Moogfest 2017: Suzanne Ciani, immersion in sound

Suzanne Ciani, seen here with the Buchla modular synthesizer, will perform Saturday, May 20, during Moogfest 2017.
Suzanne Ciani, seen here with the Buchla modular synthesizer, will perform Saturday, May 20, during Moogfest 2017. Submitted

Suzanne Ciani is a pioneer of electronic music, a composer and a classically trained pianist. At Moogfest at the Durham Armory Saturday night, audience members will get to hear her create electronic compositions live — but she will not make her sounds using a keyboard.

Ciani will be playing the Buchla 200e, a modular synthesizer named after its creator, synthesizer designer Don Buchla (who died last year), with whom Ciani studied in the 1960s. On her website, sevwave.com, she writes about the difference between modular synthesizers and keyboard synthesizers: Ciani believes “that the synth should follow its own course as an instrument, but her position ultimately lost out to those who wanted simple machines that duplicated the sounds of other instruments and had preset voices.”

She played the Buchla synthesizer in the 1960s and ’70s, and has had an extensive composing career both in electronic and traditional classical instruments. “Now that I’m coming back to electronics, my focus is the live performance of the Buchla modular electronic instrument,” Ciani said in a phone interview from her home in California.

“I feel it is my contribution now to the current state of this renaissance in interest in modular electronic instruments. ... My focus is to do a live, in-the-moment, no samples, nothing pre-recorded [performance]... to generate the sound in a way that Buchla envisioned for the instrument,” she said.

When synthesizers were introduced in the 1960s, “they were not understood, and to make them look like instruments” manufacturers added keyboards, Ciani said. Buchla “realized these could be performing live instruments, and he spent his life developing interfaces” for the modules, she said.

An interface, she explained, “is what gives you access to controlling the electronics,” and may be a wand, a touch plate, and other devices. “One of the big distinctions is it’s hands-on,” Ciani said of playing the Buchla modules. “You’re moving dials, you’re interacting with the machine in a way that is more tactile and less menu-driven,” as is the case with digital synthesizers. A company called Eurorack is manufacturing modular synthesizers, and more young musicians are starting to explore their sound possibilities, Ciani said.

When she was 5, Ciani taught herself piano, inspired by Bach, Beethoven and other composers. (Her electronic compositions are very melodic.) She earned a B.A. in music from Wellesley College. A field trip to MIT, where a professor was working on electronically simulating the sound of a violin, sparked her interest in electronic music. She earned a master’s in music composition from the University of California at Berkeley, where she met Buchla and other pioneers in electronic music.

During the 1980s, she created sounds for advertisements for different national companies, among then ABC, Atari and Coca-Cola. She created the electronic pop and fizz sound that Coke used in its advertisements. She later established Seventh Wave, her recording company, in northern California. Her debut recording “Seven Waves” was released in 1982, followed by “The Velocity of Love.”

“A Life in Waves,” a documentary about Ciani by filmmakers Brett Whitcomb and Bradford Thomason, premiered this year at South By Southwest Festival, and will be screened during Moogfest. A recording of her performing her compositions on the Buchla, “Buchla Concerts 1975,” was released on Finders Keepers records. Ciani wants to release more Buchla collaborations on an electronic division of her label.

She would like to release it in quadraphonic (or four-channel) sound. Quadraphonic recordings were made for a brief time in the early 1970s, but did not take off. Now, Ciani believes there’s another chance for quadraphonic to find an audience. It is a natural format for electronic music, because “electronic music is very much about the movement of the sound ... it’s very fluid,” she said.

She said she wants to create that sense of movement in her live Buchla concerts, and uses the word “immersive” to describe the experience. Ciani said even those who are not inclined to listen to electronic music find the experience meaningful. “I’m always surprised. They say they enjoyed the experience. They say it’s like a journey. They’re carried along with the same energy that I am experiencing ... one of constant discovery in the moment.”

Go and Do

WHAT: Concert by Suzanne Ciani

WHEN: Saturday, May 20, 6:30 p.m.

WHERE: The Armory, 220 Foster St.

ADMISSION: For tickets, visit www.moogfest.com

ALSO: Moogfest will screen “A Life in Waves,” a documentary about Ciani, at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, May 20, in Cinema 1 at the Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St.

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