Quadraphonic waves – Interview with Suzanne Ciani


Inkonst in the south of Sweden remains the undisputed source to go to if you are a fan of experimental arts and contemporary electronic music. Based in Malmoe its international prominence has continued to grow with its yearly electronic arts festival Intonal where renowned artists play side by side with new and up ‘n’ coming. This years event starts on April 27th to 30th featuring acts like Jasss and AUX88.

Intonal in all its glory does not hinder Inkonst from bringing the elite in electronic music to its venues only weeks before the festival. At the end of March the queen of modulars in general and Ms Buchla in particular Suzanne Ciani brought her 200e to the Black box. After a short warm up session by Elin Piel, Suzanne was ready to enter the stage bringing her familar Ocean and Jungle patches to life before an enthustiastic audience. To quote one of the guests; “a sit down and keep your mouth shut type concert when all is at its best. A nice journey through a 70’s influenced and Berlin inspired ostinato, with delicate hints both to trance and noise. Being a modular geek myself I forced myself to keep my eyes shut every now and then so as not to be too much engulfed by the magical knob-twirling that went on, on stage.”

Stereoklang of course to took the opportunity to do an interview before she went on stage, meeting up in the lobby at the Scandic hotel and for once with the weather on our side. Although in her early seventies she’s nowadays continuously on tour with her Buchla, or as she says herself until it breaks. And judging from the last time that happened it is not something we would want, as it made her drop out of the modular arena for decades, until the guys at Moog decided to convince her to come back. And although you may enjoy her piano works and ambient feel-good music, not to forget all the Grammy awards she’s been nominated for, it is behind the Buchla she belongs. And to confirm that she stated: “I grew up as a pianist. But the Buchla is a whole other compositional medium. I can only do one at a time.”

Do you perceive the Buchla to be unpredictable, chaotic even?
SC: There are so many voltages going on at the same time, there’s a kind of fractional nature to it and all these things are interacting. Always a lot of evolving parameters, but they are not unknown. Sometimes I do forget to turn something on and something unexpected happens, and I really like that, because it triggers a response in me: How do I want to incorporate this mistake into the piece. I love mistakes. The unpredictability idea is, I believe, more centred around not understanding it – deeply enough. Once you get to know it, it isn’t so much about unpredictability as it is variability.

Deep inside atoms reigns chaos – in a sense modulars may be set to operate in the same way – is this what triggers you to work with the Buchla?
SC: Yes I do believe that there is energy inside of it and working with the Buchla is all about exploring your relationship with it. But randomness as such is not chaos. And you can limit the randomness – it is like a fractal. It is kind of a like a tree where every leaf is the same but different – without the randomness it would be stunningly boring. So all these random spices that you mix in, brings life to it. You can have chaos, but it would still be controlled chaos. So it does mimic the natural world and for me the whole experience with a Buchla is organic in a sense. One thing leads to another – it evolves. I have some patches that are very much based on randomness, but it is controlled all the way. It is called the Jungle.

Another important part is the keyboard which basically functions for me as a command centre during the performance and it allows me have full control over the outcomes. You decide what you want it to do, you select the keys to trigger it, and although difficult to program once you’ve done it’s there. A very powerful analog set up with digital components.

How much is derived from the love of technology versus composing of music?
SC: I am 100% composer, I couldn’t build a single circuit, but I see it as an important collaborative effort with the tool maker. I worked closely with Don (edi. Don Buchla) back in the days and I call him the Leonardo da Vinci of analog instrument design and that feedback relationship we had proved to be extremely important. I dropped out of the modular world for a long time and when I came back I did not like everything; what happened to the 200 envelope and the 200 sequencer and filter. I work a lot with patches and when I finally re-visited the Buchla I realised that it couldn’t tune, so I took it to Don and he just looked at me and said; well then you need to do something else with it.
And although lots of people today make noise and soundscapes, I focus more on melodies and the tonal part to it.

Do modulars move you closer to a futuristic state of singularity, where we have become one with the machines or the boundaries have blurred?
SC: Technology is a tool and it can generate things with artificial intelligence, but on the other hand you don’t have to. In a sense I object a little to this evolution, at the same time as I appreciate the renaissance in analog synthesis, but if you look at how a lot of music is made today I would favour less cut and paste and less automation. My domain is all about being interactive and performing live. I have made studio albums, so I know what it is like to sit by the computer.

At the same time I have come back to this glorious world where Don designed an interface that was new and deeply thoughtful of what the human body was – just look at the keyboard. It is shaped like your hands, so why do most of us still work with black and white keyboards. This is why I completely stopped, back in the 70’s, playing the piano – I did not want to confuse anyone, what Don developed had nothing to do with the traditional. An artistic hygiene – not to blend the two worlds.
When I came back to the world of modular I did not want to insult my fans and surprise them with something that was completely out of their comfort zone or what they were used to hearing from me. The whole process was actually kind of scary. At the time I wasn’t even planning to make a come back to the world of modular and the Buchla – I have just gone with the flow. In a sense it all started when the label Finders Keepers wanted to re-issue my early works and I thought it was only a small label, but today there is no such thing as anonymity.

Which of the two worlds do you favour the most?
SC: Right now the timing of coming back to this world is absolutely heavy – it is fantastic. In the early days nobody new what it was. I basically came out from under a rock I did not know all of this was happening. Now they know what I am doing and the kids are into it. Pure joy for me.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I would say it is essentially expressive composition I do, in a sense similar to jazz music. In jazz you would take a standard song and that would be the container. So for me I have a starting point of four sequences and they are the same sequences I used in the 70’s. So although from that perspective nothing has changed the expression is different. You have these raw materals that you start off with, but that doesn’t define everything. So when I perform I always start with the “Ocean”, that’s my thing, and then it evolves as an improvisation as it goes. Starting of peaceful I then let it become more random and then I come back – kind of a classical form / format.

What´s your take on Eurorack?
SC: I think my role in all of this is to bring attention to Don and the Buchla designs. For me it is all about looking backwards, to look at the source and where it all started. He was the first one to design an analog modular music instrument. With the 200e system I can manifest a lot of the capabilities that are possible with it. When I look at all these available modules out there, and there are some pretty amazing ones, you still need to put it all together into one.

What’s your relationship to Moog and where does it sit in relation to Buchla?
They couldn’t be further apart. Moog had to put a keyboard on it, because no one could figure out what it was. But at the same they closed the door on all the new possibilities that come with these systems. Also the aesthetics were very different. Don’s genius in all of this was that he at all times saw it from a performance point of view. It was compact – try to move a Moog system around. There are wonderful things about Moog, but live performances is not one of them. The other thing about Buchla is that it is quadraphonic and you wont find a quadraphonic Moog. And that is intrinsically part of the sound of the Buchla. It becomes more alive and it allows control of space. I can’t perform unless it is quad. And compared to the 70’s I now have access to speaker systems that really can do justice to the inherent quad capabilities. But unlike the early days of east coast/west coast dichotomies, today we are all friends and Moog has greatly supported me in my analog comeback.

As a forerunner how do you view the current blooming in modulars and micro-modular systems and why do you think this is happening now?
SC: Teenage Engineering are so amazing. It is a different approach since it is digital. With Eurorack in general I like the whole approach being portable, inexpensive and disruptive, although I could wish for more attention to details and quality. When Buchla started out his designs he did not do anything thoughtlessly. Looking at a Buchla it has so many hidden refinements, such as the low pass gates, that are musical. With this being said I haven’t fallen in love yet with any other modular. My goal is to impact the evolution of instruments and do that by showing the works of Don.

You once stated “Things have an implied sound even if they don’t make a sound” – in today’s context this is a very accepted statement, but what were the reactions back then, when you started to make all these iconic sound effects?
SC: All of this is intuitive. I wasn’t really knowing what I was doing back in the days. How do people hear and envision various sounds, like the Coca Cola bubbles? There are so many notions of the sound something makes and what it should actually sound like and for me it was also to listen in on the sounds that weren’t there – but were there. You try to envision the platonic sound and realise it. If you listened to the real sound it was always disappointing.

You also stated: “That’s the thing we love about technology: it’s alive, it’s organic and keeps growing. And that keeps it interesting.”
SC: The beauty of analog is that it is evolutionary, so in that sense organic. That energy systems and intuitiveness is what I think attracts kids today.
Nobody wants to go through endless menus – digital is wonderful for storing stuff and computers are perfect for recording work in the studio, but at the same time that is basically the only thing I am using them for. You may watch artists perform with computers and that’s OK if you just want to hear that song over and over again, that specific piece, but for me I prefer to be in the moment and feel something alive happen.

Looking at the modern music scene – what is your impression of electronic music today?
I am constantly surprised of the variety of what comes out. And some of it I am very drawn to. In Berlin for example I was playing at Funkhaus and a fellow has a studio there, Nils Frahm, and I really like his approach and expression (not confined to any school). I also like Jonathan Fitoussi  who also has a very different approach to me.

You always keep coming back to your fascination with waves, why is that? What are waves to you more than the soothing rhythm from the sea?
Waves are very interesting as they are a slower type of rhythm. I am fascinated by the shape of the wave itself – how it starts off, smoothly builds, then peaks and then recedes – I use this as a compostional form. And I use wave shaped control voltages in the filters and a ton of other places to keep it moving.

The beauty of machines is that they can achieve really slow rhythms. In a way that humans are not so good at, as we are more inclined to follow our heartbeats. So a primary thing of machines is that they can work slowly, like waves. Another thing is that I see the wave as very feminine form – it is a different energetic shape – not too far away from a female orgasm. For me it is very natural. I even have this little app with me on my phone with recorded ocean waves so I can always listen to them.

Plans going forward:
Mostly live performances as well as a project with ISM (Institute for Sound and Music) where they have a hexadome, with a massive construction inside and 52 speakers. And 6 high resolution projections and all of this will be coming to San Francisco and Boston. It kind of seems that everything I dreamt of is coming true now. I have been reincarnated – a sleeping beauty waking up.

Suzanne Ciani (born June 4, 1946) is an American musician, sound designer, composer, and record label executive who found early success in the 1970s with her innovative electronic music and sound effects for films and television commercials. Her career has included works with quadraphonic sound. She has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Age Album five times. Her success with electronic music has her dubbed “Diva of the Diode” and “America’s first female synth hero”

Select pictures are made available through Inkonst and subject to copyright by Henrik Hellström.