Orchestrating The Sunrise: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani Interviewed

Before electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani and fellow Buchla synth enthusiast Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith release their new LP, they tell Danny Riley about nature, synaesthesia and the sensory qualities of Sean Connery's voice

Photograph courtesy of Sean Hellfritsch

You’d have to be living under a hunk of etheric crystal not to notice that New Age music has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years. One could possibly trace the seeds of this particular flowering back to Light In The Attic’s 2013 anthology I Am The Center, through to NTS Radio’s Sounds Of The Dawn show and the current slew of producers feeding off New Age’s crystalline sound palettes. However, if you want to immerse yourself in something that’s more than dilettantism, you could do worse than pick up a copy of Sunergy, a collaboration between the veteran synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, whose album EARS, released in April, is a strong contender for this year’s most beguiling electronic album.

Far from wishy-washy noodling and vague esoteric references, Sunergy is a forceful and direct hymn to that archetypal animating force of nature, powered along by the powerful modular systems of Don Buchla. In fact, it was enthusiasm for the Buchla synth that originally brought the pair together, at a community dinner party in the idyllic coastal town of Bolinas, California. Smith, who was already a fan of Ciani’s work, explains: "There’s only one restaurant in Bolinas, so there’s a lot of community gatherings at different houses. I was cooking for one of them, and Suzanne came to that dinner. We were both excited to meet another Buchla player."

After a stretch working in Ciani’s studio, Smith was approached by Rvng Intl. boss Matt Werth, who asked if she’d be up for recording a collaborative work as part of his label’s long-running (and frequently excellent) FRKWYS series. The resulting work features Ciani’s first new electronic material in years, and the bombastic drones and intricate tones of Sunergy show that the synthesist has lost none of her fire. Smith’s sympathetic adornments and staggering bass lines, meanwhile, provide the perfect psychedelic counterpoint. Intrigued as to how a collaborative work could apparently be carried off so seamlessly, we caught up with the pair to discuss their composition process as well as their own particular motivations.

Suzanne, in recent years you’ve been more interested in piano and classical music. What made you want to return to synthesisers?

Suzanne Ciani: It was back about three years ago when Andy Votel from Finders Keepers asked to release some of my archival stuff from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He’s really responsible for this shift, which is very surprising to me, but I’m back full force now. It started out with his release of Lixiviation, and the latest one was the release of my 1975 Buchla concerts. In the meantime, Don Buchla, who’s a neighbour of mine, suggested that I get one of the new systems, the 200E. So now I’m reincarnated as a Buchla person. But my big problem is that I don’t promote my electronic music very much because it makes my ‘normal’ fans angry! But I just can’t control everything. So I’m still doing piano concerts, but I’m also doing more Buchla concerts now.

Do you stay up to date with what’s going on in the electronic music world?

SC: No. However I can’t help but get more and more co-involved with it, so I’m gradually assimilating into that new world. I’m learning more and more every day just kind of being in it. But I’m not deeply knowledgeable about this stuff. Though I’m always amazed – it seems like people are running all over the world performing this stuff every ten minutes, and it’s a whole new world to me.

When you first went to music college you were interested in computer music. Will you ever go back to that?

SC: This was in 1969, and in those days I had the good fortune to to study with the father of computer music, Max Mathews. He died a couple of years ago. In those days, computers were the size of deep freezers and you had to go to a facility to use them. But the concepts, really, were clear. That’s where John Chowning came up with his frequency modulation algorithms that became famous in the Yamaha instruments. I studied under both John and Max, but I don’t have a desire to go back to anything that is not hands-on. Max made a lot of interfaces. He worked with Boulez, he made conducting wands and physical interfaces to work with the computer. But I’m not aware of that many of those now, so right now I’m just playing the Buchla.

Kaitlyn, I wanted to ask you about the visual aspect of your music-making. With your last album you said you wanted to inspire a visual narrative in the listener’s minds. I wondered if you could explain if or how that visual aspect plays into the process at the point of composition?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: I’ve never been diagnosed with this, but for my whole life I’ve experienced a form of synaesthesia, like a crossing of senses. So I have a very visual experience when I’m making music or hearing sounds. And I sometimes get a very physical sensory reaction as well. So I wanted to really play with that and get a straight-through visual journey for people, of a motion ride through a futuristic jungle. As I get older I’m trying to utilise that sensory crossing. I’ve always wanted to do film scoring, so this is my way of creating an imaginary film.

How does the physical aspect of your synaesthesia feel when you hear sound?

KAS: That one is really weird, because it happens simultaneously with the visuals. Sometimes it’s in the form of what people call ASMR [autonomous sensory meridian response], when it’s that tingling feeling you get down your head to the bottom of your spine, and sometimes it’s this feeling of where I want to kind of rub my back on a sound. And sometimes it’s this hollow feeling in my stomach. It really changes, every sound has a unique feeling, but there are certain frequencies when it will be the same feeling – it’s that trickle feeling from the top of your head down your spine. A lot of people experience that from different frequencies – Sean Connery’s voice is a trigger, and there’s a lot of ASMR videos on YouTube of someone whispering, because it feels really nice.

It sounds quite psychedelic in a way. Has Suzanne’s music ever inspired any of those feelings in you?

KAS: Oh yeah. Especially in Seven Waves with the white noise, because white noise is always one that will trigger it.

What first drew you to the Buchla synth?

KAS: My neighbour on Orcas Island [in Washington state] lent me a Buchla 100 because I’d just come back from college and had studied sound engineering and composition. We were talking about Terry Riley and he lent me a Buchla 100, which I didn’t know what it was at the time, and I lived with that in my cabin for about a year.

So after Suzanne and yourself met, did you feel that you wanted to work together anyway, prior to when you were approached by FRKWYS?

KAS: She had me working in her studio, so we were already working together in that sense, for maybe eight months before Matt presented the idea to me about the FRKWYS series, which I was already aware of because we’re friends. Then I asked Suzanne if she’d be interested in collaborating in that way.

What work were you doing in Suzanne’s studio?

SC: She was my support system. When I have a lot of work to do my life is very distracted, so for me to concentrate on music I need to create a structure where I can focus better. So having somebody here in the studio allows me to concentrate. It’s really a work day when I’m actually paying someone to be here! It gives me more focus. I was getting ready for a tour. So she was doing whatever came up, but also exploring the new Buchla 200E, so it was an opportunity to do something together.

What was the composition process like? Did you have preconceived ideas or did you just jam?

SC: We needed a starting point, and it just so happened that when Andy released the Buchla 1975 concerts, there was a booklet included which outlined how to play the Buchla that I wrote in 1975 for a grant. So there were a lot of techniques, and also there were four tone rows used in that concert. So just to grab a starting point we decided to use those basic rows for 16-stage sequencers, and to have that be our starting point. We each took two rows. So the pitches are a raw material, and then we just went with the energy of the moment.

You recorded it live together then?

SC: We set up a place above the piano and we had both our set-ups there, and that way we could connect electronically to co-ordinate the clocks, so that we could run together and then we just really improvised.

It sounds really accomplished and epic for an improvised work.

SC: Well you have the underlying structure, and that’s how one performs live. Now that I’m getting ready for concerts I still use those same tone rows, and it’s just a small background for all the ways you can interact with them, kind of like jazz.

I heard that climate change was an influence on the album. How did that feed into things?

KAS: I don’t know where that came from. Was that something that you wrote, Suzanne?

SC: No.

KAS: A few people have asked us that, and neither of us were aware that that was an influence. I guess it’s always an influence…

You’re also down as saying it’s about the rise of real estate prices in California.

KAS: I don’t know who wrote that either! I think that’s so funny that those two things got in there.

Was there anything conceptually in your minds, then? What was the thinking behind the title, for example?

SC: My studio is right on the ocean, and the sun rises right in my eyes every morning, and the energy of the sea is right there. I think for me, I had a long-standing desire to orchestrate the sunrise, and never came up with the right thing on piano. So at a certain moment, I had the revelation that the whole thing would be electronic, not traditional acoustic.

Just about the time that that realisation occurred, Kaitlyn appeared with this project. So even though I never [initially] thought of it as a joint project, that’s what happened. There was this synergy between us, and also the energy of the sun and the energy of the ocean, because those were the two energy systems we both lived with in Bolinas. I think that’s where Sunergy came from.

Did you play as the sun rose?

SC: I used to get up every morning to look at the sun. But we didn’t get up together to play with the sun. However, Kaitlyn’s husband made the video that went with this, and he did get up to look at the sun!

Did you find that your playing styles instantly gelled or did you have to work at things?

SC: I think we just gelled. I don’t think there was even any conversation, except about having fun and being in the moment. Kaitlyn’s very musical, and I noticed that a lot of times she did just what was appropriate to balance what my Buchla was doing.

Do you find nature is a common thread throughout both your work?

KAS: I think it’s important to both of us. Suzanne is living in it and has been living in it for the last 20 years, and I think we both find a lot of retreating and peaceful, refreshing energy in nature.

SC: My first album was called Seven Waves, and was directly inspired by the ocean, and the ocean has been a leitmotif in my music. Nature was my inspiration even in NYC, because I needed that balance – I would travel out to nature. I loved the big city, I loved the energy, but I needed the balance. Since I’ve lived here, most of my writing has been done while looking out my window. So I’ve written the moonrise, I’ve written the ocean, I’ve written the surfers, I’ve written the birds soaring. I just feed right off of where I am.

Are you planning to collaborate together any further?

KAS: I think it’s undecided.

SC: I don’t want to do too much; I don’t want to go on a 20-city tour or anything. Maybe there’ll be an opportunity for us to play together. Kaitlyn seems to be everywhere right now, so maybe I’ll run into her at one of the venues!

KAS: A Bay Area show would be nice, or a Bolinas one.

SC: We don’t have any plans right now. I want to release some of the solo live work that I’ve been doing lately. I wish I could release a quadraphonic release, and I think there might be a way to do that.

Sunergy is out on September 16 via Rvng Intl. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith plays Red Bull Music Academy in Montreal, QC on September 25 before touring, beginning a European at the Bristol Planetarium on October 18; for full details and tickets, head here

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