13 Jul 2013

Interview - Suzanne Ciani

From These Hopeful Machines, 12:00 pm on 13 July 2013

CianiPortraitDials  Ciani recent

Left: Suzanne Ciani with a Buchla electronic music system
Right: Suzanne Ciani now (Ryan Carmody)
(Courtesy Suzanne Ciani)

Suzanne Ciani's website

Suzanne Ciani is a pianist, composer, recording artist. As a pioneer in the field of electronic music, she is particularly associated with the Buchla electronic music system.

She launched her early recording career by working in TV and film scoring and became a leader in the field of sound design and TV spot scoring.


Suzanne Ciani interviewed by James Gardner 14 May 2010. Edited and corrected by Suzanne Ciani and James Gardner, February 2012.

James Gardner: As someone who started out in electronic music in the 1960s, how do you view its recent “democratization” and its current ubiquity?

Suzanne Ciani: When I started out it was a very exciting time, precisely because it was new, and a small world, and we were on the cutting edge. It was the frontier—we were pioneers. That flavour is gone now—the excitement of the unknown—and in my view the way humans are designed, we come in generational groups, and some groups now have never experienced the excitement of what it was like in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. So my perspective is of somebody who did go through that and finds today...not that exciting. I think that a lot of the potential of electronic music was unfulfilled and that in many ways what we’re doing now in this digital age is replicating a lot of the things that we already discovered in that time.

What are your current musical concerns? Are you looking at what the new digital world can offer?

No. I use digital because it’s part of my life, but mostly I use it now to record. And my new albums—I have 15 albums that have been released—are acoustic for the most part, with some electronics also.

Essentially piano-based?

Piano-based. I have a jazz group called The Wave, I play with orchestra, and I play solo piano. Those are the interests that I have now. Coming back to acoustic music is something I thought I would never do—and this has taught me over my life never to say never. My ear in those electronic days found acoustic music very lacking because it didn’t have the range that electronic music had: the very high highs and the very low lows, and it wasn’t as malleable as electronic music. But now I’ve come back to it and I have a new ear for it.

Is that because you’ve become aware of the limitations of electronic music, or is it that you’ve just become more fascinated with acoustic music?

My fascination with electronic music centred very much around my love affair with the Buchla electronic music system. Don Buchla didn't like the word ‘synthesizer’ because it had misleading connotations. Some people thought of the word ‘synthesizer’ as relating to ‘synthetic’, or that it was imitating existing sounds, whereas he wanted to be clear that this was a completely new domain—this was a new instrument. The instrument that I had did not have a keyboard: it was played by moving knobs and dials and placing patchcords and constructing an internal routing, so that you could design your instrument within the instrument. And sometimes I would spend months coming up with a living, breathing patch that generated the sonic environments and sounds that I wanted to hear. So it wasn’t keyboard. The keyboard was added as a...I think Bob Moog did that in order to lend understanding to the masses as to what this was, because in the early days people really could not understand where the sound was coming from or how it was generated. It was all so unfamiliar that putting the keyboard on it bridged a gap in understanding. But it also short-circuited the potential of those instruments because the keyboard interface came from a mechanical universe. It produced, mechanically, one event for one action. Whereas in electronic music we were used to touching a key, say on a flat plate, and maybe 50 things would happen.

Because you were controlling more than one parameter at a time.

Yes, you were transposing something, you were starting something, you were stopping something else. You were giving commands. multi-layered commands—not just “if I hit this note you'll produce one pitch.” (laughs)

Do you mean that the physical interface on the Buchla was very sophisticated for the time, whereas with the Moog keyboard there was more of a one-to-one mapping of what you were doing?

They had different philosophies of design. I mean Don Buchla really saw himself as an instrument designer, a performance instrument. So these things were meant, in his vision, to be played live. And that's what I tried to fulfill with my intense ten years dedicated to that instrument. I was dedicated to live performance of that instrument. It was very complex. I don't think I could do it today.

Don is making a new version of the instrument that I played, which was called the 200 series, and he has a hybrid now—the 200e—that is digital/analogue and you know, he says “why don’t you go back and play?”, and I’m thinking “Oh my gosh”—you know, my brain just couldn’t handle that anymore. It was so overwhelmingly intense.[1]

Is that because you are no longer working in that world, or is it the idea of going back to an analogue machine in a digital age or something else?

Well you could say that the machine is digital now, in a digital age, even though it was based on concepts evolved in the analogue era. But I think it’s because it really took over my life. When I played this instrument, I played it full time. You know, morning, noon and night. I lived with it. It was an obsession. And I think that's what it took to do the level of thing that I did with it. And I’m just not willing to do that any more.

How did you get involved with the Buchla in the first place?

I had done undergraduate study, majoring in music, on the East coast at Wellesley College and then I came out to do my graduate degree in music composition at UC Berkeley from ‘68 to ’70.  I had no idea when I selected Berkeley that that was going to be the home of Don Buchla, who would revolutionize my life. I met him through a neighbour of his, a sculptor named Harold Paris who had a studio next door to him down at the industrial part of Oakland in the middle of no place—they had these big lofts.

And so one night I went over to Buchla’s and my jaw dropped. I had already encountered the concept of electronic music, at MIT for instance... so I was ready for it in a way, but it was really one of those bolts of lightning that struck.

What electronic music had you heard by that time?

Very little. At MIT there was a professor who was thrilled because he had made a tone on the computer...it was at the very beginning of computer music.

You would punch in the data and an hour later the sound would come out.

A day later! I mean, I worked at Stanford in those days, about 1969, ‘70, with Max Mathews and John Chowning, at the Artificial Intelligence Lab. And in those days we had the computers from about 5 a.m. to 7 a.m.

Because it was time-shared.

Yes. They were huge computers, PDP-10s, so we would get up at three in the morning, drive down to Palo Alto and punch our cards. The next day we would get an audio rendering of what we’d specified.

What was it like working like in those days with Chowning and Mathews?

Oh, it was absolutely thrilling! There are no words to describe how amazing: it was like a miracle occurring all the time. And the energy, the excitement was just inspiring, all the time. The other thing for me, as a composer, was that I realized that most composers died without ever hearing their works—because it was very political to get performances. And I had this revelation one day—I was in the ladies’ room at UC Berkeley—I thought “oh my gosh; with electronic music I’m in control. I can create the pieces and there's nothing between me and hearing it. I don’t have to solicit an orchestra or try to get somebody interested in my music so that I can hear it.” So as a composer, it was an astonishing possibility.

Your first encounter with making electronic music, then, was through this very slow, laborious, non-real-time process, but after that you got your hands on the Buchla.

Well, it was actually around the same time; it was almost simultaneous. Mills College had one of the first centres for electronic music; it was sponsored by the Ford Foundation. I found out about that, and in those days it was really open. It had nothing to do with the university: students were not taking classes in it. It was a separately available facility. Technically, we were supposed to pay $5 an hour to work there, but nobody really paid too much attention. And I spent many a night—all night—in that studio, round the clock.

Did you find that Mills College was, as Morton Subotnick has asserted, community-orientated?

Well, I didn’t have the experience that he had because I was a little outside the community. Maybe part of that was due to being female as opposed to male. I think there was a little bit of...male bonding around electronics...(laughs)

That divide was very palpable then?

Very. Very. But, you know, it didn’t bother me. Sometimes I felt a little left out, but Mort and I, after all these years, I think connected for the first time about a year ago. Although that’s not entirely true because I did solicit him for a recommendation for a grant at one time. And he was very lovely in recommending me for the grant, even though we had very little personal contact.

He and Don Buchla were very tight. And I always got the sense that maybe I got there just after Mort did.  I didn’t have a lot of credibility with Don Buchla for a long time. And I kind of forged my own path. I went to work for him, so I was soldering, and making these synthesizers, if you will—even though he didn’t call them that—but my goal was to earn enough money so that I could buy one. And because it was modular you could pay and build it as you went. So you’d start with an oscillator and a filter and you’d add on a sequencer and so forth until you’d built up a system, and that was how I got into commercial music because I needed the money to feed my hi-tech habit. It was very expensive.

What was your experience at Mills once you had encountered the Buchla?

It was...just a love affair. I think in those hours alone in that studio I really did develop my own personal vocabulary with the instrument. What I could see was that it was a powerful, poetic interpreter of...everything. You know, you could do the sound of heat, the sound of cold. The sound wasn’t already attached to anything, so you could make it up. It was very visceral, it was very intuitive. And the part that I loved the most was its spatial parameters; having the sound move around the room. The Buchla system was a quad system with a voltage-controlled reverb. So you could instantly change the perceived size of a space by changing the reverb mix.

Have any recordings from this intense Buchla period survived? Have you been working on anything for 5.1 release?

Recently I got a request from Finders Keepers records in England [2] “why don’t we put out some of your old things?”, so I thought “well, gee...let’s see what’s survived”, so I went into my storage space and sure enough, I found some tapes so I’m just in the process of having those tapes transferred. Whether I process them in 5.1, I don’t know. Very little has survived. But to me when I hear them, I remember every note. They have a lot of very personal connection to me. They were not recorded spatially then—that was all done live.

There’s one recording of a live performance that was done at WBAI, live radio in 1975 And basically what they did was put a microphone in the room. So it’s OK, but it does give you an idea of what the live performance meant in those days without a keyboard.

During the ‘60s and ‘70s, electronic music was often criticized for being ‘synthetic’ and ‘inorganic’ but now, on the contrary, such sounds— and the machines that produced them are lauded as ‘warm’ and ‘organic’. How does that strike you now?

Well I’m glad people are having a new appreciation of analogue electronic music. For me the Buchla, which was my primary instrument at that time, was organic in the sense that it gave you so much feedback—it was unique in that way. There were hundreds of lights and all of the lights indicated the intensity of the voltages, so it was like a breathing, visual feedback system. If an envelope was triggered, the light would grow in intensity as the volume grew in intensity, and then the light would dim. If you were doing a spatial pattern there were little LEDs that moved to show you exactly where the sound was. If you were running a sequencer—and his sequencers had multiple layers, it wasn’t just one row of pitches. It was a matrix . So you had to have the lights, because you had to be able to access what was going on on all these different layers. And so the lights in the Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator—which for me was the heart of the system—showed you exactly what was going on, what the transposition was of any note, what the rhythmic pattern was etcetera. So it did seem very much alive. It wasn’t like...you know I also played a Moog in those days, because there was one at Mills, and once they gave it to me for two weeks while they were closed for vacation. And you know I missed all that, it was kind of dormant. It had those great big patchcords and the big keyboard but there was no living, breathing...aliveness.

Did you feel the Moog was more passive?


Rather than the Buchla which was active and interactive.

Yes, but they were so different. The thing that the Moog had going for it was the sound. It had a very rich sound that found a lot of interest in popular music, and in imitating existing instruments. The Buchla was never about the sound—it was about the way the sound moved. So the timbre wasn’t important. Instead of playing a keyboard and having a chord or having a melody, you could move that sound all over the place in incredible new ways of organizing sound. I can’t explain all that here, but in 1976 I  did a paper for a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts in which I documented my live performance techniques using the Buchla’s Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator.

Do you think it made any difference to you that you’d worked on the instrument from the inside? You had soldered and made them for a while, working for Buchla.

Yes, and while I was working for him I would have access from time to time to his personal studio, which was astonishing. I mean it looked like Manhattan—there were these towers of modular units, hundreds of them, in this enormous system and you’d stand up because it was tall, and be patching the units together. And there was a big swing in the room, so while you were listening to how your patch was evolving you could get on the swing and swing through the space, and kind of listen to what was going on. I was proselytized, very much so, by his concept, and I’m grateful for it, because I think Don Buchla—even to this day he’s still designing instruments—had a sense of the possibilities of those instruments. I mean he’s done so many interfaces: one that’s like a mallet percussion keyboard [3], things that are played with light [4]...instead of taking from the existing world of instrument design he looks at what’s going on now and designs. He has keyboards in the shape of hands that fan out on an angle [5], so he doesn’t take anything borrowed. He invents.

So you worked with a Moog at Mills briefly, but I gather you also took Moog classes with Bernie Krause.

I took a class that Bernie offered at a studio in Berkeley at Sunset Recording. I took the class because at the time—I was a grad student at UC Berkeley—the music department was the recipient of a brand new Moog. And I had already played synthesizers—if that’s what you want to call them—for quite a while, but they said “you cannot play these instruments until you have a certificate” (laughs)

A Certified Moog User!

Right! A Certified Moog User. They were actually just trying to keep me out and protecting themselves, it was funny. So I called them on that and I went and got a certificate. And then they still wouldn’t let me touch it. So...

Do think that was because you were a woman?

Absolutely. Let me tell you, this technology world...I called it motorcycle talk, you know—when you talk tech. It was like a real cool groovy kinda motorcycley thing to do. And I laugh now about how Don kicked me out of the electronics class because women weren't allowed, you know.

It’s all generational. Don was even a generation above me, so we gradually became more and more open and more sensitive to issues of equality, but the further back you go, the less that was the case. And Don now is...he’s come a long way. He’s very aware of women not being limited. But I think in those days it wasn’t an idea whose time had come.

You got this official Moog accreditation, and then what happened?

And then, as I say, I still didn’t get access to the machine at UC Berkeley. I finished my graduate studies, I became very committed to getting my own instrument and so I started to ask myself “where is the money?” And that’s how I got into commercial music. I did some commercials for Macy’s where I used electronics. It was a package of ten commercials for Christmas and I used the Buchla in the way I love to use it, so if it was a commercial for a key chain, I made the sound of a key chain. If it was for a fur coat, I made the sound of a fur coat.

What’s the sound of a fur coat?

(laughs) Well, you know it when you hear it! That’s all I can say. You know the sound of leather, the sound of...I actually did an early album with the same sculptor who introduced me to Don Buchla, Harold Paris, and he was a hi-tech sculptor, he worked in resins and chemicals and we did an album together called Voices of Packaged Souls, where I interpreted the sound of things that he came up with for his sculpture: the sound of heat, the sound of cold, the sound of an eye tearing, the sound of an old man loving, and various poetic concepts that found their expression musically.

So you were working on a kind of synaesthetic vocabulary with these assignments...

Yes. There were no notes, really. Even though I’d been trained as a composer, in score paper and notes, I didn’t use electronics that way because I wasn’t using a keyboard. So my ideas were not based in notes. They were based in sounds.

To what extent was your commercial work a means to the end of building up your Buchla system for your own compositional work?

I had two goals. One of them was to get my studio, or my instruments. And the other was that I always saw myself as a composer and therefore—because my medium was electronic music—this music could only be fixed in a recording. So it wasn't as if you could write it out and have it be your composition. You had to record it and so I thought “OK, I need a recording contract”. I didn’t know how to do a proper recording, you know. In those days the idea was you went and got a record deal. So I went to all the record companies, and they said, “where’s the guitar?”... “what—you don’t sing?” There was just a gap between what I wanted to do and what their understanding was. And so I said to myself “you’re just gonna have to do it yourself”. And that meant even more money, because then I had to fund a very expensive recording budget. I started my first album in 1979 and it took two years, and I did it as I went, financing it with my commercial work. And in fact eventually years later, maybe 10, 13 or so years later, when I felt I’d firmly established my recording career I just got out of the commercial work because I didn’t think I needed it any more.

When you entered the world of advertising, doing electronic jingles, IDs and logos, Raymond Scott and Eric Siday were your forerunners, but few others were doing this kind of work...

I had started commercial music in Los Angeles, but I think my significant work was done in New York and I went there in 1974. And I did meet Eric Siday, for a very memorable half hour at his studio.

Why memorable?

Memorable because...how could you forget meeting Eric Siday? He looked just like a mad scientist, and I really appreciated what he did because...logos...a lot of people couldn’t relate to such a short compositional span. To work in something that was under a second, or up to three seconds, just escaped a lot of people. I loved that microcosm, and when you were working in that microcosm you were forced to new heights of perfection because it had so many requirements. It had to be unique, it had to be strong, it had to tell a story, it had to have a beginning, a middle and an end. And it had to be perfect, you know and for Eric to reduce the universe to those three notes for NBC that he did, it was just a thing of beauty. Later I did a logo for ABC, and it’s such a challenge to come up with the definitive, impactful sound to represent a whole world instantly.

Did he give you any clues or tips?

No, he didn't give me any tips. I think a lot of our understanding was unspoken, but we understood each other and you could feel that.  I never met him again, and didn’t really know about him before I met him. I was introduced by a friend of his who was also a friend of mine who said “gee, I’d like you to meet Eric Siday”, and I didn’t even know who he was.

But you’d presumably heard of his work.

Well I did after that. No, I hadn’t heard of his work before. But then I became very aware of it.

Would you agree that the less-documented world of electronic logos, IDs, signatures and so on introduced a lot of people to the sound of electronic music?

Well I know from my own experience that the world of advertising was a place that embraced the newness of electronic music. You know, the record industry looks backwards. They say “this was a hit—what can you do that sounds like that?” Advertising, because they’re always trying to come up with something new, is more forward looking.  I had brought the Buchla to New York and they didn’t know what it was, but they embraced it, because it was like “wow, this is new, this is exciting, what can it do?” And so I had...it was like a brush fire. I did have some success in LA with the film composers. They were excited because they wanted to be on the cutting edge too, and I did give lessons to Leonard Rosenmann and Dominic Frontiere and a whole bunch of high-profile music scorers. But in advertising in New York it was instant acceptance. Not that it didn’t take a long time, I mean, to do the Coca-Cola pop‘n’pour effect. I called that agency for over a year! (laughs).

What would be a typical brief and how would you go about realizing it?

Well, the reason I formed my own company was that...when I started out I was working as a musician for hire by other agencies, and that helped me to get on the inside and learn the business. But what I realized was that they didn’t really know how to optimally use the possibilities of the synth. So I would show up at a session, and they would have a line in there that said ‘electronic’ and they’d say “let’s see what you can do”. It would most likely be a keyboard line, and I would say, “I’m sorry, I don’t have a keyboard” (laughs) and so then I would end up doing something that I could do, but it was always improvisatory and unexpected and very much, usually, appreciated, but there was a gap there. And so eventually I thought it would be much better if I controlled everything. If I’m going to blend electronics with instruments, I know how best to do that. And if you’re going to do a sequencer with live instruments you have to record the sequencer first—you can’t go in and overdub that because it won’t lock in. So there were a lot of practical reasons why—to integrate it and get the full effect—you had to do the whole thing, and so I started Ciani Musica and became one of the top music houses.

To go back a bit, though—I’m picturing you showing up at an expensive New York studio with the Buchla, a client says “give me something” and then you start whipping out the patchcords—because the Buchla has no program memory—and start patching from scratch under intense pressure while the meter is running and everyone waits impatiently and frowns. What was it like working under those conditions?

Well you put your finger on it really, because it was a very mobile expression. I can remember when I finally did get in to do the Coca-Cola session. The producer was a black producer named Billy Davis who was from Motown originally, and he said “go get your axe”, and I had a truck that showed up with my five road cases of this big Buchla. And we set it up, and his eyes popped open and he said “Oh my gosh, what is this?” And I started patching. And he would say something like “yeah, that’s nice, but I liked what you had a couple of minutes ago—can we go back there?” (laughs). Eventually Billy and I ended up working together a lot and we developed this system where, when he liked something, he would slap my hands. (laughs) And when he slapped my hands I had to take them off the machine—because I was always twirling, patching, sliding, and the sound was always changing as I was looking for something. And so when he liked something he slapped my hands and he would say to the recording engineer “OK let's take this”. And then we'd move on to another sound.

And that’s in complete contrast to what one might do today, armed with a huge sample library, vast numbers of preset synthesizer sounds and so on, all in the computer. It’s an utterly different way of working, isn’t it?

It is, and it’s so tedious. That’s one reason why I just can’t bring myself to deal with all the graveyards of sounds that are sitting there and with the interface—with a little mouse, and cramping up your hand. I’d rather write notes on paper and find some players. So personally—maybe it’s just that I'm from an older generation—but I don’t seem to be able to do it anymore.

Coming back to the Coca-Cola pop‘n’pour sound: one question that springs to mind that if the agency wanted the sound of a Coke being poured, why not just close-mike a bottle, record it, and there you go?

Because the truth is that the ideal that we have in our mind about a sound is never the real sound. I did things for potato chips being bitten. You could just record the biting of a potato chip. But when you design the ideal potato chip bite, it’s got the sound of the salt spraying out from the bite, it’s got multiple layers of crunch...so the real sound is always a little bit flatter. And when you design something...for instance: when they showed me the space in which this Coca-Cola logo would go it was a blank space. They said “can you put something in there? They didn’t say “hey let’s have the sound of a bottle opening”. So I said to myself “well, if this is going to fit into just this one commercial—which is in the key of Eb—that's one thing. But if you want to use it in every commercial then it can't have a pitch centre and it can't be a musical melodic piece. It has to be abstract.” And I thought “well, bubbles don't have a pitch centre”...so I started with that from a practical standpoint: something that would fit in.

This was an audio logo only, rather than something intended to go with picture?

Right. There was no picture that went with this. They used it in radio, basically. And on television, but there was no visual.

Although it actually conjures up a vision.

Yes it does, it does.

How did you go about it? It sounds very acoustic, it sounds hyperreal.

Right. The bubbles are a harmonic series that come from a sub-audio frequency. So if you turn the oscillator down way below your hearing range and you put it into a filter and then you ask the filter to be picked off in a rising curve in the audible range you’re picking off the overtones which are harmonic to, say, a sawtooth waveform. So they have this perfect little shape, going up the harmonic series. And then you can control the envelope so that they sound like little pops and I frequency modulated the filter; white noise modulating white noise, to get some of the evolution of the fizzing sound, and so forth. Oh, and I think there might be one element that they recorded...because they were in the control room and I was out doing the Buchla. And I think that there might be a sound that they did, which they added in which might have been a physical sound too, one little element. But it's 99% Buchla.

What other pieces from that era are you proud of?

Well, I like the Columbia Pictures logo because that was the first time I combined instruments with electronics for a logo. It was a hysterical recording session because I just needed the delineation and the function of certain acoustic instruments, so I had one trombone, one horn and maybe one timpani. So most of it was electronic and then I would just put that little acoustic edge on it. Most of the information in a sound comes in the very initial part of the sound, in the attack, and it’s very complex in an acoustic instrument. With an electronic instrument, in those days, it just wasn’t as complex. Later on, in synthesizers like the Roland D-50, they started making sounds that used just the sampled front end of an acoustic sound, and the bed of it was from oscillators. But I used to do it back then by recording a live instrument and maybe using just the front of it. We didn’t have samplers, there was no digital recording. You had analogue tape and you could cut it and you could splice it, but there weren’t any of the kinds of manipulation that are now so easy to do digitally. But I liked that logo because I think with just two or three instruments I got something that would fill the movie theatre.

So you combined those complex acoustic attacks with the full-range high and low frequencies of electronics.

Exactly, and that produced things where you couldn’t say “that’s an instrument”, so it gave it a colour and a flavour and a newness that you wouldn’t get by just using acoustic instruments.

What were some of your stranger requests?

Well one of my favourites was a thing called the Slo-Mo II, which was a lawnmower. In those days, before you went into your session, you were supposed to brief your clients on what you were going to do. That meant going over to the agency and sitting down at the piano...(laughs)...and telling them what you were going to do. So I dutifully went over to the agency for Slo-Mo II and played some E minor chords on the piano. And then when the session came, I threw all that out because there was no way you could write all that down and there was no way you could communicate it on a piano. And so the client would get a little insecure because they didn't know what to expect. Then once they heard it and saw it with the picture they just would go crazy, they would love it.

Same with the GE Beep, you know, the talking dishwasher: that won a lot of awards. When I did that, they said “well we have a new dishwasher and it goes ‘beep-beep’”, and I said “oh, fantastic!” and they gave me this commercial that had been shot with all these blinking lights. And they said “can you re-invent the sound of our dishwasher, do you want us to send over the beeps?”, and I said “no, no—I can make those beeps exactly like your beep, don’t worry”. And they said “OK, well put the beeps where you see the lights”. And they envisaged a commercial that just went ‘beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep’...and I said “well, we can make it talk, we can make it sing. We can take those beeps and bring them to a whole new world!” And they said “uh-oh, we’d better check this with our legal department”. They were worried that maybe people would expect their dishwasher to talk! (laughs) but you know, they took a leap and it became this huge hit, and it led to a whole series of commercials: ‘Beep’, ‘Son of Beep’, ‘Cousin of Beep’, you know...(laughs)

What are your thoughts on the current nostalgia for, and fetishization of, old analogue synthesizers?

Well I’m glad to see, actually, a resurgence of interest in the older machines because they represent an historic period that is unconnected, in a way. We think of it as an evolution, but in many ways that direct evolution never really happened because—as I said at the beginning—a lot of the potential of these instruments was never realized. It kind of took a  left turn, and things got more involved in the replication of existing sounds and more conventional approaches.

And the synthesizer became more like a glorified organ.

You could say that, and that’s a real insult, but yeah... (laughs).

Compared to a Buchla, say.

Yes. But you know, the Musicians’ Union in the old days...when I first came to New York I wasn’t allowed into the Union right away because they thought I was just trying to replace existing players. And I had to show them that I wasn’t there to take jobs away from flute players or string players; that I was doing something legitimate and new and that it was a legitimate instrument.

And you actually were a musician.

Right, right. But coming back to analogue machines: my Buchla—I kept it for years. Half of it was stolen, unfortunately, and sold by some fellow in England. I thought it was gone, like, 30 years ago and then it showed up in a photograph someplace and some fellow in New York had kept it in his apartment for 25 years.

Do you have any Sicilian relatives who could sort him out?

Yes, I do! (laughs) But the other half, I tried to repair and the truth is that some of the parts are not available any more, and you can’t get a substitute that will fit into the space. So my Buchla is now in the wonderful Audities museum in Canada [6]. And maybe that’s where it belongs. For me, without the Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator I couldn't play it anyway.

Could you describe that module, and how you used it, in more detail?

It’s called the MARF in its acronym form, and it’s something that Don Buchla invented [7]. So it looks like a 16-stage sequencer, and each stage has, instead of a knob, has a slider so you can set, say, a pitch. But underneath each stage there is a switch, and that switch can instantly change the transposition of any one of those pitches by an octave or whatever else you tell it. And then below that is an external input, so you could feed into it another two sequences, and you could tell it at that stage “don’t look at the pitch that I’ve set for this stage”— so you already have a 16-stage melody going on or whatever, a series of pitches—“look to external A or external B”, and that external input is another sequencer. So you have a three-dimensional sequencer there. Besides that, you had two layers. Normally a sequencer goes from left to right and then cycles back and repeats those notes. Well, this one could access the notes in any order, it wasn’t just a sequencer filing through the pitches. It could go backwards, it could leap, it could jump. It could also go at audible speeds, so you could take a series of notes and instead of listening to them as notes you’d have them go so, so fast that they became a timbre. So you could get very rich tones, astonishing tones—string tones that sounded like singing violins or voices. So it was something that had a lot of possibility and depth and you could just explore it.

It also sounds like it had a lot of flexibility in real time, that you could change it on the fly, and so had a lot of potential for live improvisation.

You got it. Totally. That was what you played. That’s why the performances were that way. You had the lights feeding back, so you always knew where you were, and then you would just interact. In fact in a live performance, in the one live performance [8] I have a tape of you can hear the switches being clicked!


[1] In 2012, nearly two years after this interview took place, Ciani purchased a Buchla 200e with which she is now “getting acquainted”.

[2] The album Lixiviation  (Finders Keepers FKR053CD/LP) released in February 2012, includes unpublished recordings from 1969 to 1985, including an LP of Voices of Packaged Souls, Ciani’s first recorded project, in collaboration with sculptor Harold Paris, various television and radio commercials, and early Buchla recordings from her Berkeley days.

[3] The Marimba Lumina

[4] The Lightning

[5] The Thunder

[7] A photo of the MARF may be seen here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/markverbos/321298116/

[8] Recorded by WBAI, Boston, in 1975