best music department in the country, and many of Ciani's teachers were regarded as top composers, but the traditional bent of her coursework left her cold. "I thought it was very dry," she says. "Academic music, at that time, was going in the wrong direction because everybody wanted to be more and more complex. The more difficult music you wrote, the more talented you appeared to be. You would write these very challenging scores that nobody could play and it had nothing to do with emotion or an emotional communication. It was all kind of like showing off, so I didn't really like it."
Seeking additional ways to express herself, Ciani took a summer course, taught by Max Mathews and John Chowning, two pioneering figures in the history of computer music, at Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Labs. The work was highly technical and involved punch cards—there was no real-time interface—but it satisfied Ciani's desire to explore something new. The following year, she found herself spending more and more time at the San Francisco Tape Music Center at Mills College in Oakland. "You could go there for $5 an hour and of course you never ended up paying anyway," she remembers. "I would just go in there and stay all night and nobody bothered me. I had access to a Buchla 100, an early Moog modular and all the kinds of electronic paraphernalia that they had from Army surplus."
Once Ciani landed the gig at Buchla's lab (thanks to an introduction by famed sculptor Harold Paris, whose studio on the Oakland waterfront was right next door) she was able to ramp up her forays into electronic music. Shortly thereafter, her first commercial commissions began to come in, and Ciani realized that she not only had a talent for sound design, but that her talents weren't necessarily shared by her male peers.
"I think there's a different aesthetic, a primally different aesthetic that women have that you're not going to find with men," she says. "Certainly there are always overlaps, nothing is black and white, but there are ways that women use electronics that men will not and vice versa."
"It's a very refined craft," she continues. "It can be blunt and heavy-handed, but it also has the potential of being extremely refined. When you turn that knob you can slam it to the right or the left or you can move it up a hair and you'll get something. I think that the sensibilities and the sensitivities of the way women interact physically is a good thing in hands-on electronics."
These days, Ciani is slowly working towards resharpening those skills. She's not completely satisfied with her new Buchla 200e—she repeatedly mentions that the tuning is not as stable as it used to be in her old machine—but that hasn't stopped her from diving back in, both at home and on the road. In 2013 and 2014 she played several US and European dates in collaboration with Andy Votel and Sean Canty's NeoTantrik project, including a stop at the Unsound festival. This May, she'll play solo at Moogfest. She's due to appear in Rvng. Intl.'s FRKWYS series, and Finders Keepers are releasing pair of a live performances she did in New York more than four decades ago on a record called Buchla Concerts 1975.
Despite all of her accomplishments, Ciani remains incredibly modest. "I was lucky in that I didn't have any competition," she says. "There weren't even any men doing what I was doing. A few, but not enough. The fact that I had picked this area that I loved and that really was uncontested in a way, it also allowed me a great deal of independence. In that situation, you can just depend on yourself, which is a good thing for somebody who's not accepted into the norm of things."