Suzanne Ciani

Suzanne Ciani at home in Bolinas. Photographed by Jake Stangel.

Suzanne Ciani is one of electronic music's earliest and most influential figures. She is also, it turns out, a lovely person to interview. A few days after our photographer Jake Stangel paid a visit to her idyllic oceanside home in Northern California, we caught up with Ciani by phone. She was warm, open and—despite her busy work schedule—seemed genuinely eager to talk. In a lilting voice that reminded us of our high school art teacher, the five-time Grammy-nominee chatted about her journey from classical music scholar to 1970s synth pioneer, her tempestuous on-again/off-again relationship with her instrument, the Buchla, and why analogue electronic sound is (finally) having its moment. Below, a condensed version of our conversation.

Hi Suzanne! The portraits that Jake took of you are so beautiful.

Oh, really? Wow. I was in a bad mood that day. I think I had just paid my taxes.

Well, it gave you a poetic moodiness. And your home in Bolinas looks amazing. Are you there now?

Yes. I've actually been here for more than 25 years, which is completely shocking. I think I've been here longer than I've been anywhere.

Why have you stuck around that long?

I'm a prisoner of beauty. I live in an extraordinary spot on the very fringe of the West Coast. I know it's not the real world because I lived in New York for 19 years.

Jake was curious if the proximity to the ocean influenced your work.

Oh absolutely, my music has always been about the ocean, the waves. My first self-produced Buchla album was called “Seven Waves.” The wave was a compositional form for me, a symbol of a new kind of rhythm that’s slow, very sensual, very feminine.

You returned to the Buchla only recently. Why did you stop playing?

My Buchla met a bad fate. It was the 200 system, which I was in love with. I mean, true love. Half of it got stolen, and then the other half was broken in transit. And in those days, nobody in New York knew how to fix a Buchla.

The funny thing is that about 10 years ago the stolen part of the Buchla reappeared. Somebody sent me a picture of it. It had been sent to them to be repaired. I mean, I fainted when I saw it, I truly fainted. It was a messy situation and I never got it back. I’m always amazed by how cloak-and-dagger the whole electronic world can be.

So there was a long period of time where you were Buchla-less?

Yes, and then when I came back to the West Coast in 1992 I reconnected with Don Buchla. One day he called and said, “Look, if you're ever thinking about going back, now is the time, because I'm going to sell the company.” He encouraged me to put together a system and I did. I reconfigured a 200e. Then it sat there for about a year, I wasn't interested. But these things, they're evolutionary. Things just kind of grow, and I started a relationship with the machine, and then Don died.


“I'm a prisoner of beauty.”

What do you think is driving the resurgence?

I don’t know. But it's unusual because when it comes to technology, we have this mindset that it’s always moving forward and that it's getting better. I give the kids credit for just putting the breaks on and saying, "Wait a minute, stop." Because it wasn't getting better. So now we’re going back and reconnecting with something that had been lost, and is very vital. Analogue and digital are two different worlds. Analogue is more tactile, and it's more alive. With digital, there’s a lot of sampling that goes on, freezing sound, and that's not as interesting to a lot of ears as analogue, which is the living evolution of a sonic gesture.

When did you first encounter electronic sound?

In my college music class at Wellesley. We went to MIT for a social evening and that’s where I first heard of this concept of a computer sound.

What made you want to pursue it?

Well, there were many things. After Wellesley, I went to grad school at The University of California at Berkeley to get a master's degree in music composition. It was a very challenging field for a woman, for anybody, but especially for a woman, because in order to realize your composition you had to enlist orchestras and bodies of musicians and it was hard to get access to them. In the meantime, I met Don who introduced me to his instruments. I loved the independence they gave me. For the first time as a composer, I could control everything. And it was in the moment. Composition was not real-time before that, you wrote something, then you had the parts copied, then you went in front of musicians and conducted and then finally you heard it. The idea that I could kind of be in the moment and compose was very stimulating and freeing. It meant that I could be my own person. My whole life has been about finding independent pathways, because the ones that required admission weren't open to me.

Was electronic music in the '60s and '70s less of a boys club than the classic music?

In one way, I was lucky, because I came to New York with a unique instrument, so it wasn't as if I had a lot of competition. I profited off that. That’s not to say I didn’t ever encounter gender barriers, but nobody else was doing what I did. That’s why today I tell young women, “Find that corner of the world that's all yours.” I could carve out a path that gave me the power to be a singular person.

When music critics describe your Buchla compositions, words like “warm," “emotional” and “sensual” pop up frequently. Do you think these assessments are colored by the fact that you’re a woman or do they ring true?

My idea was that the machine could produce a subliminal sense of comfort and safety, because it was so dependable. You didn't have to worry about whether the next beat was going to be on time, even at a very slow tempo. You had controls that allow you to sustain a note for days, you could make a rhythm that's very slow—something that humans can't play. So there was a whole new world that I did think of as feminine. Because, you know, the feminine sensual experience is different. I was expressing that sense of slow intensity, building this wave slowly to a climax and then release.

A lot of electronic music pioneers were men and there’s still a culture of masculinity that persists today. Is that inherent to the nature of the genre itself?

I just think a lot of the stuff we hear is produced by guys. You know, making noise or whatever, that's fine. I don't have judgments. But it's not all one way, you can make noise or you can have sensual, slow sound in it. It’s all available.

Also, a lot of pioneers in electronic music were women, though invisible at the time. Daphne Oram, who started the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; Delia Derbyshire, who created the electronic rendition of the "Dr Who" theme song. These women and many others were quietly playing with machines, probably for the same reason I do: it gave them freedom. Last year, I played at a BBC Proms program of women pioneers in electronic music and a piece by Daphne Oram from the 1940s was premiered...performed for the first time! It involved two orchestras side-by-side, one being live electronically-processed.....written 70 years ago...and no one has done such a feat since. I cried.


"I think all musicians have love affairs with their instruments, but this one in particular has a life, you know, it has a brain.”

The way you speak about your Buchla in interviews, it almost sounds like a love affair.

Yes, that's really the depth of the machine. I think all musicians have love affairs with their instruments, but this one in particular has a life, you know, it has a brain. It has these indicators that let you know what's going on inside. There's such a thin line between what we acknowledge as living, and what is not living. I mean, things that respond and react seem to be communicating.

How does that affect the way you compose on it?

It's like a dialogue. There are so many variables at any instant that can define the sound— the position of the filter, the movement of the control voltages. The Buchla gives back. It’s a very giving instrument.

And then the other nature of this instrument is that it's organic, it’s evolutionary, things morph and transform. In a symphony, you have an oboe here and a bass there and you orchestrate. In electronic music, it's all connected, you can go from a bass note to off the high frequency spectrum in a second. You take people on this journey that's being molded and connected. It's a different way of organizing sound.

It’s interesting how much you humanize the Buchla since, in past interviews, you’ve referred to a moment in your life when you realized that humans are no different from machines.

Ha yes. That happened at one of Werner Erhard’s “est” personal growth seminars in the 1970s. I had found a man who was going to be my agent for Buchla concerts. He said, “Look, if we're going to work together I think you should take this course.” Otherwise, I wouldn't have stayed there for a minute. So my secret at the time was that I loved a machine. Right? So at the end of the whole training session, the big enlightenment was that humans are just operating systems and that all you need is the right “technology” to understand them. I felt so vindicated. I was thinking, “People are just machines and I'm in love with a machine, I guess it's all fine!”


“I tell young women, 'Find that corner of the world that's all yours.'”
B&W Suzanne

Around that time you got into advertising as a way to fund your recording career. Your sound design work was commercial but also pretty cutting-edge. Did you find it creatively fulfilling?

I always say I worked as an artist in that field. I had a great deal of freedom because nobody understood what I was doing. The clients couldn't really interact because they didn't have the vocabulary so I could do what I wanted and I got used to having that space. I worked with big budgets and the best musicians in state-of-the-art studios. The emphasis was on the creative back then—it was before the suits came in from Harvard.

Your now iconic credits include Coke's ”pop and pour" sound effect and GE's beeping dishwasher. At the time, did you realize the significance of your role in introducing electronic sound into mainstream culture?

At the time? Not really, I was just really doing what I did. But looking back, I do see it was an inroad that had impact. I had a lot of industry attention myself, going on shows like David Letterman and “3-2-1 Contact.” I was a story because I was unusual. Now musicians half my age come up to me and say things like, "The reason I'm doing what I'm doing is I saw you on ‘3-2-1 Contact.’” Today, I’m aware of the impact. That’s one of the reasons I still go out and perform with the Buchla.

Are all of your performances improvised?

Yes. They're in the moment. But when you improvise you have to have materials that you are improvising on. You have to have a framework. For me, it’s four sequences that I used in the '70s, so they don't define very much, because music from the '70s is nothing like the music I'm doing now. But the raw material is the same.

Are you recording new Buchla compositions or are you more focused on touring?

I'm going to do the live performances as long as I can. But it’s risky. The instrument is very fragile. The first time it broke, when I was younger, I was really traumatized. Now I’m a little more—I wouldn’t say resigned—but I’m not as afraid of it breaking down. I know I'm doing something that's not guaranteed.

Okay, last question—it's another one from Jake: what do you listen to when you don't want to think about work?

My go-to sound is the ocean. Because I live on it, I can tune into it. Sometimes I'll ask Alexa to play Handel’s “Messiah,” I don't know why. My go-to pieces are kind of baroque really.

Do you go to the symphony?

Yes, but I do find it…my ear has changed so much that, from a compositional viewpoint, I find traditional acoustic music very lumbering. With electronic music, you move sound spatially. It’s an immersive experience. Of course, that’s not to say electronic music is better. Some of the samples I get are horrific. I try not to judge [laughs]. Whatever the medium, when an artist has something to say and they're saying it…when you feel that communication, it's powerful.

Keep up with Suzanne:

Instagram: @sevwave
Youtube: Suzanne Ciani