Synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani talks Atari, Steve Jobs’ Next

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In Tuesday’s Times, Grammy-nominated electronic music composer Suzanne Ciani spoke about her new collection, ‘Lixiviation: Ciani/Musica Inc. 1969-1985,’ which was released last week on Andy Votel’s label Finder’s Keepers and Stateside via the L.A.-based B-Music imprint. You can read that story here, but due to space constraints, a large chunk of Ciani’s fascinating conversation wasn’t included. It bears reading, however, for anyone interested in the early days of synthesizer music. Ciani spoke from her home in Northern California.

When you moved to New York in the 1970s and starting working on commercial music, did the synthesizer’s uniqueness help you on Madison Avenue, or were agencies hesitant to commit to those new sounds?


‘Well, my ambition was always to be a recording artist. But I couldn’t get a record deal because it was abnormal, what I wanted to do. I would go to a record company and they’d say, ‘Why don’t you sing or play the guitar?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I’d like to do a demo,’ and they’d say, ‘What do you need?’ ‘Well I need a week in the studio, and they’d say, ‘A week? We can give you an hour.’ ‘

It’d take a week to set up your equipment, I bet.

‘And I was poor. I loved New York, but I was starving, and really needed money. One morning I woke up and thought, ‘Where is the money?’ And realized it was in advertising, and that advertising in fact embraced the unknown, and something new. The record companies were looking backwards. They wanted ‘one of those.’ Something that had already happened. They needed to have this organic evolution, or connection. Whereas in advertising, it was more, ‘Wow! We don’t know what this is but it’s exciting. Let’s do it.’ In advertising, I had a lot of freedom, because nobody knew what these machines could do, and so I was left on my own to create. And I also got a lot of attention from people making records. Do you know that label CTI?’


‘That guy, Creed Taylor, he had to have me on every recording.’

Ah, I’ve got some CTI records around here.

‘I was a big hit with Creed. And I did ‘Afternoon Delight’ -- anything that needed a special sound.’


Wait, you worked on the song “Afternoon Delight” by the Starland Vocal Band?

‘Yes -- the sky rockets.’

Oh my God, that’s fascinating.

‘Yeah, that was with Phil Ramone. I loved working with him. I would bring the Buchla [synthesizer] into the control room, and it has hundreds of little blinking lights and knobs and bells and it’s very compact. A lot of electronic music at that time was done in its own studio because the machines were so big. But the thing about the Buchla is he designed it to be a performance instrument, and so it was compact. And that allowed me to move from studio to studio. So I had a cartage company that followed me, and I could do three or four dates a day when I was a session player, and then, of course, I started my own company.’

How did you start working with Atari? Looking back, that was an important period in the world of personal computing, when Atari started rising. And listening to that little melody that you created now brings back a very specific moment in time.

‘Yes, it’s part of our DNA. Atari found us. By that time I had a reputation as being the No. 1 sound designer in New York. And we were contacted, and I remember Atari came and gave us one of their games and it was sitting there on the front desk of my studio. In those days, I was so busy. We would get calls, and the next day it was like an emergency room. ‘We need this by tomorrow.’ And that’s how business was. And it was kind of an around-the-clock production where a job would come in, you’d design the job, if it involved instrumental players as well, the parts were arranged and put under the door of the music copyist’s at midnight, they appeared on the music stand at 9 a.m. It was very intense, which is probably why I burnt out. But, yeah, Atari and Xenon. I think I was the first composer ever hired by Bally.’

For what. For ads, or for pinball music?


‘Music for a pinball machine. Xenon.’

It’s interesting how some of the earliest culture-wide experiences with electronic music came not from hearing it on the radio but through Atari and Xenon, and all these alternate avenues.

‘And from the composer’s point of view, it was all so anonymous. You did these things and nobody knew who you were. Everybody heard it. It was an anonymous art form.’

Has it surprised you the way that electronic music has evolved over the past 40 years?

‘I am totally surprised. You know, I thought it was a lost art form. I met a girl last night -- I was over at Don Buchla’s for dinner, and there was a young student there from Mills [College] that just got her masters degree in electronic music. It’s mainstream now.’

How do you feel about the term “New Age”? When I worked at a record store, that’s where your music was filed. Did that bother you?

‘Well, it became a catch-all. For me -- and you can appreciate this having been in a record store -- before there was a category “New Age,” you didn’t know where to find my albums. They would go into female vocal, they’d go into jazz, they’d go into classical, they’d go into electronic, whatever, but there was no place. The beauty of “New Age” was that it was a focal point in a commercial sense for distribution. And it allowed the product to be found.


OK, that was the main thing for me. In terms of actually enlightening anybody about what the music was, that didn’t happen. The worst part about New Age was the kind of mindlessness of some of the music, but it really became a catchall for instrumental music -- anything that wasn’t jazz and wasn’t by a dead composer. That was classical, and jazz was jazz. So it became everything else. So I’ve always identified more with a classical sensibility. But it helped me to sell a lot of records, to have a category.’

Was all of the music on ‘Lixiviation’ recorded on a Buchla?

‘No, because over the years I had acquired a lot of instruments. It started out on Buchla, and a lot of it is on Buchla, because it was a booming technology. I had a [Sequential Circuits] Prophet-5, a synclavier, whatever. But the interesting thing about this project is that it includes everything up until my own artistic releases. These are the early things, before I released ‘Seven Waves.’ ‘

I like the one titled “Sound of Wetness.” Can you talk about that piece?

‘That was a Buchla one. At that time, I was working at Stanford also on computer. I was so lucky. One summer, Max Matthews, who is the father of computer music -- he just died last year, but he’s credited with really starting Music 5, and programs that allowed computers to make music. And Max was at Stanford at the artificial intelligence lab, along with John Chowning, who is the founder of FM [frequency modulation synthesis]; they patented that frequency modulation approach to timbre design. They licensed it to Yamaha, and that’s how the DX7 came about. It was a very elegant way to produce complex sound.’

Did you work much with Silicon Valley as the PC era was beginning?


‘I was in New York from 1974, and I did work with a lot of technology companies on the chip level. I was invited by Texas Instruments to go down -- I actually had a ‘chip agent.’ I did a logo for AT&T that they used in the telephone, and he tried to get a royalty [laughs]. Too bad.’

Yeah, it’d be nice to get a performance royalty on that, and make money every time it plays.

‘I went to the West Coast to work on my second album, ‘History of my Heart,’ on Private Music, after ‘Neverland.’ I recorded in California, and [in New York] we had been using a PC. But when I was in Calfornia, I had to transfer everything to MacIntosh, because there wasn’t a soul on the West Coast who used a PC. So that’s how I got into Apple, that was in the early or mid-’80s. Later, when Steve Jobs had Next Computers, I was invited down there to see the Next. I had a lot of interactions.

And we had a thing called Experiments in Art and Technology -- E.A.T. -- that was a consortium of people. We had engineers and artists, and we would get paired off to do projects. It was really fun, because you had all these Silicon Valley engineers who were excited about doing something artistic. I worked with someone and we did something called the Vidium, and it created visual patterns on a television based on the phase of the music -- generated patterns. And we took over the space where the Exploratorium is -- in the old Palace of Fine Arts. We started that space. We went into this huge space and that’s where we had our Experiments in Art and Technology.

There was a lot of excitement, because technology really was a synthesis between engineers and artists. If you were an artist using technology, you needed your other half. You needed the engineer, and it was a partnership.’



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Updated: The original version of this post incorrectly identified the original manufacturer of the Prophet-5 synthesizer. It was made by Sequential Circuits, not, as originally written, Arturia, which created the more recent plug-in version.