“These machines are responsive.
They communicate. They’re warm.
They talk back.”
from Women in Sound #6
released February 4th, 2019
interview by Madeleine Campbell
portrait by Maggie Negrete
Though Don Buchla invented his legendary eponymous 200 series modular synthesizer, electronic music pioneer and composer Suzanne Ciani brought it to life. The two were friends and collaborators for over 45 years. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, she made international waves with her solo albums, live Buchla concerts and sound design work for various advertising agencies, including the iconic pop-and-pour sound of early Coca-Cola commercials. After the machine broke and was subsequently vandalized, she was forced to shift her focus to other instruments. Now, at age 72, with 15 albums and five Grammy nominations under her belt, she’s been reunited with a newer Buchla 200E modular synthesizer and continues to tour worldwide.
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I read that your first introduction to electronic music happened during your time at Wellesley College and you met Don Buchla during your time as a grad student at [University of California at] Berkeley in the late 1960s?
Yes, I was in school from ‘68 to ’70.
Which is a period of a lot of social change.
Indeed it was.
Having a background as a classical musician, what were your first impressions of his instruments?
It was kind of a mystical thing to connect with him. If I look back and say, “Gee, how did that happen?” -- I really don’t know, but it seemed very natural to me at the time. I wasn’t comparing it to what I already knew. Maybe the fact that I studied Indian music for a brief period helped. That got me out of the Western tradition, which gave me the awareness that there are different ways to approach music. The Indian tradition was all done without anything written down. It was passed on orally. That was fascinating to me, to think that you could have a whole music that was not documented the way Western music was. I don’t know why.
I also think part of it was that it gave me autonomy. Even though I played the piano and was a pianist, I always thought of myself primarily as a composer — that was my identity. When you meet this machine, it’s like sculpting. You have a hands-on compositional tool. It kind of ruined me in a way, too. I can write traditional notation, but I’m much happier just in the process.
But you do have plenty of traditionally notated music?
Oh yeah. I have four books of piano music published through Hal Leonard. I’ve done orchestral pieces. It’s just that right now I find myself back with the Buchla in this period of my life. I find that I’m either in one world or the other. They don’t mix that well.
It seems your early relationship with the Buchla is one of great intensity. At what point did you first break with the Buchla?
Well, machines do break, especially when they’re unique and fragile. Every concert I do is a miracle to me. When I get off the plane and the machine is intact, I think it’s a wonderful gift from the gods. It is a fragile thing and I didn’t know that when I started playing it. I had a very difficult initiation into that awareness when I was in New York. It was very traumatic for me to have the machine that I loved suddenly become unplayable. Now I’m aware of that dynamic. It’s not like a piano, where there’s always another piano. The whole Buchla company has been going through evolutions. Now I have more support than I had. For the last three years I had none, but now I do have support from the company.
It seems like there’s such a human quality to your relationship with it.
I don’t think I’m alone in that. These machines are responsive. They communicate. They’re warm. They talk back. It is a very engaging process. I’m sure other instrumentalists have that emotional relationship with their instruments, as well. It’s just that this particular instrument seems to be more alive. It seems to have a brain. It can do things without you. It’s a little bit independent. It’s on right now. It’s in my studio buzzing away, making music. So you interact with it, but it’s its own being. There’s a being there. It’s amazing how little it takes to instill in us this idea of life. I once had a toy and if you clapped your hands it would wake up and wheel itself towards you. It’s eyes would flash. It honestly seemed like it was alive.
Buchla’s vision was to make a performance instrument. You need to know what’s going on inside the instrument. I’ve seen some of the earlier Eurorack systems and you have no idea what’s going on in there. There’s no feedback. The Buchla is always telling you what it’s thinking, what it’s doing, where it is. He’s always had more use of lights that show you the level of the control voltage, the position of a sequencer, when a trigger happens. All of that feedback system is a language and you’re communicating with this machine in a language that you can speak and understand and create with. That makes it seem alive.
What does maintenance for your Buchla entail?
Now that I have support from the Buchla company — now that the Buchia is back from Australia — when I get back from a tour, I go, sometimes the very next day, to the Buchla tech, who’s not far from here, about an hour and a half away. I go there and they tighten the screws and fix whatever is loose and make adjustments. Things do go wrong. I’m really happy that I can get those things fixed. I try to fix them as fast as I can. I have several custom modules in my system and those have been pretty dependable. In terms of maintenance, I just try to get things fixed as fast as I can.
Moving forward to your time in New York — that move happened in the early 1970s?
Yes, April Fool’s Day of 1974.
And your extensive work in sound design followed. Can you tell me about your process for working in sound design and making sound effects when there wasn’t really a precedent set or an existing foundation for you to work with?
The poetic, interpretive nature of electronics already put me in a world where I could express ideas. My first album I did with a sculptor named Harold Paris. That was in 1971. It was called Voices of Packaged Souls. He would say “the sound of heat” and I would make the sound of heat, the sound of cold, the sound of an old man loving, the sound of a nose peeling. In other words, it seemed natural to express the imaginary sound of something. Electronics was very good for that because you had such control over the sound. I came from a background of electronics, or, let’s say, Buchla, and the poetry of sound. Then I saw an opening in advertising for creating something new. I never thought of it as “sound effects." Those are very pedestrian. A sound effect is really looking at reality. I didn’t look at reality. I wasn’t trying to make a footstep. Maybe I was making a sound to replace a footstep, but it didn’t sound like a footstep. Advertising was very open to this because it worked for them. They could have unique identities through sonic logos that I made for them. I called the things I made “musical effects” because they were sounds but they had all the parameters of music. You could control the pitch. You could control the rhythm. You could control the timbre. You could control all the other dimensions of a sound and you had the best of both worlds. You could make a sound that was a merger of a musical statement and a practical function. You know what I mean?
Were you looking at a moving image as you developed these musical effects to go along with it?
Almost all of the work I did had a visual to go along with it. Not all of it. The Coca-Cola sound, for instance, didn’t have a visual at the time I did it.
Oh, that’s kind of surprising to me.
Well, what would you be seeing? Bubbles. It was a pouring sound. They did develop imagery of pours, people doing imaginary pouring things to allow that sound. But that one started out on radio and then it went to TV. Frequently I was looking at an image, and this was about the time that digital graphics were just starting. There was a guy named Robert Abel and he was one of the first people to do motion graphics and we worked together on quite a few things. Now all of this is just part of the vocabulary of what we’re used to, but it did have a beginning. Those images that were made, that were not real, needed sound. Electronics was especially good at doing that. The only sad thing at that time was that we didn’t have a way of locking the visual and the audio together. There was no SMPTE timecode. There were no personal computers. There were just big recording machines and big video machines. Getting them to coordinate in those days was a big challenge. You had to train yourself to learn when to start them so they synchronized. It was all done manually.
There’s a repeated motif of waves throughout your work, the album “Seven Waves” and your album The Velocity of Love beginning with the track “The Eighth Wave” and now you live very close to some actual waves, to name a few.
Is there a significance to waves throughout your work?
Yeah! The documentary is called “A Life in Waves." I didn’t name it that. The documentary filmmakers concluded that at the end of working with me and they were right. It is waves. It has all been waves. There’s a lot of coincidence for me about this wave motif. For instance, when I was doing my neoclassical music, which then became called “new age," the first radio stations to play that music were called wave stations. The Wave was the name of the station that broke The Velocity of Love. There was a digital machine called the Wave Station. Waves are a leitmotif of sound, that world of sound, but they’re also an energy system, which is what I relate to. I like slow.
I think that the nature of the rhythms that we’re used to have all been associated with our heartbeat or our walking. Most of the things we listen to are kinda fast and rhythmic. There are slow things, but they don’t appear to be rhythmic. The thing about the machine is that you could be rhythmic and slow.
I think it’s a very feminine thing. Women have a different point of view. I just went to the Mill Valley Film Festival and they’re trying to get half of the directors to be female by 2020. This year, 40 percent of the films were by women directors. You can’t help notice that you’re being presented with a whole angle on everything, on life, when you’re looking through a different set of perspectives. There might be a film about war, but instead of showing the bombs and the tanks and the blood and the gore, they show the mother waiting for her child to come home or the side of war that is emotional. I think the energy system of a wave is that it’s slow and it builds to a climax and then it recedes. That energy shape to me is very feminine, even sexually feminine. That became a compositional form for me. My first pieces were all called “waves.” “Seven Waves” didn’t even have any titles. The pieces were just called “Wave 1,” “Wave 2,” “Wave 3," but when the Japanese label released it, they insisted on having names. In fact, they made the names up. When I started my second album, it began with “The Eighth Wave” and continued nine, ten, eleven, twelve. The twelfth wave was “The Velocity of Love.” That was the first piece that, one, wasn’t all electronic and, two, didn’t really have the shape of the wave. If you look at the original files for those recordings, there are no names on them. Right through the twelfth piece, they were just called “waves," then they were given names for the record companies.
I had the good fortune to attend your performance at the International House of Philadelphia in 2017. It was my first time experiencing quadraphonic sound. I don’t know much about the origins of quadraphonic sound or your relationship with it. Did you always perform in quad?
Yes, from the very beginning. Buchla was the one who defined quadraphonic to me. From the moment I met his instruments, they were quadraphonic. He probably made the first voltage-controllable quad interface.
Electronic sound is primarily monophonic. It comes out of an oscillator. That oscillator, like any sound — a violin, an oboe, whatever — has one defined place. Then we developed stereo, which was a way of mixing sound so it filled a spatial distribution. But quadraphonic in the Buchla is not about that. It’s not about distributing sound after the fact. It’s about generating illusionary spaces in the moment and giving life to the electronic sound. The sound wants to move. It can move. It can move meaningfully. I can take a sequence and have it move on the beat to different locations. We could do things with voltage-controlled reverb, so you were also controlling the size of the space, not just the location of the sound but whether it was far away or close. Today I have more trouble doing that than I did in the ‘70s because we don’t have voltage- controlled reverbs now.
So yeah, I’ve only played in quad. It’s non-negotiable. It’s an important parameter of the music and the sound. We’re finally culturally getting into the idea of spatial sound and multiple speakers and 5:1 surround sound systems in our homes. All that’s wonderful, but with electronic music, the movement of sound is just part of the music.
You’ve been performing and touring a lot over the last few years. Is there a specific balance of improvisation versus composed pieces or does it fluctuate depending on the venue and the performance?
There are raw materials that I start with. Those are pretty much the same as what I used in the ‘70s. I have four 16-stage sequences that I’m using — the same ones I used in the ‘70s. The process is one of improvising on those materials. As you improvise over periods of time, certain things do start to solidify. You’ll do something and say, “Oh, that was interesting!” and maybe the next time you’ll do it again. It’s never quite the same, but it’s an idea you’re going towards. So it’s very improvisational, but it’s structured improvisation in the sense that you have given raw material and then you develop and decide what you want to do with it. I can give the same material to another performer, which I’ve done when I worked at Berklee College of Music. I’ll give the kids the same sequences and it’s wonderful to see the different things that happen. But it’s good to have a starting point.
I’ve done many electronic albums that are studio albums and that’s a different world. Even “Seven Waves” was orchestrated. It was pretty much written out and then recorded with a multitrack. What I’m doing now is not recorded music. It’s live and in the moment. Nothing is prerecorded. It’s a different vocabulary completely because it’s live. This is a distinction that we’re aware of, but not really. You go to a performance and someone hits play on the computer and you’re not actually sure how much of this is a performance. What is the performance element? Buchla was designing an instrument that you could interact with live and that’s what I’m interested in doing now.
Your most recent album, which came out on your birthday last June, is a quadraphonic record release. Is this the first of its kind?
It’s probably the first in almost 40 years. This was a technology that was available in the ‘70s, but as a product it failed. I think it failed because they didn’t have meaningful content, so it died. But this album is released with the actual physical decoder, which uses a technology from the ‘70s, and we encoded it in the mastering so that it can be played both as a stereo record but can also be decoded and become quadraphonic.
I meant to ask this a few minutes back. The Buchla you’re playing now — is the 200E the updated version of the Buchla that you played in the ‘70s? Or the same instrument? What are the differences in the two?
Well, they’re certainly related. The differences might not be apparent from a distance, but they’re very different. We get the illusion that everything is improving in technology. We think of it as this linear rise, that things are getting better or faster, but it’s not the case. I really believe that the analog version gave me more control than the 200E, which has a digital element to it. It has a memory. Digital can be dangerous in some ways because a lot of digital is menu-driven and that is not performable. When you’re performing you don’t have time to dig through menus. Your interface has to be on the top. You’ve got to be interacting directly. My sequencer in the 200 had a knob for every pitch. I could interact with it. I could change the number of stages. I could re-patch pulses. Now my sequencer is more digital. It’s one-fourth the size of the old one, which is good for the unique compactness if you’re traveling, but it’s not as interactive.
I had one important module, the MARF -- Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator. I have a clone of that. I had an original 200 MARF, but it couldn’t be fixed. These parts wear out. They can’t be replaced. The 227 module — the spatial interfaces seem practically identical to me. The oscillators are different but the same. The envelope generators are different but the same. So it’s definitely the work of Don Buchla in every detail, but because I came of age with the 200, I miss it.
Continuing on this theme of developing technology: Because your career has spanned so many decades, you’ve witnessed monumental developments in recording technology. What is your current studio setup like? You’ve talked about your focus on live recordings, but do you have a home studio that you work out of?
Yes, I have a studio. I keep it as small as possible. I don’t have anything in there that I’m not actually using. It’s not a graveyard or a showplace for old instruments. I use a piano bench and if I rotate one way, I’m at the piano; if I rotate the other way, I’m at the Buchla. It’s very compact, like a cockpit. My definition of the limits of my studio is that I do not want to have a patchbay. I do frequently have to re-patch things on the back without a patchbay. I use Digital Performer if I’m recording and a MOTU interface. I have a Genelec quad [loudspeaker] setup that I love. I have a Focusrite preamp that I love for my piano. I have a nice [Neumann] U87 that I brought from my New York studio. I use a matched pair of Schoeps [microphones] on the piano. My bowed Vocoder is still sitting there. There’s a storage space downstairs where I keep other instruments that I can bring up to the studio. I might have one other instrument like a [Sequential] Prophet 6 on a stand. I had a Moog One here last week. That was pretty big. I’m into minimalism.
It sounds like all your needs are met. That’s a great set up.
I think so.
Do you ever use software synths?
I have, of course. I’m not using them now because I’m performing live Buchla. I did some sounds for various libraries. There was an early Prophet 5 that I liked a lot. I can’t remember whose that was. But right now I’m not using any software synths.
What music excites you these days? What are you currently listening to?
I listen to things as they come over the transom. People send me stuff. Sometimes I have to make a mixtape, so I explore stuff and it pops up on my car radio later. I was recently listening to a piece by Vladimir Ussachevsky, followed by Alessandro Cortini, followed by Jonathan Fitoussi — people that I had put together for a mixtape. I just love listening because every single time it’s different. It always amazes me that I can listen to the same piece over and over and over again and never get bored.
That’s a great quality — to hear things in a different way every time.
One reason I don’t put on a lot of music is that I have to actively listen and it’s a big distraction. When you do actively listen, that’s when you’re on this journey inside the music, because you can’t take it all in.
- Women in Sound 2019 -