The Diva of the Diodes

Suzanne Ciani on 50 years of the Buchla 200 Series synthesizer


Suzanne Ciani (1977)Original Source: Bob L.

From designing some of the 20th century’s most iconic sounds and receiving five Grammy nominations for her own albums, to her recent return to the limelight, Suzanne Ciani’s fifty-year career connects diverse parts of electronic music's history. Here, she offers new insights on that career, her approach to sound design, and her relationship with the Buchla 200 – a now-legendary series of synthesizer modules that can be rearranged into a near-infinite assortment of music–making machines.

Suzanne Ciani in the StudioOriginal Source: Sean Hellfritsch

The sound of water
“If I look back at this evolution of this sound design consciousness in my work, it goes right back to the beginning. My fascination with sound first occurred as a child. I had to wear a bathing cap, because I had chronic ear aches. I was in the pool one day, and I took the bathing cap off, and I was overwhelmed with the sonic presence, the crystal sound of the water. Imagine, coming from being blocked from sound with ear plugs and a bathing cap, and if you take that off, you have the sparkle of water. I think that was a decisive experience for me.”

Suzanne Ciani (1973)Original Source: Richard Beggs

A special bond
“The next thing that happened to me was my embracing of electronic music. This happened while I was in Grad school on the West Coast, but it had nothing to do with my school. I did this outside of school when I met Don Buchla.“

Don Buchla, at the time, was developing his groundbreaking Series 200 synthesizer. Working closely with him, Ciani discovered the unprecedented musical possibilities offered by synthesis. Excited by such potential, she gave up on a career as a classical pianist and threw herself into electronic sound design entirely.

Suzanne Ciani (1973)Original Source: Richard Beggs

A performance instrument
“When Don Buchla conceived of this electronic analog music modular instrument, it was something that had a trajectory. It was something that needed to be fulfilled as a performative, playable musical instrument. Everything he did was to encourage that: he made it small and compact – a lot of instruments were too big to be out in the world. He made the Buchla more portable, he made it more fitted to the human body. He really made it as a performance instrument.”

Suzanne CianiOriginal Source: Lloyd Williams

Limitless potential
“I was working in computer music (at Stanford), the Buchla, the electronic music system, musique concrete, and I worked at a radio station during the night to assemble tapes. I experienced the natural ability of electronic sound to represent ideas. It wasn’t even a conscious thing; these sounds were free, unfettered, unattached - it was imaginary.“

Suzanne Ciani - Voices of Packaged Souls Part IOriginal Source: YouTube

Artistic beginnings
In 1970, as Ciani was beginning to immerse herself in the world of electronic sound, artist Harold Paris commissioned her to create music for an abstract sculpture show, the result of which became her debut album, *Voices of Packaged Souls*.

“Harold said, ‘Can you do the sound of heat, the sound of cold, the sound of an old man loving, the sound of an eye tearing?’ You could say well what is the sound of heat? I don’t know, but in your imagination you could make something produce that experience.”

Coca Cola AdvertisementOriginal Source: YouTube

A sound design pioneer
Ciani had been relentlessly exploring new synthesis technologies and successfully building her career as a sound designer when she moved to New York in 1974, taking with her only a suitcase of clothes and her Buchla synthesizer. During this period, she created sounds for major brands and agencies – including the iconic “pop and pour” sound for Coca Cola – and worked as a session musician, playing the synthesizer on other artist’s records.

“I had a lot of attention then, I was as they say, 'hot stuff.' I would ride to New York and I had something very unusual, the Buchla. There was a lot of openings, and I was a pioneer - I enjoyed that experience of being on the front end.”

Suzanne Ciani (1982)Original Source: Technology Magazine

Lonely at the top
While success came quickly to Ciani, being a pioneer isn't always easy – audiences were curious, but didn't yet have a good grasp of electronic music.

“Emotionally, I was lonesome in a way. I was in this world of electronic music that seemed so normal to me, but I was always confronted with this gap – a lack of understanding of what I was doing. I would do concerts in Berkeley, and nobody knew where the sound was coming from. They didn’t have the concept that the machine was producing the sound, that I was controlling it. There was a job to be done.”

Ciani on Letterman ShowOriginal Source: YouTube

A spokesperson for synthesis
Taking it upon herself to educate as well as entertain the general public with her work, Ciani soon became something of an ambassador for synthesis as a whole. Her growing stature culminated in an invitation to appear on Letterman in 1980. Here, she showcases the craft of synthesis for a mainstream US audience - for the very first time.

Suzanne Ciani in the StudioOriginal Source: Sean Hellfritsch

Suzanne Ciani breaking down Ocean Waves

Making waves
“One of the more abstract sounds I do is the Ocean Waves. My music usually comes out of that, the waves have been a metaphor for music for a long time.”

Listen to the audio clip and follow along as Ciani creates one of her trademark sounds with the Buchla 200 series.

Buchla SystemOriginal Source: Courtesy of the Artist

Buchla’s legacy
“The reputation of the Buchla now is that it’s expensive, and complex - but honestly… I feel sad that not everybody has a Buchla. That’s why I’m out playing – because I want to impact. This is a two-sided space: there are engineers that design the tools and there are musicians who play them. I’m trying to show the engineers what is available in the Buchla. He was a master, a Leonardo da Vinci of instrument design – and we need to study his creations.”

Suzanne Ciani - Improvisation on 4 Sequences(live @TivoliVredenburg Utrecht)Original Source: YouTube

The second wave
Ciani’s work, both as a sound designer and as an artist, went from strength to strength for nearly five whole decades, but it wasn’t all Buchla-based – or even electronic. She has released albums worth of piano music, recorded film scores, and performed with new-age jazz group The Wave.

It’s her earliest work, however – particularly with the Buchla 200 series – that ignited a new wave of interest around the globe in the 2010s. Today, she’s travelling the world, giving lectures on synthesis, and performing with the 200 series once again (albeit a more modern, digital version of her priceless original). Here, she performs with the Buchla as part of the ISM Hexadome spatial-sound installation.

Suzanne Ciani – BBC PromsOriginal Source: Gregory White

Endless inspiration
“Of course, if I do this performance 50 times, some of the things I do are similar. But the energy that brings the music to life in the moment, the performance aspect, is an original version of whatever it is. It doesn’t matter if all the notes are the same – there’s a performance energy!

“That energy is what I experience and what I enjoy. The excitement – you can’t stop me. I feel like a horse coming out of the stable, I just can’t wait to play!”

Credits: All media
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