Often lauded as “America’s first female synth hero”, Ciani is much more: a musician, sound designer, composer, record label executive and of course, pioneer of Buchla modular synth performances. She’s written 20 studio albums to date, with a new release on the way. She is five times Grammy-nominated in the Best New Age Album category, and made massive strides to establish logo sounds as a core element of sonic branding, including the legendary Coca Cola sonic.
With a career that started in the 1960s and encompasses an incredible breadth of work, often in the music technology fields particularly dominated by men, Ciani has a unique perspective on the evolution of women’s representation in music, how things are progressing and where they need to go next.
DLMDD’s Creative Director Anil Sebastian meets Suzanne Ciani to talk about her incredible career, her take on sonic branding, and women’s representation in music.
A: One of your fundamental ‘Givens’, as you call them, is the sound of the ocean. Is that right?
S: I’m north of San Francisco on the coast. I landed here after spending 19 years in New York City, and I’ve been here for almost 30 years.I’m right on the ocean. In fact, I’m on a cliff. And the cliff is receding, so I’m closer and closer to the ocean as time goes by.
The documentary about me was called A Life In Waves. And I, through no design of my own, was incredibly magnetically attracted to the ocean in all its inspirational dimensions, so my compositions had the shape of waves. There are waves in my first studio album, floating in waves, not everybody understood that. Now I live by the waves, so it’s been a motif and a constant in my life.
A: I can really hear that wave-like motion that runs through your music. That’s something that really strikes me – it’s kind of organic and deep. And it has a rich, involving, unpredictable element to it. Where does that come from?
S: I’ve worked in two different fields, the current field that I’m in is in live performance on the Buchla. That’s something that I did in the late 60s and 70s. My goal was performance: to show that the electronic music instrument was performable – that you could play live. That didn’t happen very successfully the first time around. But for many reasons, because I played in quadraphonic, and theatres weren’t ready to be set up in quad.
And then I diverted: I still use electronics, I just move forward with the evolution of music technology. And I don’t know if it’s always forward. But anyway, I had to make a living, so I started designing sounds using that technology, when I lived in New York City. And then, I moved back to the west coast, reconnected with Don Buchla, got another Buchla and started performing again, all over the world, and this time with an audience as opposed to when I did it 50 years earlier.
A: It’s incredible to see how your approach and your music has inspired a whole generation of new electronic artists. I was really excited when I saw that you were making a record with Caitlin Aurelia Smith. What’s been something that you’ve been listening to throughout this pandemic lockdown period? How’s your experience of sound changed over this pandemic?
S: I do listen to a lot of materials that people send me. That’s my opening and connection to other things that are going on. I don’t search for sounds and or music on the internet. When I’m working, I like to listen to Handel’s Messiah. My other favourite is Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations.
My goal when I started recording my music was to create a sense of safety and joy.
I do like some of the ambient music that’s going on. I did notice, honestly, a certain level of darkness in some of the music that was being presented to me. I think there is a zeitgeist in every period of time and we could be in a more serious time now. My goal when I started recording my music was to create a sense of safety and joy.
A: Now that you mentioned it that does strike me as well. Perhaps that’s why people connect with your music so much, because there is that peacefulness. It embraces you in that way.
S: Yeah, it is a communication. So for instance, when I’m listening to classical music, there’s the original composition, and then there’s the players now interpreting it, and delivering it. And it could fail at either stage. You could have a wonderful composition and a bad delivery. Fortunately, in electronic music, it’s all done at once.
I was listening to a piece of music yesterday, on the classical music station, which usually I don’t listen to all the time, because it’s all men there. There’s no music by women on the classical channel, and it still aggravates me. It annoys me that I live in this musical man’s world, even though I love the music.
A: Given your incredible success and journey with music, did you expect that it by this point would be different?
S: Absolutely. It astonishes me. I see evolutions as being wave-like: the energy builds, it gets to a certain point, and then it recedes. We go back, and then we go forward. And then we go back. I think we’re on the crest of a wave now of awareness, which is stage number one of change, right? Just to notice what’s there… and then it will correct itself.
It’s not like women never wrote anything. They did. It’s just that it wasn’t given any visibility.
And we’re at a stage now where there is a consciousness in a new way. What we’re finding is that, in fact, women were there all along. It’s not like women never wrote anything. They did. It’s just that it wasn’t given any visibility. So now we’re discovering our history or our herstory as somebody likes to say. Not history, but herstory. And it’s astonishing to all of us to find out.
A: You’re very famous for creating the Coca Cola brand sonic, which is something of a landmark in the category, because there wasn’t really anything like it before. Do you have any advice for people going into advertising creating that kind of work?
S: We are all in the confrontation of logos being played, and sounds in our environment. Some of them are annoying, and some of them are wonderful. I loved working in this microcosmic space.
I did a piece once that was a third of a second for a telephone company. For me, that was a valid space. It was helped when computers came in for you to do surgical things and really control that microcosm, but even before that, you could shrink and expand.
When I studied classical music I was into Schenkerian Analysis. You can reduce a Beethoven symphony down to a few notes if you distil the architecture, and that’s what Schenkerian Analysis did. It showed you the big building blocks of the larger structure. You can condense those big building blocks into a piece that’s three seconds long as a logo, and it still has a valid architecture. I loved working in that tiny space.
My graduate school professor criticised me constantly. He would say, what’s wrong with women? Can’t they write long pieces?
My graduate school professor criticised me constantly. He would say, what’s wrong with women? Can’t they write long pieces? And I thought, you know, that’s just boring. There’s nothing different about a long piece than a short piece, except you’ve stretched it out. There’s as much data information structure architecture in a tiny space, too. And that’s what you need, when you’re designing.
A: In terms of advice for female composers, sound designers, music technologists, producers, what would you say to them?
S: It won’t be long now, before we will lose that epithet of female. We’re going into that historic stage now where we are becoming aware of female participation in music. Soon, we’re going to be without that. So right now, we are still females. We are female composers. What’s good now that I didn’t have when I was coming up in this world, is that there is a critical mass now of women, that is going to lead to a healthy environment.
I was hired by women at a major Hollywood film company, because it was a woman in power. There aren’t too many women in power. But when they are, they can open the doors for other women.
Women in my age group- we were all looking at a man’s world because there was no woman’s world. We needed to get into the man’s world, so to speak. Now there is a more varied world. It’s not a man’s world, exclusively.
I was hired by women at a major Hollywood film company, because it was a woman in power. There aren’t too many women in power. But when they are, they can open the doors for other women. I think that’s more common now, because we trust that women are as valid.
A: I really share that hope that we are on a new path into a better world, in terms of gender equality, and also racial equality as well.
S: When I was teaching at Berklee College of Music, I would go there twice a year. They were concerned about the very small presence of women in the technology classes. There’d be one woman and 15 guys. ‘How can we correct this?’, they would say, ‘How can we shift this imbalance?’
This mystique of the male superiority, it’s anachronistic. It doesn’t exist.
One year they said to me, ‘your class is going to be exclusively women.’ I thought, well, that’s not fair to the men, but okay. And so I had a music technology class with just women. And I was surprised: they felt safe in this environment. Our first class was really talking about what it was like to be a woman in this context. They all said, ‘I don’t always have to defer to the man who’s reaching for the knob who wants to help me. I don’t need his help. I can do it. I know. I probably know better than he does.’ This mystique of the male superiority, it’s anachronistic. It doesn’t exist.
The other thing they all mentioned: ‘I don’t like that I have to dress a certain way in order to protect myself from whatever that dynamic is. You know, dress down, don’t be provocative, because, you know, what do you expect?’ Why can’t these women be who they are and not have it create a reaction that’s detrimental to them? This idea of self expression, and dignity, takes many forms.
Suzanne Ciani appears in 2020 music documentary Sisters with Transistors, a tribute to the women that broke barriers in music, technology, and society.