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A Quietus Interview

The Size Of The Ocean: Suzanne Ciani interviewed
Ben Graham , February 7th, 2019 09:30

Suzanne Ciani is an important and innovative figure in the history of electronic music, being one of the first owners and users of the Buchla modular synthesizer. Ahead of her appearance at Terraforma festival she talks to Ben Graham about the importance of spirituality in her practice

I'm sat opposite Suzanne Ciani in the café of Sussex University's Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, where the 72-year-old composer, sound designer and pioneering electronic musician is due to play a rare concert as part of this year's Brighton Digital Festival. Ciani will be performing on the Buchla 200e, one of the innovative analogue modular synthesisers designed by her late mentor Don Buchla, who Ciani first met when studying for an MA in music composition at the University of California in Berkeley in the late sixties. He was in a sense a freak-friendly Tesla to Robert Moog's Edison, designing sound systems for Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and The Grateful Dead as well as the keyboard-less modular synths used by Morton Subotnick among others.

Yet Ciani was arguably the most dedicated exponent of his invention, if also the most criminally unsung. Forming her own music production company in 1974, Ciani took on whatever gigs she could get playing her beloved Buchla, including work for TV ads, soundtracks, corporate logos and video games (see Finders Keeper's excellent anthology of her early commercial work, Lixiviation).

Ciani's first album of her own music, Seven Waves, was released in 1982. Considered an important figure in the burgeoning new age music genre, her music always came from a deeply personal, spiritual place, and our conversation reveals a purposeful, questioning personality whose relationship with technology and music has always been both emotional and based around a desire for connection and communication.

Now finally getting the recognition she deserves as a ground-breaking figure in the development of electronic music, Ciani has recently returned to working with the Buchla synth and the world of quadrophonic sound that she was exploring from the very beginning of her artistic career. Our interview however focussed on the spiritual intentions underpinning and informing her incredible, often unearthly but always life-affirming music.

Were you brought up with any religion? Did you have any religion in your family to start with?

Suzanne Ciani: Because I grew up in an Italian family we were Catholic. We observed Easter Sunday and giving things up for Lent, and we went to catechism school. But when I was about to be confirmed, I was about 14 and it was at that point that I realised religion didn't make sense to me. If it was as important as it seemed to be then nothing else could rival it for importance. So my choice is either to become a nun and devote myself to religion or to escape it altogether. So when we told to stand up to be Soldiers of Christ, I just stayed sitting down. And of course the nuns came around and said "Up! Up! Get up!" And I said no, I've made my choice. I couldn't rationalise not becoming a full-time religious person, so that was the end of my Catholicism.

I imagine when you were studying in California in the late 60s that people were talking about alternative spiritual beliefs and looking seriously into this area.

SC: This was a period, honestly, of drug experimentation. I went to California in 1968 and there were many, many very powerful and exotic drugs. I've never been excessive in any of this. I'm not a compulsive person. I could try LSD once, twice, and be done with it. Mescaline, Ibogaine; there were some very exotic drugs, but I would just experiment once or twice. And I would say that there was a spiritual dimension to that experience. The sense of everything being connected and the sense of oneness that you experience at a cellular level, that everything is connected and that life is an ongoing continuous force of its own.

And then I think musically that same sense of integrity that I used to say yes or no to religion was also very operative in my musical expression. Why? Why do we do the things we do? Why do we use these harmonies? Why do we go from one harmony to another? What's the motivation? So I deconstructed music. I was getting a master's degree in music composition, in the classical sense, and all of the protocol was very established. You studied existing composers and you applied those learnings to your own music. And who knows why, but I decided to just erase all of that. I played one note on the piano for weeks, trying to see why it should move. What was the organic impulse? If I didn't apply something from outside was there some organic energy to follow? And then of course when I discovered electronic music and Don Buchla, this instrument gave me a new opening that didn't have all of the prescribed systems that we learned in classical music. I could play a note that lasted for a week. And I found that immersing myself in the actual sound created what I would call a safe space. There was an autonomous space. It was separate from me but a part of me. It was organic and it was immersive, to be in this quadrophonic sound space. I used that right from the beginning, it was always immersive.

Eventually I stopped playing the Buchla, because it broke, and it was stolen, and I moved to New York, and then I started to compose my studio albums. And my goal, in my first album, Seven Waves, was to create a safe space. I felt that electronics gave a sense of security because they were dependable. Humans, rhythmically, maybe miss the beat. But a machine was reliable. And you could also do very slow rhythms; things that humans have trouble doing. The typical rhythm in music is 120bpm, and banging on drums you get into a groove and you can keep it going. But to keep something going that's half that speed, only a machine could do that reliably. And I thought that the subliminal, subconscious certainty that the next beat was going to arrive precisely where it should gave a connection to the cosmos, where things were moving in their natural consistent ways. And the other thing was about the ocean. Seven Waves was based on the sound of waves that I made on the Buchla. To me that rhythm of the ocean, I found it to be a very feminine rhythm. It's a very feminine energy system, where it built to a climax and then receded. Sexually women have a different rhythm than men, and the ocean for me seemed to speak of that distinction.

Do you feel comfortable having your music classified with the phrase 'new age'? People will think of a certain strata of spiritual beliefs that go along with the term new age. Is that something you want to be associated with, or do you feel that label has been put on you from outside?

SC: I'm too much of a composer and a musician, and I see myself in a lineage of composers. So yes, I have a message, but I've never identified with the new age pretences. I did appreciate the category because it gave me a place in the store where people could find my records. But no, I never identified with it and the category new age only arrived with my third album, Neverland. Before that there was no category new age. So I had experienced already the difficulties in the marketplace of not having a place. Did they put it in female vocal, because they assumed you sang, or classical? They had so many categories. There was no single category if somebody said where can I find your record? And back then the record stores were huge, and I didn't know where they could find it. And this was before computer catalogues, where you could just look it up and find it. Someone on the floor had to know where it was. And they didn't know. But then new age came along, and you were in new age. So that was useful.

Do you have any thoughts on the healing properties of music? Do you see your music as performing that kind of function?

SC: I get so many responses from my fans that tell me that my music has healed them or has gotten them through very difficult times, or was there when their child was born, or was there when they were married, or was there when somebody died. It's been there for these nodal points of life, and I'm not surprised, because the source of my music is very deeply personal and spiritual. I'm not doing music to dance to. I'm not doing music to entertain. I'm doing music to deeply listen to and to be moved by. I'm aware that we're all connected. I know that if I can access my human language, my spiritual language, it becomes accessible by others. That's not a surprise. We are all connected. We have so much more in common than we have differences. I think if you go under the layers, we start as seeds and then we grow. The way we grow can lead to different outcomes. But the essence of who we are remains. If you look at children, before they become buffeted by life, they are these joyous young beings with the light of creation in them. That's where we all start, as an innocent, dependent, joyous being. And if the process of healing is really the process of getting back to that original state of being, before you get traumatised and disrupted, and all of the things that happen to us and affect us, then music, if you access that place of connection where we all started, it can heal, because it's bringing somebody the trigger for that sensibility.

In the widest possible sense, do you have any belief in a God or some kind of intelligent universe?

SC: What's so funny to me is that we don't understand ourselves. So here we have brains and biological systems, and honestly we don't know how those work. The human goal is to uncover the way the human functions. Now obviously we have nothing to do with our own manifestation, because we don't even know how it works. We don't know how the brain works. So clearly there's this big gap between our design and our limitations. We don't even understand our design. So we don't understand how the universe operates, and yet it operates. Does there have to be a being there? There doesn't have to be a being. And I obviously don't like to anthropomorphise this being as this male god who's in charge. It's not a being; it is a being-ness. It is systems.

The weather is an energy system that feeds itself and has a balance. Sometimes it gets out of balance, but for the most part it works. The balance of the ocean is another example. You see the size of the ocean and then you see the edge of the ocean. I live on the ocean and the waves just go within a predictable ten feet of the shore. This is impossible, that something that large can be contained so perfectly with this edge that's so precise. So all of these forces have produced balance in many ways, and yet there is randomness. And it's the randomness that's in partnership with the predictable. I was just thinking yesterday that if the leaves on the trees were all alike they wouldn't satisfy us. The fact is that they are all alike on some level, but on a surface level they have variety. It's like snowflakes. We're aware that there is a level of sameness, of balance, and there's also a level of randomness, like fractals. There's nobody sitting there saying I'm going to design every single leaf. It's an energy system. And you feel that in electronic music, because you're working in systems. You're applying controlled randomness to musical situations and you get variety but organically connected, and so it's very musical, because it's predictable but not overly predictable, because then it would be boring.

When you're composing, and particularly when you're composing electronic music, are you guided by a sense of working within an energy system with its own flow and its own desires? How much are you imposing your will upon the system and how much are you going with the flow of what you feel the music wants to do?

SC: It's a dance. It's the difference between having something very predictable, which is what people do when they play on their computer and have a pre-recorded sample and you press play and it happens. That doesn't interest me. The joy of interacting with this machine is that you can tickle it. You can say okay, this is what's happening; now I've going to toss in a few controlled random elements, and I'm going to let you do what you do with it. I'll see what you, the machine, do with those random things. We love machines because they're supposed to be reliable and predictable. They're things that you can count on. If you set the tempo it's going to stay in that tempo, it's not going to go crazy or whatever. But that doesn't make them boring, because when you discover the interactions you can have, you have multiple levels of influence going on, with voltage control. So I can have a spatial control that goes I want you to change the location of the sound on every beat. But I don't want to know exactly where it's going to go. I don't want to know exactly how far away it is. I'll let you, the machine, decide that, and I can change the results if I want to. So there's a conversation going on with the machine. You are in control but you're also letting the machine follow its dynamic.

So in a sense you're giving it agency. A machine is designed to do as it's told, but you're giving it a certain amount of agency. You're saying okay, let's see what you want to do with this, and I'll say yes or no at the end, but go for it.

SC: Yes. The beauty of voltage control is that in a traditional system you hit one key, say, and you get one response. And in voltage control you can set up controls that you can control but you're not triggering one thing at a time. I might have a space going in a circle but I'm not sitting there moving my finger in a circle to make this space happen. No, I've put a control voltage in there that creates a circle. Then I can speed it up or slow it down, I can change it to a sweep pattern, but I don't have to have this one on one action for everything that happens. It's a hierarchy of control.

That's almost a magical approach. That mixture of encouraging random elements while applying a certain level of control is similar to magical practise; that balance of intentionality and allowing for randomness.

SC: I know nothing about that! But you know, when you're young you explore a lot of things. You try on philosophies. I remember at college I read Jean-Paul Sartre and Camus and thought, well, maybe I should be committing suicide, is that a philosophical thing? When you're young you do explore all those things, and it's important to you to define your position. I'm older now and I'm settled, and the thing that confronts people my age is what's going to happen when you die? And honestly I don't think there's any way you can prepare for that. A friend of mine made a film about Ram Dass, who had all of this spiritualism, and then he had a stroke, and all of that spiritualism went right out the window, and all he could think about were the cracks on the ceiling. He was trying to regain his consciousness. So I think we have these spiritual ideas but what we're confronting is so much larger, in a way, than we can fathom. I don't think we can have this ultimate understanding.

Suzanne Ciani plays Terraforma festival in Milan this July