Suzanne Ciani

Suzanne Ciani is one of my neighbors (who has become a good friend), so it's almost too easy for me to overlook how massive her contribution to music and record production is. That is also due in part to the fact that she is a very warm and open person, and is offhandedly modest about her life's work. She's quite happy to let me store my surfboard at her house, as it's right next to my favorite surf break. When I see her, we're just as likely to talk about cooking Italian food as making music, so this interview is long overdue. When I was in college, I read interviews with Suzanne in Keyboard and dB magazines. Given all of this history, I was pretty psyched to finally be able to interview her for Tape Op.

Suzanne Ciani
Marsha Vdovin (+ feature photo above)

Suzanne has a wide circle of friends and professional colleagues; as such, she is always busy and on the go. She holds a dual citizenship passport, traveling yearly to visit her Italian family. I'm continually impressed by how much activity she can pack into a year. One of the main things that really impresses me about Suzanne is that she is essentially now on her fourth career. She began as a composer, working in the then very new electronic music field. From Boston, she came out to U.C. Berkeley for a master's degree in composition, moonlighted at the San Francisco Tape Music Center at Mills College in the early 1970s, and worked closely with seminal electronic music designer/builder Don Buchla. Next, after a brief stop in L.A., she moved to New York City and opened Ciani/Musica, Inc., one of the busiest commercial music studios of the day and one of the first to use synthesis to generate sounds for radio and TV commercials. Her synthesized sound of a bottle of Coca-Cola being opened and poured became one of the most iconic sounds in TV commercial audio. During this period, she scored the Lily Tomlin film The Incredible Shrinking Woman, played on a classic Star Wars disco album (Meco's Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk), designed the sound for Bally’s Xenon pinball game, and even appeared on Late Night with David Letterman demoing her vocal processing "voice box."

Next up, Suzanne embarked on a solo music career, becoming one of the most successful artists in what came to be called "new age" music. During those years, she recorded with artists such as Vangelis and Elliott Randall, and released many albums. She's been nominated for Grammys, taken home Clio Awards (for advertising work), and was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Women in Audio Section of the Audio Engineering Society. She’s also had a full-length feature documentary created about her, A Life in Waves, released in 2017, as well as being featured in the new, highly-acclaimed documentary Sisters With Transistors. And this is still only scratching the surface of all she's accomplished. In 1992 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and, after a full recovery, she decided to move to a small home in West Marin County, California, overlooking the ocean and to simplify her life. That didn't last long, however, as a new, younger audience discovered her music in the 2000s, and she's now an in-demand lecturer and concert performer on her modular Buchla synthesizer. Beau Sorenson and I managed to catch up with her at her home in early fall of 2021, a few days before she left for concerts in Europe and a visit with her Italian family.

Most people have a hard time doing one thing well. You've had four distinct careers. How have you managed to explore it all?

I'm a double Gemini. This is what happens. There are four people living in me, and I'm just now getting to know them. I'm always incredulous that things do change. I always said when I started the Buchla that I would not go back to the piano again. Then when I started the piano, I said I would never go back to the Buchla. Well, then I went back to the Buchla and I said I wouldn't go back to the piano! Now I don't believe myself at all. I know that I don't know what's going to happen. So, this is a surprise to me; but I'm used to surprises. Getting out of New York and commercial production, that was really a health issue. I got sick. Maybe it had nothing to do with my life there, which was intense; I loved it. But I got early breast cancer. It was a signal to me that I was supposed to change my life. I left the big city and came to the end of this dirt road, after my treatments.

Suzanne Ciani
Live performance at Terraforma Milan, Italy, 2017.   Michela Di Savino

You embrace the surprises?

I'm a follower. I have an instinct for a path, and I explore it, as if it's opening up in front of me. I don't come up with an idea and then pre-plan how to go there. I'm organic. I go with the flow.

I'm curious about your time in NYC when you started Ciani/Musica. That was groundbreaking at the time, not only to pack up and go to New York, but to have this idea of starting a studio that made noises for people.

Well, I went to New York to do a live Buchla performance in quadraphonic. I fell in love with New York. I loved the smell. I loved the energy. I felt the minute that I got there that that was where I belonged. So, I never went back to L.A. I didn't even have my belongings with me. I had them put in storage. I just had my Buchla for that concert, and I stayed in New York. Then I got hungry; I was starving. My brain said, "You've gotta find a solution to this." I had done a commercial when I was still in northern California. I had done more when I was in L.A. I had worked in film in L.A., teaching technology to film composers. There was a real interest back then in the film world for this new thing. In New York, I tried to make a career as a performer on the Buchla. What stopped me was that they wouldn't put up four speakers any place in a theater. I'd be at Lincoln Center with a concert scheduled and I needed two more speakers in the back of the room, and they'd say, "What? Are you crazy?" I said, "Well, if you don't put them up, I can't play." That was a dealbreaker. Then I worked for a year and a half trying to get the theaters to change. I started a non-profit corporation called The Electronic Center for New Music. I had a lot of people from the AES on my board, people from the speaker industry, and folks like that. I got to the point where nobody would listen to me because I wasn't rich and famous. I thought to myself, "Well, I’d better become rich and famous." That's what triggered my appetite for moving forward commercially. I stopped wanting to be the Buchla performer, and I started to go after making money with a vengeance.

Where was Ciani/Musica?

I had an apartment at 40 Park Avenue. With the first iteration of Ciani/Musica, the studio was in my apartment, and the office was at 1650 Broadway; the classic music building of all time, right near the Brill Building. It was wonderful. I didn't have to be near the office activity. The studio I initially put in was when I got money to do The Incredible Shrinking Woman soundtrack. I got a big check for that, and I put a home studio in my apartment. There weren't any home studios back then. It was a doorman building, and the guys just let me do it! I didn't allow shoes in the studio, so sometimes there'd be 15 pairs of shoes outside my door when I had clients in. I always felt nervous that I might be threatened to have to move out, but that never happened. For about ten years I ran it in my apartment. I had a view of the Empire State Building. It was tiny, though. Gear was piling up to the ceiling. It was wonderful, but then I felt obliged – because the company got big – to build an outside, big studio. But I was never as happy as I was when I was working at home.

How many people did you have working for you?

Well, I've been working on my archives, and I recently came across a telephone list of contacts for Ciani/Musica staff. There were about 30 people on that contact list. I had employees, but I also had studio interns. Frequently that was how you got in. You'd come in as an intern, and you'd work your way up. That's how it was done. The woman who eventually ran my company, Marina Belica, came in as an intern. Initially I didn't want to hire her because she was too smart. She'd gone to Yale. She was going to be coiling cables and sharpening pencils. I said, "I think you should go get a real job someplace." She said, "Hire the person you want to hire, and I'll come in anyway." She made me an offer I couldn't refuse. She became the head of the company.

Suzanne Ciani
At Ciani Musica, NYC, late 1970's.

Were you able to move a lot of the management of these 30 employees over to her so you could focus on the music side?

Yes, and we also investigated computer systems. In those days, computers were pretty new. They weren't personal computers. I hired a company to computerize our bidding systems, our production reports, our interfaces with the clients, our billing, and all that. It took a year to design this computer system. They installed it. It cost $40,000 to get this thing in, and it blew up immediately. Later I found out that they took my software design and sold it to other music houses, but you have to pick your battles. There are too many. I let that one go.

Suzanne Ciani

Aside from the Buchla, you were an early proponent of digital synthesizers, like the Synclavier, which was essentially a computer.

The Synclavier was an amazing tool for production of commercial music. I really didn't use it for my art music. I didn't like the sound. It does get credit on some of my albums; I did use it judiciously. But the sound was too hungry. It ate up the track. It was really good for sampling. Without the Synclavier, sampling was a nightmare. With the Synclavier, you just popped a sound in. You could transpose it. You could filter it. You could surgically alter it. You could sequence it. It was so fast. Without the Synclavier, I don't know how people did it.

148-ciani-06

On top of working with synthesis and doing sampling, you were one of the first people to get heavily into vocal processing with the vocoder and various other tools.

There's a reason for that. For my own music, I can't sing. Early on, I did a promotional tour for Sennheiser with Herbie Hancock. For part of the tour, we came out to the West Coast, and I was in Herbie's studio. My use of the vocoder was for gracing my tracks with a feminine aura. He was using it to produce an album [Sunlight] singing! It sounded insane. I thought, "Are you kidding me? This is not to make you a singer." I wanted just the vocal breath component, so Harald Bode did a mod for me on my Bode Vocoder that was brilliant. Most of the filter bandwidth is cut off in the vocoder, because the speech part was only in a certain bandwidth, so you missed the breathiness, the air of the female voice, and the humanity. Harald put this pass-through filter in for me, and my breath came through. It made all the difference in the world for the sound of the vocoder. My first album uses that heavily. I always used it. It's on everything I did, even though it's not that obvious. Here's the other reason: For my artistic work, I wanted my breath. I wanted my presence. I couldn't sing, so I gave it my presence through that. In commercials, there were several unions that governed usage of recordings. There was the Musicians Union, that paid you as a musician, and there was the Screen Actors Guild, that paid actors and singers. The SAG contract was negotiated by Ronald Reagan. It was a much better contract. I would do a whole production, compose, arrange, record, and produce, and a singer would come in for 20 minutes and they would get paid a fortune. I said, "This is not working for me. I can't accept that. You have to pay me as a singer. If I'm going to do all this work, I want to make as much money as the guy who comes in for 20 minutes." So, some of them said, "Fine." Some of them said, "Can't you give us some excuse for doing this?" So, I said, "I'll use my voice." I had the Voice Box – a rack of multiple pieces of gear I'd use to process my vocals – and use them on tracks so I could get paid as a "singer." Rob Zantay was one of my production assistants, and he helped me build it.

You're in the middle of cataloging your archives. How is that project going?

Well, I'm an impulsive mover, as we've noticed. I moved from L.A. to New York without knowing it. I also moved out here lickety-split from New York City. All my stuff came out with me and went into storage here. It's been there for 30 years; I paid no attention to it. When the pandemic hit, I had to confront it. I had no more excuse. I'd been so busy, busy, busy. "I can't deal with that stuff." But now, suddenly, I was grounded. I'm home. And I said, "Okay, let's take it on." I started bringing that stuff out here to the beach, one box at a time. I hired somebody to help me catalog it. Now I have a functional archive. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it. At first, I thought I would separate it into different categories, because there is an archive at Duke University that is for commercials and advertising. I thought, "Maybe I'll give them the advertising part." I have tons of scores, contracts, and the legal work from the heyday of advertising. The '80s was the peak; it's when creativity reigned. Before the suits came. Before they had invented business school. [laughs] Cornell [University] has the Moog archive. I've spoken with them. I've been so busy doing the work that I haven't yet decided on a home for it. That's what I have to do next. It's interesting; it's an encapsulated era. When there was paper.

Are you digitizing everything? Scanning?

I'm not doing the scanning. Let them do that. I'm cataloging. I have scanned some of the articles. Then there are a lot of audiotapes. I have hundreds and hundreds of commercials. They're on these gargantuan reels. There must be six super big reels. I've found that audio archiving gets messy quickly. You can find somebody who will do a transfer, but will they do the bookkeeping so that you know what it is that's been transferred? I haven't dealt with that yet. I have a lot of video. I have stuff from my dual identity as a performer. I also have my "light cape" from my performance in Dallas, Texas. Because I was trying to do high-tech, I designed a light cape. It was supposed to be a MIDI cape. This was in 1980. It was supposed to respond to the sound from the stage. In the end, the tech didn't implement MIDI. It responded to volume and the lights, and instead of being LEDs there were little bulbs, so it weighed a ton; about a hundred pounds.

Another thing you're doing now is teaching. You're a professor at Berklee, right?

I am. My title is "Scholar of Electronic Music." I have been invited about twice per year to go to the Boston campus and work with the students in the EPD [Electronic Production and Design] department. One of the big topics now is spatial control in electronics. The big obstacle to all of this is that very few analog modular designers are making hardware that controls space. Yes, there are software solutions, like Atmos or Envelop for Ableton, but not the actual hardware for being able to do live, spatial performance. My main interest now is in live analog modular performance in quad. Prior to the pandemic, I went out there several times a year. I love Berklee. I wish I had known about it when I was a kid in Boston. I wanted to learn jazz, but I didn't know where to go. It was right there!

I don't think too many people know this about you, but you did a fair amount of work with Rudy Van Gelder when you were in New York.

Oh, my god, yeah. That was a trip. It was for CTI Records. When I was hot, there was this mystique that happened. People needed to have me on their albums, out of the blue.

Suzanne Ciani

Beau Sorenson: So, you would get cold calls from people you had no idea about, saying, "Can you come play on this?"

Yeah. Creed Taylor had this thing where he wanted me on all of his productions. I even remember he redid some. I was clueless. They would pick me up and bring me out to New Jersey. I had my Buchla. Rudy Van Gelder was the engineer. As you know, he wore white gloves in the studio; he was very meticulous. You couldn't eat or even breathe in the studio. I have no idea what I did. I'd like to listen to some of those records and see what happened! [laughter] I did a lot of session work back then. I did sessions for Atlantic and Warner Bros. I almost did something for Joni Mitchell. I had done a new audio logo for ABC at a studio in L.A. with her engineer, Henry Lewy. Henry looked at the Buchla, and he started salivating. He said, "Oh, my god. I want you to play on Joni's album." I said, "Well, sure." He said, "Just one thing. She has to take credit for it." I said, "Are you kidding? Nobody's going to believe that she's playing this machine." It was like, "Excuse me? I'm the only one who plays this machine." It was so weird. I declined. In retrospect, after all these years, I don't care about anything anymore, so maybe it would have been fun to do it, but I didn't.

What was working with Rudy like? I've heard he was such a taskmaster, but he probably didn't understand your instrument at all.

I had great respect for producers who made the opening for something they didn't understand.

BS: They left the space for you to do what you were going to do?

They left the space. I remember working on [Starland Vocal Band's] "Afternoon Delight" with Phil Ramone [Tape Op #50], who was producing and engineering. It was a search. It was a conversation. I'd come into a studio; I’d be in a control room with the producer, and I'd start to explore. I knew what it could do, but they didn't know what it could do. They might have ideas about what they wanted…

BS: They might not even be able to articulate those clearly.

Exactly. It was exploratory. A lot of it was my coming up with ideas and them saying, "Yeah! Hold that." The spaceship sounds, the stuff in [Meco's] Star Wars..., was easier, because we were replicating sounds from the film.

Session work back then, they were fairly short sessions, right?

Yes. Three hours. It was regular union length.

When we were here with Mark Ronson [Tape Op #105] for the Apple music series, Watch the Sound, you were talking about mixing Seven Waves. You'd been super frustrated, because none of the mixes were working out. Then you had a female engineer take over the mix, and it all started to work.

Seven Waves was my first album, and it took two years. It was a process of my making enough money to afford to go into the studio, putting down the tracks, and then mixing. Because it was so piecemeal, I used different engineers. It was an all-electronic album. Over that two-year period, technology changed and NECAM [console automation] came into being. That helped when we had so many elements to control. From working in advertising, I had access to the top studios, like Automated Sound Studios, and the top engineers. I went in to mix the third piece on Seven Waves, and I was depressed because I couldn't get what I wanted. I am not an engineer. I was brought up in commercial music, so I always worked with an engineer and went into a big studio. Now people work at home, and they do everything. Sometimes I do that too. But, at that time, I was looking for an engineer. I needed that pair of hands. This one guy was supposed to be the top engineer in New York. He had beautiful, white shoes. He looked so cool. And it sounded like shit. Because the top engineers in those days knew how to EQ a drum or whatever the go-to sounds were for normal music. Acoustic music is what they were doing. This was non-acoustic. There was no go-to solution. The guys who were deeply entrenched and successful were at a disadvantage. I found this woman, Leslie Mona-Mathus, and she is an engineer. She comes at it for what it is. She's not invested in some protocol of rock music or whatever. She grew up with a deaf brother, and her listening was primal. It was a match made in heaven. When she started working on the mix it had a completely different energy from what the rock guy was doing, and she became my engineer.

Suzanne Ciani

You worked with her over several records after that?

Yeah, even out here. When I moved out here, she came out and did an album with me. She's amazing. She got a job with ABC [News Creative and Marketing], and she does that for her steady income.

BS: Throughout your career you have continually embraced new technology. But I often wonder about a balance. There are so many tools. Every day I wake up and there's a new plug-in, synth module, or effect. What do you think about staying with something for a long time to really know it, like the Buchla, versus reaching for new tools or instruments?

I do think it takes time to develop a relationship with something so that the tool becomes meaningful and personal. I've seen some wonderful instruments that I respect, but I can't incorporate them. There are instrument designers now who make some beautiful tools, like Make Noise [Tape Op #104] for one. A beautiful system; I love it. But, for me, I choose the Buchla as it is. It's always morphing, right? That's the nature of it. We love it and we hate it. There's something new, and it's like, "Wow!" It's not like playing a piano, where you develop a linear advancement in your technique, because it's there. No. What you're doing is always morphing. I do think that my deepest relationship is with the Buchla, and that's what I'm doing now. I have a lot of respect. I keep an eye out on new analog music designs. I saw one last night that incorporated a visual interface that looked interesting. It's an exciting field. I've gotta keep aware. At this point though, I'm the old-timer who committed to the Buchla. The Buchla was so ahead of its time that if it weren't ahead of its time, I would be moving to something else. But until somebody gets the control of randomness that Don has, the control of space that he has, the multiple arbitrary function generator that allows you to do tiered control of data, I'm sticking with the Buchla until everybody else catches up!

Suzanne Ciani
At home in West Marin, CA, w/ Buchla modular synthesizer.   Sean Hellfritsch

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

Or Learn More