Suzanne Ciani: The Diva of the Diode is Busier Now than Ever Before
With a career spanning over 50 years, the “Diva of the Diode” is busier now than ever, demonstrating the power of the Buchla synthesizer to a new generation of enthusiasts around the world.
During a short break between concerts, Suzanne Ciani sat down with me to discuss what it has been like to come back to the Buchla synthesizer after 40 years and how she approaches performing with the new Model 200E.
For Suzanne, the resurgence of analog modular synthesizers has been a delightful surprise. “The first time around we didn’t achieve the full potential of analog”, she explains. “Digital synthesizers came along, and we all embraced them thinking that newer technology was better. Now that analog is popular again, we have the opportunity to fully explore the possibilities”.
Having been introduced to the modular synthesizer in the late ‘60s, she devoted the early part of her career to Don Buchla and the Model 200. "I like to call Don the Leonardo DaVinci of instrument design”, she says. Suzanne got her first taste of the Buchla synthesizer at the San Francisco Tape Music Center of Mills College in Oakland, CA. “I used to pay five dollars a visit to get a chance to work with their Buchla system”, she remembers. “After I graduated from Berkeley, I went to work for Don soldering components to earn enough money to buy my own system”. Soon after, she went to New York City with only a few clothes and her synthesizer and ended up staying for nineteen years. “I was homeless and happy”, she says thinking back. It was an exciting time of solo performances and session recording. She appears on numerous records from other artists including Steve Hackett, Spyro Gyra, and Mike Rutherford. In 1975, she was recommended for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was awarded to her in 1976.
In 1978, Suzanne founded the very successful advertising firm, Ciani/Musica Inc., which produced jingles and sound logos for companies like Coca-Cola, GE, Ford, Atari, and AT&T. Another project she is known for was the Xenon pinball machine, for which she created many sound effects and recorded her own voice through a vocoder onto the sound chip. This was the first time a female voice was used on a pinball machine.
During the ‘80s, Suzanne appeared on television shows like David Letterman and 3-2-1 Contact to demonstrate her synthesizer and many of the sound effects she had created. During this time, she also scored the Lily Tomlin film, The Amazing Shrinking Woman, becoming the first solo female composer of a Hollywood film score. Suzanne released her first studio album in 1982. Although she had difficulty convincing an American record label to release it, Seven Waves was released in Japan and was finally re-released on Atlantic Records in the States in 1984. It featured many popular synthesizers of the time, including the Prophet 5, Roland TR-808 drum machine, Buchla 200, Moog Polymoog, Synclavier, and more. The album includes seven complete compositions instead of live improvisations. It marked the beginning of what would become Suzanne’s predominant style for much of her career. It is a beautiful album filled with rich electronic sounds and playful melodies.
Suzanne’s albums became very popular in the New Age genre and from the late ‘80s through the ‘90s she released five Grammy-nominated records, including Neverland, Hotel Luna, Dream Suite, Pianissimo II, and Turning. She also returned to the acoustic piano with Pianissimo in 1990, a solo piano album of many of her previously released songs. She would release Pianissimo II in 1997 and Pianissimo III in 2001. In 1994, she founded her own independent record label named Seventh Wave to release her albums.
2016 was a turning point for Suzanne. When she released her Buchla Concerts, 1975, an album compiled from live recordings of her original Buchla system, she was suddenly in the spotlight again as an electronic artist. “There was a modular renaissance going on that I didn’t know anything about”, she says. Don Buchla convinced her to buy a new 200E system and later that year she released Sunergy, a collaborative album with musician Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, composed with Buchla synthesizers. Forty years since her last Buchla performance, Suzanne performed at Gray Area in San Francisco on March 5, in quadraphonic sound. She released the recording of that concert LIVE Quadraphonic in 2018, which was the first LP to be released in the quadraphonic format in 30 years.
Suzanne has always been a trailblazer. While others would have been happy to follow an established career path, she chose to follow her heart. Her drive and dedication have led her to many amazing opportunities. Now, some 50 years later, she remains dedicated to Don Buchla and his vision. “We have so many possibilities today with the tools available to us and I want to be a role model for others”, she says. And what a role model she is! Through her live performances, album releases, video content, and personal appearances, she is extremely involved in the analog modular movement. Not content with the technology currently available, she is constantly working with developers. “I use modified versions of modules to get the results I want”, she explains. Always pushing the boundaries, she incorporated control voltage into the Eventide H9 effects units she uses on-stage. She also uses a custom version of the Animoog iPad app from Moog during her performances. “I asked them to add a way to tune the app so I can adjust the pitch to match the Buchla if I need to”, she explains. Trying to maintain portability, Suzanne has had to sacrifice some features that her original Buchla system had. “I used to have a large analog sequencer in my original Buchla that I could tweak manually. Now I have a tiny digital sequencer that has to be programmed”, she says. “When I started working with the Buchla again, I had to remember what I used to do. Back then I wrote a paper entitled The Buchla Cookbook that I used as a starting point for my current work”. In an interesting turn of events, she programmed the sequencer patterns that she mapped out in that paper as the “raw material” for her new Buchla system. “I used those sequences because they work so well together”, she says. “I approach them as ‘raw material’ instead of finished parts. By modifying their playback through the Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator (MAFG), every performance is unique”, she continues. “I don’t focus too much on the tones because the random combinations of notes, octaves, modulation, and space are where the real magic happens”. Having used those sequences for a few years now, Suzanne is ready to expand her possibilities. “I am working with Buchla on a new analog sequencer design that will provide more hands-on control”, she says. She is also working on a new version of the MAFG. “The MAFG is the brain of the Buchla”, she says. “You can program it to think and then you can interact with what it generates. It becomes a collaboration with the machine”, she continues. “With the MAFG, I can quickly dial in octave changes, filter changes, or affect whatever parameter I want, and it will make all of those modifications randomly. When you spread the notes of a sequence over multiple octaves, your ear hears the notes as multiple sequences based on the octave. This is a great way to add variety to a performance”.
Suzanne is very grateful that there is a new generation of listeners that understands the modular synthesizer. “The modular has been around long enough now that when people come to my performances, they understand what I am doing”, She explains. “With the popularity of eurorack, many of my listeners are musicians as well. I love to see so many new artists performing with modular”. Suzanne would like to see more dialog between users and designers. “We have come a long way, but we still need more tools”, she says. “I would like to see more quadraphonic systems as well. Analog needs to move and quad provides that movement”.
Suzanne is extremely well-rounded in the music world and has a wealth of knowledge, yet she is constantly seeking new innovations—a refusal to be satisfied with mediocrity. With guest appearances on numerous records, over 30 album releases, movie soundtracks, a successful advertising firm, her own record label, numerous awards and nominations, live performances, and much more, she could be content to sit back and enjoy her success, but that would be out of character. Music is imperative for her. Today, Suzanne remains passionate about her music and her enthusiasm shows whenever she speaks about it. Her calendar is filled with dates to perform all around the world. I asked her what inspired her to continue, and she said, “I want to show the new generation what is truly achievable with modular. I think I can stop once I see that the modular world has caught up to Don Buchla’s vision”. It is this pioneering spirit that is so intoxicating and infectious. It has led Suzanne to this point in her career, and it drives her to keep going. She is a global inspiration to explore and create, manifest our own personal evolution, and hone and wield creativity as a life source that sustains us. With someone like Suzanne in your corner who constantly encourages creativity and refuses to settle, it is only a matter of time before the abstract becomes a reality.
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