A Life In Waves explores the life and work of electronic music pioneer and composer Suzanne Ciani. It screens Monday, October 2 (Avalon Theater, 9:15 p.m.) as part of the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival, and twice more during the fest.
Ciani worked on and with the Buchla synthesizer in the 1970s (which she played a large part in developing with Buchla himself). She formed her own company, Ciani/Musica, in 1974, composed scores for commercials, films, and video games, and released her own compositions, many on her own label, Seventh Wave. She received five separate Grammy nominations for Best New Age Album between 1988 and 2000, and was recently awarded the 2017 Moog Music Innovation Award.
I feel so lucky to have spoken to Suzanne Ciani. She brought her singular talents, insights, warmth, and beauty to what could have been a bleak media landscape of my childhood in the 1980s and ’90s. Suzanne Ciani was all around me, but her name eluded me. I could have found it on the back of that 1977 vinyl record of the disco Star Wars soundtrack—she created the sound effects and the album went platinum. I could have heard of her as the creator of some of the most recognizable sounds and synth scores that intermittently lit up my living room like one-minute holidays. I could have discovered her as I rifled through the New Age section at Sam Goody on my way to Enya. I could have seen her name in the parade of plaques of illustrious Wellesley College alumnae when I attended exactly 40 classes behind her. But when I saw A Life In Waves, my brain lit up with her magic and I felt we had missed each other long enough.
I had some questions for Suzanne, which she was gracious enough to answer. It was quite the honor to call her and chat about her life, her career, and the magic of just closing your eyes and listening. – Marielle Allschwang
Suzanne Ciani: Oh my God, your number came up as Wellesley, are you in Wellesley?
Marielle Allschwang: No, but I still have my cell phone number from when I went to college there in the early 2000s.
SC: Oh! Did you go to Wellesley?
MA: Yeah! That’s part of why I was so excited to talk to you.
SC: Oh, how cool that we have that in common. That’s great! I’m going back for my fiftieth reunion soon.
MA: Oh my goodness, cool!
SC: It’s a time warp.
MA: I bet. I haven’t gone to a reunion there yet, but I’m feeling a little nostalgic these days, I have to say.
MA: Yeah…So, first of all, A Life In Waves is coming out, and I loved it, and I loved learning about you through that film, but what is it like to have a movie made about you?
SC: Wow! You know, it’s a little bit of a distant experience because in my day-to-day life I don’t have any direct contact with that. But I did go to the premiere in Austin. I went to a screening in Boston where I could invite my family. I went to a screening in San Francisco where I could be with all my friends. And that’s been my direct contact. And sometimes I was uncomfortable watching it, and sometimes I was comfortable watching it. So it’s a little unpredictable. But I know it’s out there, but I don’t live in the experience very much. I’m out here, living in a small town on the coast, in Bolinas, California. On the other hand, it is very nice to know that this has been accomplished. It was a project. I’m glad it was finished. I don’t know what to say actually. I don’t know what to say.
MA: The film for me, as a musician, I was so inspired. I was so excited to discover your work and what you had done, and it was really thrilling, and I’m so glad to have discovered you in this way. I guess it was through this film, so that’s pretty cool.
SC: That is cool!
MA: What kind of role does music play in your daily routine?
SC: Well, always, there’s the hope every day that I will get to the creative part. But there’s an awful lot of the logistical work, paperwork, organizational work, publishing, copyright, legal contracts, touring, agendas. There’s an awful lot of busywork in a music career. The illusion that one can sit and be creative all day is just that. It’s an illusion. I think for the modern, independent, creative musician today, you really do have to wear many hats. And that’s all good. You have to take care of your business as well as your creative work. It’s all connected.
MA: It doesn’t sound like you would trade any of that to be laying low and, I don’t know, being a hermit artist or something. It doesn’t sound like that’s what you would want.
SC: It’s important to keep a balance. And that is the trick. Especially at my stage of life. When I was younger, in New York, my life was one-hundred percent in the fast track of my music business. And now that I’m older, I like to keep a balance. And achieving that balance can be tricky. You want to have time for family, time for friends, time to be a nice person, and not be stressed all the time. So that’s what I strive for.
MA: You were the first woman to create a score for a major Hollywood film. How did that come about, and was that at the forefront of your mind while it was happening?
SC: It came as a total surprise because I was in New York at the time, and in those days, all the composers who worked in Hollywood were pretty much living in Hollywood. There were of course exceptions. I was busy doing scoring for television commercials. One of the producers of some Lincoln Mercury commercials had spent a couple of years in Los Angeles as head of music at, I think, Paramount Pictures. And so he had a lot of contacts in Hollywood. And when he came back to New York for this campaign for Lincoln Mercury, he invited John Barry, the famous composer of Out Of Africa, to score some of the spots for Lincoln Mercury. And he hired me to score some of the spots.
In the process of working on that campaign, I met John Barry, and I met his music editor, Kenny Hall. Ken Hall was one of the best-known music editors in Hollywood, and Kenny saw the way I scored for picture, and he was really impressed. And when he went back to Los Angeles, he mentioned it to some of the people he knows, and before I know it, I got a call out of the blue from Universal Pictures. They wanted me to work on a film. I thought it was a joke. I mean, I had no connection with Universal Pictures or anyone in Hollywood. So when the phone rang on a Friday afternoon I thought it was joke. It was a British guy, Brendan Cahill. I still remember his name, it was such a stunning experience. He said, [adopts fancy British accent] “This is Brendan Cahill from Universal Pictures.” I said, “Oh come on,” and I hung up the phone. And I said, “Who’s making this joke?” And then the phone rang again. And he said, [readopts accent] “This is Brendan Cahill. We’d like you to send out some demo tapes right away.” And I went, wow, okay, I’ll do it.
I think the reason I got hired was there were women in charge. Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, and Verna Fields. So I got hired. Do you know that another woman was not hired to do a major Hollywood feature for another fourteen years? I found out because I was reading in an industry newsletter that a particular female composer had died, and now I can’t remember her name, and they said she was the first woman to be hired to do a major Hollywood feature. And that was in 1994. So they corrected that article. And then the horror of the reality set in, which was that, oh my god, there were fourteen years there. Had I known the momentous reality of this, I would have perhaps done more film scoring. But I chose not to because I was very busy in New York. And a film project is like six weeks long. It’s a different magnitude than doing a commercial.
MA: Was making women composers more prominent part of your works’ mission, or something you felt really strongly about at the time?
SC: Well, at the time I didn’t know that it needed support. You know, you live in your own bubble. You know that there are obstacles. But you think, I’m doing pretty well, so I guess everything is great. It wasn’t until much later that I realized. In those days, we women were very conscious of our mission. I was in college in the late ’60s. And we had a consciousness about women’s rights. And we were used to being the first. The first this, the first that. We were breaking all kinds of barriers. I think that consciousness, just like a wave, you say “a life in waves,” everything happens in the shape of a wave. You have a heightened consciousness, and then it goes down to the trough of the wave. And now we’re back. We’re back at the height of the wave again.
MA: I saw Laurie Spiegel also worked at Buchla Synthesizers around the same time as you. Did you ever work with one another, or did you have female contemporaries working with you in your field?
SC: I knew of Laurie because we both lived in New York, but I was so caught up in my work when I was there. We knew of each other, and I did go to visit her in her loft. I love Laurie, and she was at that time working not with the Buchla, but with another design, I forget the name of it. It was another fellow who had designed an instrument that she became devoted to. It was some kind of custom instrument she was working with then. [Quite possibly Hal Alles’ “Alles Machine.”] I never did work with Laurie. When I first came to New York, I was down in SoHo, before it was SoHo. It was just a bunch of abandoned loft buildings. Phillip Glass was down there. Ornette Coleman was down there. Dickie Landry was down there. Phill Niblock.
MA: Oh my gosh, I met him once.
SC: Oh you did!?
MA: Yeah. He’s so sweet.
SC: He is. And he did so much. One of my historic recordings of live Buchla that was released by Finders Keepers Records wouldn’t have existed except that Phill Niblock had recorded it in 1975 in his loft. That was a big moment for me. I was in Phill Niblock’s loft, and I did a live Buchla performance in 1975, and Vladimir Ussachevsky was in the audience, and he recommended me for a grant with the National Endowment [for the Arts]. And because I got that grant, I wrote a paper called “Report to National Endowment”—forty pages—how to play the Buchla. And when I came back to the Buchla after forty years, I consulted that paper, and reconnected with my techniques that I had developed. There are all these connections, right? One thing leads to another, and it becomes the fabric of your evolution. It’s all a thread. One thing leads to another. So anyway, it’s come full circle. Now I’m back playing the Buchla after forty years.
MA: That’s incredible.
SC: Yeah, it is neat. I always say, “Never say never.” Whenever I’m one-hundred percent sure of something, I’m always proved wrong.
MA: A friend of mine often says when we go to concerts that we listen with our eyes. I’ve been thinking about how there’s maybe not a fork between these two things, but when synthesizers started mimicking sounds that acoustic instruments make, and then I think of Virgil Thompson saying that orchestra instruments are these highly evolved acoustic resonators. And then there’s this idea of the hearing brain or the hearing mind, and creating the idea of a thing, or emulating the idea of a sound. So when a Coca-Cola can opens, were you attempting to amplify an emulation of a sound that existed, or were you thinking about creating new sounds that your brain could process as a concept of freshness or fizziness or something like that?
SC: I just think it’s a form of poetry. I don’t think it’s conscious or premeditated in an intellectual way. It’s a very intuitive process, and it’s a natural, for me anyway, way of creating sound. One of my early projects, while I was still in graduate school, was called “Voices of Packaged Souls.” And that was released by Finders Keepers also. The sculptor Harold Paris gave me twelve ideas. He said, “The sound of a flower falling,” “The sound of an old man loving,” “The sound of a dream kissing,” “The sound of a nose peeling.” All these different imaginary sounds. It was a wonderful playground to just interpret.
It’s a spontaneous thing to make the sound. Is there any real sound? No. Is there an imaginary sound? Absolutely. How do you find the imaginary sound? You just do it. It’s an intuitive process. And it works. Oh, that sounds like a nose peeling. You’ll say that. And that sounds like a flower falling. Even though these things make no sound. There’s a whole world out there of imaginary sounds.
MA: What advice would you give composers who are curious to explore synthesizers but don’t know where or how to start?
SC: I could say, what I’ve noticed, is there is a pitfall. People develop gear-hunger. If they could only get the next piece of hardware or software, then everything would be great. And there’s nothing wrong with that, with getting gear. I was certainly a gear addict. But I say, just spend time with it. It’s a relationship. You need to get comfortable with whatever it is, hardware or software. You need to settle in and explore, and as intuitively as possible. And just do it. And in the process of doing, you’ll run into some dead ends, and you’ll work your way out, and then you’ll explore some more. It’s a process that takes concentration and playfulness. You’re playing. You’re playing with your tools. You have to enjoy it.
MA: Awesome. That’s beautiful advice.
SC: Thank you.
MA: One moment that I really loved in the film A Life In Waves, is when you’re on Wellesley’s campus, and you’re receiving an achievement award, and you’re reminiscing or expounding on something, and then you suddenly stop, and you go, “Doesn’t it smell good?” And you smell the air. I loved that moment. [Both laugh.] Right? It just seemed so you. It’s just such a perfect example of this sensorial and sensual alertness you have, and a sense of presence. You just talked about it a little bit, but maybe talk a little more about how this quality has aided you in your work.
SC: I listen, or try to listen, but what I’m aware of in creative work, is responding to what I call my “little voice.” So there’s a part of me…An airplane is flying by. It’s hysterical. It’s a biplane. Oh my.
So it’s my little voice. If I listen to it, it tells me everything I need to know. And if I ignore it, and don’t trust it, I always regret it. So that little voice in the present. It’s just there in the immediacy of now. You’re in the kitchen and you can’t find the scissors, and your little voice says, “Oh, you used it yesterday over there, maybe it’s over there.” Your little voice is on your side. It’s there all the time, and it’s helping you out. And in creative situations, what I do in order to listen to my little voice, before I start a project, I engage just me and the project, nobody else around. And listen or look, whatever I happen to be working with, and let my little voice speak, and it will give me the solution. Right away. So if I were doing a commercial, I would say, okay, I’m in the editing room, all alone, nobody is talking to me. I’m going to watch this commercial for the very first time, and I’m going to let that commercial trigger my instincts, my little voice. And I get everything from that immediate impact of the first experience. And I trust it.
There can be a lot of second thinking, and advice, and intellectual considerations, and conversations, and all of that to me is weaker than the creative force. It’s that spark. You have to let that spark spark. And when it sparks, that’s your starting point. And then you do all the work. The spark gives you the direction.
MA: I recently watched a show called The Pyramid Code, and it postulated that pyramids were built as electromagnetic sonic resonators that could heal the human body with sound. Do you think sound has that kind of potential?
SC: I live on the ocean. And I can tell you that living with the sound of the ocean is very healing. Maybe I don’t notice it all the time, but when I choose I can tune in to that sound, and it’s like the sound of the Earth breathing. It’s not always gentle. There can be a storm. But I think that experience of listening to your environment—wherever it is, it could be in New York traffic—I think connecting to your audible, auditory nervous system, it puts you right in the present. When you’re listening, you’re in the moment. And that’s healing. You don’t have to always do that, it would be exhausting. But when you choose, it’s a form of meditation. You just close your eyes. You listen.
I remember once I had Stevie Wonder in my studio, and I got a definite sense from him that he lives in a hugely expansive world. Because when we were sitting in the room, I was bound by that room. I saw the walls. And I was limited in some way. Whereas he, because his sense was purely sonic, had an infinite sense of space. I mean, maybe he felt the sound bouncing off the walls, I don’t know. But if you close your eyes, you expand.