The Diva of The Diode: Suzanne Ciani, Synth Pioneer

This interview has been edited for clarity.

“I used to tell people, you don’t know her, you don’t know her name, but you know her music” , Ruth Ciani explains on the 2017 documentary, A Life in Waves. The woman she is referring to is the subject of the documentary, and her sister, Suzanne Ciani – composer and sound design pioneer. Throughout the seventies and eighties, Ciani would create some of the most universally recognizable advertising soundbites of the time, which became inseparable from their respective brands: Atari, Coca-cola, and Merryl Lynch, to name a few. It’s more than a little ironic then, that while Ciani crafted sonic identities for the biggest brands of the era, she herself remained, for the most part anonymous.

In the 1970’s, while a student at Berkeley University, Ciani made her way onto the team of Don Buchla, the creator of one of the first modular synthesizers. While working in the Buchla factory, she not only learned the ins and outs of the machine: soldering its circuit boards and connecting modules with patch cords to create a desired sound, but she also played a role in the design of the instrument itself, deciding where there should be nobs and buttons which would make the instrument most intuitive to the musician. Ciani understood the Buchla at each level; engineer, musician, and artist, a claim few could make.

These experiences would prove pivotal for a young Ciani, who after graduating and moving to New York, combined her musical background with her expertise on the Buchla, to open an entirely new market and artform in its own right - electronic sound design. In 1974 she started her own company, Ciani/Musica, and used her unique skill set to provide soundscapes for companies looking to advertise their brand on television, adding a second sensory modality that enhanced the narrative of the visuals. Whether it was the analog beeps and blips of the atari that would become synonymous with an entire generation of gaming consoles, or the rush of liquid pouring out of a coke bottle that somehow sounded more refreshing than the real thing, Suzanne herself succinctly described the unique value of synthetic sound in an advertising context:

“The real sound always fell short. If you had a potato chip commercial and you needed the sound of a crunching potato chip, and you recorded someone biting a potato chip, it never sounded like much of anything. Electronics added thousands of colors that weren’t there before. You could create a sound that had all the fantasy that you would imagine that thing having”

How Suzanne Ciani Got Coca-Cola from Gunpowder & Sky on Vimeo.

Not only was she one of the first to pursue electronic sound design, she was also one of the best. Before long, Ciani’s sounds had made their way across the airwaves and into the homes of families across America. And even though she was responsible for making some of the most universally recognizable sounds of that time, most people didn’t know who the person behind them was. Still, it’s not totally fair to say that Suzanne existed in pure obscurity. Throughout the years there have been a slew of television features and interviews highlighting her work, one of the more interesting ones being her guest appearance on the Letterman Show in 1980, if only because it’s a reminder of how unfamiliar viewers at the time were with the very concept of a synthesizer, an instrument that we would take for granted in this day and age.

Her commercial work aside, it’s equally rewarding to dive in to Ciani’s expansive catalogue as a musician. With albums like Pianissimo, Ciani mixed her classical piano training with her ear for sound design, and pushed the boundaries for what a classical album could be. With her series of electronic instrumental albums, starting with 1982’s Seven Waves, Ciani helped invent the New Age music genre, which would eventually become a Grammy award category that she would go on to be nominated for 5 times. It’s worth noting that Ciani released all of her music on her own record label Seventh Wave, named after her aforementioned first album, which would go on to sell over 100,000 copies, no small feat for an avant-garde instrumental album in an era of major label dominance.

As if this all weren’t enough, Ciani has shown no sign of slowing down. She still travels the world with her Buchla synthesizer, performing both in intimate settings such as churches, and also at major festivals such as Barcelona’s Primavera Sound. She’s even made her way to Montréal, performing for 2016’s Red Bull Music Academy.

I was very happy to get to chat with Ciani for CKUT’s Tuesday Morning After program. You can listen to it on the Soundcloud link below, or read on for transcribed highlights.

Thanks for waking up so early to speak with us!

SC: of course, but I wish I would have been able to have that cup of coffee, because I got in late last night. I flew in from Zurich, and it’s early here (in California). I was in Zurich performing on the Buchla, an analog modular electronic instrument, designed by Don Buchla in the 1960’s. In the old days I worked with Don on the Buchla, and now I’ve come back to it, and so I was playing at Elevation 1049 festival in Gstaad, a beautiful mountain village in Switzerland, it was quite lovely.

How did you start working with Don Buchla?

SC: I was a student, getting my Masters Degree in Music Composition from UC Berkely. I just fortunately, through various friends, met Don, and when I finished school, I worked for him. I started out soldering circuit boards for $3 an hour, but that got me many advantages, because I was right there, and as time goes by I realize how valuable that connection was.

Do you still use the same Buchla that you had in the 1970’s?

SC: I have a new one, that is based off the old one. I had some bad luck with the old one (The Buchla 100), part of it broke, parts of it were stolen, it couldn’t be repaired, and so I then got a newer one (The Buchla 200e), but the design and the concept of the new one is the same as the old one, they have the same modules, filters, and sequencers.

So not a lot of people knew (or know now for that matter) what a Buchla was, but they certainly had heard your sounds, the ones that you did for commercials, for Atari, for Coca Cola etc. At what point did you have the idea to use the Buchla for sound design for advertisements?

SC: Well, really it was because I was hungry, quite literally, and I needed money. At first I took a pure artist approach with my Buchla, but I quickly realized that I needed to financially support myself. So at first I tried out various jobs, I tried to become an engineer but nobody would hire me, and I couldn’t even get a job as a waitress because I was overqualified due to my Masters degree. I even had a brief job designing furniture, but I eventually realized it would be better to have a job in an area related to my skill set, and so I started doing commercial music and sound design during the week, and on the weekends I worked on my own music. I think there were many advantages to working in commercial music that contributed to my own artistic expression, and it was nice because I had artistic freedom in the commercial arena as well. Nobody could tell me what do, because they didn’t know what to do, there was no blueprint.

As you mentioned, you also write your own music and have released several albums. Can you tell us about one of your first albums, Seven Waves?

SC: So I had already done the pure Buchla music for many years, and was frustrated that nobody understood it. So when I went to record Seven waves I decided to combine my classical background with my electronic sensibilities. Seven waves is 100% electronic, but it is also very melodic. I had arrived arrived at a merger of these two identities. The other interesting aspect of this album is, with electronic music, as technology evolves, all kinds of new instruments and gear are created, and if you have the Seven Waves LP and look at the liner notes, it credits all the instruments that were used on the album, some of which no longer exist.

So the reason I came across your work originally, is that I am really fascinated with pinball machines and I was researching a particular pinball machine from 1980 named XENON. And so I came across this old documentary about you, and the sound design you did for XENON. And so then I read more into you and your catalogue of work. But still, what stands out to me about what you did on XENON, is that not only did you use your Buchla to create sounds, but you also sampled your own voice and incorporated it into the game.

SC: Yes, Welcome to XENON! So by that time, I was so deeply involved in technology, that I was following the development of computer chips. What happened at this particular juncture, is the company Texas Instruments had the first computer chip that had enough bandwidth to sample a female voice, which has a higher bandwidth than a male voice because it is a higher frequency than a typically lower male voice, so it requires more data to sample, basically. Even so, this computer chip had limitations, you could only sample about 5 seconds of audio. This was an era of early technology when computers filled entire rooms, and typically, 10 megabytes of memory cost $50,000. Memory was incredibly expensive. So what I did is I took the audio I sampled with this computer chip and put it into an instrument I had at the time called a Synclavier, so that I could design the sounds and how they related to the pinball game, how long they lasted, if they sped up or slowed down etc. So my goal was to design a composition that was essentially played by the player of the pinball machine.

I noticed that when you play a pinball machine, you really use your whole body, and you’re engaged mentally as well. There is this conversation that goes back and forth between the player and the game. When you hit the ball with the flipper, a noise or response happens. So what I did with XENON is I used the sampled voice so that when you hit the pinball, the machine would go “Ahhhh”. I believe I was the first person to actually use a human voice for a pinball machine.

I think as a woman I have a slightly different perspective on technology. I’ve always viewed technology as very sensual. People often see a machine, as this hard or cold thing, and for me, I always viewed it as immersive, sensual. For example, with the Buchla, you can immerse yourself in a soundscape. Machines could do things very slowly, you can do the sounds of slow ocean waves, slowly building. You can do more than just pumping dance rhythms [laughs].

We’ve focused a lot on your earlier career, but you’re not showing any signs of slowing down, you’re still touring and performing on the Buchla.
SC: Yes, and at this stage what I’m surprised and happy with, is that in the 1970’s when I performed on the Buchla, there was this huge frustrating gap between me and the audience, and now it is a gift to me, that I can go play and have an audience that really knows what I’m doing and appreciate it. For me, it’s just pure joy, it’s so cool. So it’s nice to be able to finally close this loop.

For further exploration of Suzanne Ciani’s music, check out the spotify playlist below.

If you’d like to learn more about Suzanne Ciani, I recommend the documentary A life in Waves . You can also visit her website, and follow her on Instagram

Scott Erik
CKUT Arts & Culture Dept