Suzanne Ciani, Trailblazing Synth Musician, Looks Back

Originally published on March 4, 2012 6:41 pm

Suzanne Ciani's start in music was traditional enough. She was classically trained, majored in music at Wellesley College, and got a fellowship to study composition at UC Berkeley. But when she arrived there in the mid-1960s, just in time to witness the student protests that consumed the Bay Area during that decade, her focus shifted.

"It was a very amazing time — there was tear gas coming through the window and riots, and nothing was normal," Ciani says. "And in this fertile ground of creative change is where I met the designer Don Buchla, really the consummate designer of electronic music instruments."

Through her relationship with Buchla and other computer music pioneers, Ciani became one herself. She founded her own company in 1974, Ciani/Musica, and became an in-demand producer of major Hollywood film scores, commercial jingles and video game sound effects, releasing albums of her own music all the while.

She discusses her career, including the new retrospective album Lixiviation, with NPR's Jacki Lyden.

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Sounds like a Coke bottle being opened up, right? Well, no. Actual soda was consumed in the production of this sound. It was created on a synthesizer by the pioneering electronic musician Suzanne Ciani.


LYDEN: Trained as a classical musician, Ciani fell in love with synthesizers in the late 1960s and quickly found that commercials and movies offered the best opportunities.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three, two, one. Blast off. You will go to hyperspace. Your mission: save the human race. We are (unintelligible)...

LYDEN: She just released a new album, "Lixiviation," looking back on her decades in music. And Suzanne Ciani joins me now from the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Welcome. It's a real pleasure.

SUZANNE CIANI: It's my pleasure, Jacki. Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

LYDEN: I know everyone wants to know what lixiviation means.

CIANI: Well, that was a term that we came up with. It was a film project that I did with the sculptor Ronald Mallory. He worked in mercury. And so the film was really a visualization of the movements of mercury and had to do with light, really, the abstraction of light. And so we actually coined this word, although maybe it does exist, and it has to do with light.


LYDEN: Suzanne, I want to take you back, if you'll bear with me, a few decades, and ask you about being the young Suzanne who's the pioneer, who's the young woman who graduates from Berkeley and goes out and starts to score films and make commercials.

CIANI: I was in the right place at the right time because I had arrived already on the West Coast with this notion of computer music, having run into it for a moment at MIT. So when I arrived in Berkeley, and of course it wasn't - it was a very amazing time because it was - you know, there was tear gas coming through the window and riots and nothing was normal.

And in this fertile ground of creative change, you know, this is where I met the designer Don Buchla. Don Buchla was really the consummate designer of electronic music instruments. And I was in the right place at the right time when I met him.


LYDEN: When you first saw this synthesizer built by this man Buchla, what did it look like? What was your reaction to it?

CIANI: The first time I recall seeing it was at his studio. And I went in there, it was like, oh, this is what I've been looking for. There was a tower of modules blinking like a city towering up in this huge, dark space, cavernous space.


LYDEN: It's kind of like getting in the cockpit, and that cockpit is not off-putting but indeed it's your portal. It becomes the vehicle for the rest of your creative life until now.

CIANI: Well, there were many reasons for that. You know, I was thinking about this question myself. Like, how did this happen? Why was I so in love with electronic music? And, you know, on one level, I always thought of myself primarily as a composer. And the reality of being a composer is a challenging one because a lot of composers would die without ever hearing their music.

And if you were a woman and you were a composer, you had even less of a chance of hearing your music. And I think there was some kind of subconscious attraction to this machine that would give me my independence, that would allow me to be in complete control of my composition and to not depend on some outside political system to give me the right to hear my music.

LYDEN: Why do you think that the world of the commercial was more embracing? Let's talk about your Coca-Cola commercial, which we heard a little bit about and which you re-released on this new CD. Why did Madison Avenue seem more ready for what you were doing?

CIANI: Well, my true goal was to be a recording artist. So I had made the rounds of all the record labels and got no place because they said, well, why don't you sing? Where's the guitar? They weren't looking for something new. They wanted, you know, what they already knew was a hit, and they wanted more of that. Advertising was different...


CIANI: ...because they were always high risk and always looking forward, always wanted to be, you know, at the forefront. So I had a much better reception there. Even though they didn't understand what I was doing, that wasn't an obstacle. It was even an advantage because it meant that it was something new and different, new and different. It was good.


LYDEN: When I look at some of the videos of you at the console, one thing that's consistent then and consistent now is you seem almost to be floating. You know, there's no question that this person is in a kind of communion with the creative process.

CIANI: For me, recording, especially when I finally got to do my artistic recordings, I had a saying, you know, before every session. It was: There is nothing to do, and everything will get done. So it put me in this totally relaxed place. There was no stress. I mean, in my commercial work, it was like an emergency room. You know, the call would come in, and the next day, you know, you're in a studio. And, you know, in my own work, yes, there was a timeless space. There was an infinite kind of happiness. I always - it was a place of sheer joy for me.

LYDEN: Electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani. Her new record is called "Lixiviation," and you can hear more of it on our website, Thank you for all the dreamscapes, all these otherworldly sounds and all these synth experiments. I mean, they all make just an amazing tapestry however it's applied.

CIANI: Thank you, Jacki.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.