Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani
, September 16th, 2016 07:34
Waves, both sound and tidal, have been a recurrent theme for Suzanne Ciani. The composer’s 1982 debut album was titled Seven Waves and aqueous washes surface throughout, with the record’s final two tracks, named appropriately ‘The Sixth Wave’ and ‘The Seventh Wave’, subsiding entirely beneath them at their close. Later she began releasing music on her own label, Seventh Wave, and an upcoming documentary, A Life In Waves, picks up the thread of what she’s called her “leitmotif”. Even now, Ciani lives in Bolinas, California, a place idiosyncratic for many reasons – a small town resolute on staying small, its residents famously tore down road signs pointing their way – one of which being that it’s surrounded on three sides by water, meaning that the lapping of the Pacific is her constant backdrop. As she said to this magazine four years ago, that first record “was about my love for the ocean. Those seven waves were all connected in one piece. There is not a seam on that album. A wave builds, it crashes, it recedes, another wave builds out of the sea.”
It’s fitting, then, that the crashing of the tide surges in on ‘A New Day’ and ‘Closed Circuit’, the two tracks that form Sunergy, her collaborative album recorded with the multi-instrumentalist Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. It’s the thirteenth instalment of the New York label Rvng Intl.’s FRKWYS series, which establishes intergenerational collaborations and has so far included work by Julianna Barwick, Ikue Mori, David Borden, James Ferraro, Samuel Godin, Laurel Halo, Daniel Lopatin, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and Ariel Kalma among many others. The link-up between Ciani and Smith couldn’t really be better: neighbours, their friendship stemmed from a community dinner Ciani attended and Smith cooked for, where they bonded over their love for Buchlas, the modular synths with which Ciani is synonymous and which were a core part of Smith’s album EARS, released earlier this year. The merge of coursing streams of synth and airy, occasionally processed woodwind on that record reflect another shared interest: the natural world, or, to be more specific, the natural world as represented by electronic instruments. (You could even see ‘Alder’, ‘Cedar’ and the seven titular plants of Smith’s work Useful Trees as forming arboreal companions to Ciani’s waves to bolster the connection.)
Forming a nice counterpoint to the fact that Ciani had to fund her initial music-making by producing adverts and idents for Coca Cola, Atari and PBS, none of which were more than a handful of seconds in duration (her most micro micro-composition was a third of a second), Sunergy excels in long-form, slow-growth tracks. To pick up the wave image, ‘A New Day’, which clocks in at 23.10, feels like a breaker making its way towards the coast, accumulating matter as it does; what begins as the slow undertow of bass line with the manic Buchla squall of notes overhead gradually grows to be a harmonious and dense collision of sounds. Some of these feel more explicitly man-made – the runs of bleeps and laboratory hisses could only be coaxed from their analogue kit – but these fall under the eaves of a sonic structure firmly built in tribute to the environment, and it’s the waves and winds that buffet the northern California coastline that are running through Ciani and Smith’s patch cables here. ‘Closed Circuit’ by turn feels both more static and episodic. Rather than building and building, it moves through different segments, from a calming and lulled introductory passage to one where the staggered synth tones seem to pull away from the vertiginous bass in a way that impressively almost induces seasickness if you listen through headphones. The bonus track, ‘Retrograde’, is a more still, circular end piece that doubles as a segue back into real life, with the mics up on Ciani and Smith operating their synths.
What the record amounts to, though, is more than a synchronic sound portrait of the Pacific looking out from Bolinas. It’s an album that requires patience, from the listener and its creators, and both musicians come from a background where this is key: Ciani began producing music feeding punched cards into a computer, while Smith made her first compositions to accompany chants during a year spent at a Krishna temple in Los Angeles. What then emerges are tracks that feel like they could happily exist outside of time, fabricating through synthesis an oceanic churn and break that is continuous and will pre- and post-date all of us. Even if Ciani and Smith don’t quite buy the links to climate change the album’s press release make (though Smith says, “I guess it's always an influence…”), you can’t help but feel that a record comprising two instrumental tracks that invite the listener to consider the world’s largest ocean for almost 36 minutes without lyrical distraction feels timely, especially coming as it does from a country that could be led by a man whose rejection of global warming would put him in a minority of one. Sunergy then not only feels like a brilliant collaboration, but one that’s simultaneously quietly pressing.