Remarkably, it was the 71-year-old's first ever performance in London. You could chalk that up to several things: an underappreciation of Ciani's talents earlier in her career, a lack of touring infrastructure for her kind of niche music, or simply the enormous cost of flying her equipment halfway across the world. She played off a Buchla 200e and some digital interfaces that resembled a Kaoss pad, pumped through a rich quadrophonic soundsystem. Her back was to the audience, presumably so she could concentrate fully on the hulking modular machine in front of her.
Those expecting a show of zone-out serenity were in for a shock. Initially, it seemed it would go that way: a couple minutes of abstract oceanic noises gave way to huge swells of slow, stately ambience. But the drifting dopamine clouds didn't last long, as Ciani quickly moved to a surprisingly forthright passage with a bass-heavy beat and Tangerine Dream-style arpeggiator leads. Every now and again she would jump back, surprised by the sharp tones she was conjuring from her fingertips. One section, around the halfway mark, sounded like a trapped animal scratching around inside a dry wall.
Being up close, with only the mapping of her hands for visuals, you could focus on Ciani hard at work, guiding a broad array of sounds from her blinking analogue machine. Yet every time I thought I'd vaguely grasped what was happening, she moved onto something else. By the end, she'd circled back round to the same hopeful clarion calls that began the performance, before one final crack of thunder and an exaggerated sigh of relief.
The feverish recent reappraisal of Ciani's work has made her a de facto ambassador for the capabilities of not only the Buchla, but leftfield synthesiser music in general. It's a mantle she takes on proudly—with applause still ricocheting around Café OTO, she got on the mic to encourage questions about the machine, saying her "current life mission" is to spread information about it. I'm sure everyone in the room will have gone home fascinated.
Watch a stream of Ciani's performance.
Photo credit /