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Suzanne Ciani: Dream Suite

Pushing The Electronic Music Envelope By Jonathan Miller
Published May 1994

Suzanne Ciani with ARP and Buchla synthesizers c.1977.Suzanne Ciani with ARP and Buchla synthesizers c.1977.Photo: Bob L.

Headlining the biggest electronic music festival in Europe was a US composer almost unknown in the UK. A contemporary of synth pioneer Don Buchla, Suzanne Ciani enjoys enormous success in America, yet such recognition has eluded her so far this side of the Atlantic.

It has often been said that music is a universal language. However, sometimes it appears incapable of even traversing our continents, which seems strange considering that there can be no language barrier with instrumental music. The so-called 'New Age' music of American composer Suzanne Ciani (pronounced "chah-nee") illustrates this point perfectly: her seven album releases have clocked up very respectable sales figures on her home territory, yet here in the United Kingdom she remains virtually unknown.

Whilst it would be fair to say that New Age music has had a raw deal over here, where even artists of Suzanne Ciani's stature have little access to the airwaves, the United States boasts literally hundreds of specialist radio stations. Suzanne Ciani herself obviously feels that New Age music is worth programming, and was moved to write in an American college broadcasting journal, "I had been writing and recording my music for many years before the 'concept' of New Age was formulated. My immediate experience of this was that there was now a place for my records in the stores: New Age. Then the controversy started. What is New Age music? No one could agree. Ah... a marketing dilemma. A concept with an identity problem. It is still marketing's job to communicate what is available, but as we've seen, this cannot be done simply by pushing a genre — an avenue must be made for the unique. The alternative is to remain in a conventional market society where there are three kinds of toothpaste, all cars look alike and all music is on MTV."

A perfect opportunity for a meeting with Suzanne presented itself when Michel Huygen, Spain's leading exponent of electronic music as Neuronium (featured in the June 1993 issue of Sound On Sound), and a good friend of Suzanne, told me that she would be headlining Klemdag '93, Europe's largest electronic music festival, and that he would be able to organise an interview for me there.

History Of My Heart

Suzanne Ciani's love of music dates back to childhood when she taught herself to play the likes of Bach and Rachmaninoff on the piano at home. Serious musical study later ensued as a music student at Wellesey College in Massachusetts, where she was introduced to the synthesizer in 1967. She was finally rewarded with a Master's Degree in Composition from the University of California, where she studied the then-experimental instrument with one of the founding fathers of analogue synthesis, Don Buchla.

Suzanne Ciani: The Velocity Of Love album artwork.Suzanne moved to New York in 1974, where she tutored Philip Glass, among others, in the art of the synthesizer before establishing herself as a top session player. Ciani/Musica, Inc, Suzanne's sound design company, rapidly became one of the most highly regarded commercial music production firms in the United States. Film projects inevitably followed, with scores including Lily Tomlin's The Incredible Shrinking Woman and the award-winning feature film documentary, Mother Theresa.

Strangely enough, Suzanne's 1982 debut album, Seven Waves, was initially released in Japan, but it was not until 1986 when Suzanne really broke through as a recording artist. Her second album, The Velocity Of Love, helped define the New Age genre on the radio; its title track proved to be a big hit with several prominent US radio stations. 1988's Neverland could be considered the pinnacle of her career, earning Suzanne a Grammy award nomination and solidifying her position as the foremost woman in her field. 1992 saw her pipping Kitaro and Yanni to the post by winning Best New Age Keyboardist in the 16th Annual Keyboard Readers Poll Awards, another indication of her continuing popularity in the United States.

Hotel Luna

Upon arriving in Nijmegan, the small Dutch town where the festival is held, I successfully teamed up with Michel Huygen and his manager at De Vereening, the Klemdag '93 venue, and we made our way to a nearby hotel fit for New Age stars. In the luxurious surroundings of its bar/restaurant I finally settled down for a serious discussion with Suzanne Ciani over numerous cups of cappuccino...

I began by asking Suzanne if she had difficulty finding a recording contract for her first album, given that she was attempting to sell contemporary instrumental compositions, which even today are regarded as an uncommercial proposition.

"It was very difficult. I spent maybe seven years trying to get a record deal, finally decided that I wouldn't get one, and so started to do my first album on my own. I thought about releasing it myself, but then one day in 1981, I had the idea to go to Japan, took this half-finished album and that's where I got my first record deal with JVC. I had already been to practically every record label in the United States and Europe, and not one of them listened to my music. From a marketing point of view, they just wanted to know if it was like something else or if I sang — because I was female.

"The essential difference is that in the record business in Japan they listen. At every appointment I went to, there were no telephones, and people just sat quietly in a room listening to the music. Seven Waves finally had an American release in 1984 on Atlantic Finnadar, and then I did The Velocity Of Love on RCA. These albums were licensed because I felt that the labels didn't understand my music, and Private Music, to whom I signed for the Neverland album, is the first label to which I have given up ownership of the master tapes."

The Private Music label was originally set up by ex-Tangerine Dream mainstay Peter Baumann following his relocation to the United States, and has since established itself as the premier New Age music label in the world, with an impressive roster including Yanni, Patrick O'Hearn and Suzanne Ciani. A recent lucrative international distribution deal with BMG has put the label in an even stronger position than before, although an unfortunate knock-on effect has been the departure of its founder, Peter Baumann, with reservations about the label's artistic direction. I was interested to find out how Suzanne's burgeoning musical career had taken the crucial step towards stardom with Peter Baumann's assistance.

"It's true that the emphasis of the label is changing now from Peter Baumann's original vision, but certainly in the beginning, when he was the mentor, it was just perfect for me. I met Peter when he first came to New York after leaving Tangerine Dream; he called me up and asked if I knew about a particular new drum machine, so we originally got together in my studio just as electronic people talking about equipment. He started Private Music in about 1983 or '84 and I offered him The Velocity Of Love, but he did not take it because it is not a digital recording. Everybody had a thing about digital then, as if it made any difference! I had recorded the album to the highest quality, but chose analogue because of the sound. Now I use both media, and on Hotel Luna I used two machines, one digital and one analogue, because certain sounds are better on digital and some sound better on analogue. Anyway, then I did a live concert at The Roxy theatre in Los Angeles, Peter came to watch and afterwards he wanted me for his label."

In Her Own Words

Suzanne Ciani: Dream Suite album artwork.I asked Suzanne to introduce her musical style to a new audience. "I'm inspired by nature and the sea and a feeling of openness and freedom. Other than that, I think it's just emotion, triggered by situations or people. For example, on my forthcoming album, Dream Suite, one of the pieces is composed for a friend of my fiancé who was shot and killed in San Francisco. He was a surfer, so I wrote a piece which is a eulogy for this fellow and it's all about being in the ocean and riding the waves. Another piece on the album, Spanish Song, is inspired by Spain, because I spent so much time there extensively touring in 1992."

Michel Huygen was delighted to hear about Suzanne's genuine love for his country, and her revelation that she too has worked with Vangelis, with whom Neuronium collaborated back in 1981 for broadcast on Spanish television, made his day. Suzanne: "Vangelis plays on The Velocity Of Love album. I met him in London in about 1984 or '85 at Nemo Studios and I think he's just great! Our collaboration was actually suggested by a producer whom I'd worked with who was doing a commercial with Vangelis, so I met him and found we had a lot in common."

Pianissimo

Since her days in New York, Suzanne has developed a more relaxed attitude towards the role of music technology within her music, as evidenced by the equipment in her home studio setup. With piano-based albums like Pianissimo and, indeed, her subsequent performance at Klemdag '93, where she used only a Yamaha Disklavier grand piano and a Korg M1R synth module, she has been actively returning to the love of her youth, although she did tell me that she retired from playing the piano for period of about twelve years to concentrate purely on the synthesizer.

"I did that because I saw the black and white keyboard as an inappropriate interface. With the Buchla synthesizer, I used a touch keyboard, and when I did my early live performances I could have 20 different things happen and not just one note. It was a more powerful situation with the touch keyboard, because the piano was limited to just notes. It took a long time for me to come to the synthesis of this new language of electronics and my heritage, which is the piano. I'm definitely coming back to my roots, but it's hard for me to get a perspective on what I do. I try not to judge it, or even understand it right away. All that I know is that my next album is very much focused on the piano, building upon what I began a few years ago with Pianissimo, even though Hotel Luna wasn't a very piano-oriented album."

Suzanne Ciani: Pianissimo album artwork.Given her formal musical training and ground-breaking work in analogue synthesis, I was interested to find out if Suzanne now considers herself primarily as a pianist or a synthesist: "I think I'm exactly a 50-50 hybrid. I spent all my time for many years in synthesis. I could have spent all my time with the piano and maybe be a better player, but I don't use standard classical piano technique to the complete degree anyway, because I write my own music around my own capability."

The Secret Of My Success

So how does Suzanne set about writing successful New Age music, and has the composition process been made easier with the advent of low-cost computers like the Apple Macintosh, with their sophisticated music applications?

"A lot of my music evolves through improvisation, so I'll sit down at the Disklavier and play for, say, 40 minutes, then I'll listen back, and things start to solidify and take shape. Once I get an initial, inspired idea, I let it grow and just play with it to see where it wants to go before finally recording it into the computer. Then I start to orchestrate. I like to print out the music so I can write by hand, but I also love to improvise a part and then look at it to see what I've done, and go back and forth between the two processes. Composition is completely different now. For instance, it's such a joyous experience to be able to sit and work on a oboe line for an orchestral project that I'm working on, and then listen to it straight away. Your ideas flow more, because you're in the middle of it all. There is a lot that you can do in the computer, and we're so close to being able to do it all in that one place, but then, to get the last 5% of control, you've got to completely undo it. You can't just dump it to tape from the computer. You need separation for spatial placement and processing, so for me it's still a case of getting the best signal on tape and conventionally mixing it."

Whilst on the subject of sequencing, I asked her for her views regarding quantisation. "That's a big production question, and it's a tricky thing, because of course my piano is always a live performance — there's no quantising that — but then I want to combine it with other sequenced tracks. Basically, what I do for the most part is lay out the tempo first, and then play the piano to the click. In another case, like on 'Spanish Song', I'll play the piano completely freely, and then go back and add a click so that I can also have other instruments. That is very difficult! I have a prototype of this new thing now, called the Visual Conductor, which is a MIDI-controlled LED conducting device, which is useful for a live orchestra playing along with the sequencer, with all the tempo changes."

A lot of my music evolves through improvisation, so I'll sit down at the Disklavier and play for, say, 40 minutes, then I'll listen back, and things start to solidify and take shape.

Escape From New York

To my surprise, Suzanne admitted that she does not miss the freedom of having her own high-end recording facility in New York. On the contrary, her relief at returning to a more laid-back Californian lifestyle inspired her to compose 'Driving', a track depicting her departure, featured on the History Of My Heart album.

"I closed my recording studio in New York, and am quite happy about not having a studio now; first of all because I've been travelling a lot. I needed to do that because I'd been in New York for nineteen years. Now I just have my touring gear set up in a home studio environment, so it's not really suitable for final recording. Secondly, there's no financial incentive for having your own studio, because I like to work with the optimum capability of whatever is available. If I can get that by going to an excellent outside studio, then that's what I'll do, although some albums don't require that, like Pianissimo which was recorded direct to DAT. I wish life was always that simple!"

Despite this, Suzanne is still keen to talk technology. "When I first started out in the hi-tech arena, I had a lot of gear that I would take on the road with me. This is very satisfying and rewarding, but also very expensive, and I think the reality of touring eventually led me to downscale my concerts, or at least offer different options.

"When I do a large tour, I can go all the way, and this involves synchronised video and large screen projections. The SMPTE time code from the video drives the sequencer, and I play along with a live percussion player and a woodwind player who usually plays both acoustic and electronic woodwind. It's true that in my extravaganza MIDI electronic days I was known on occasion to wear a dress which lights up and follows the music! Since I've done the album Pianissimo, I'm as happy doing a solo piano concert; that's the other extreme of my concert ideas. In between, there are a variety of things.

"One thing I like to do at the moment is use the Yamaha MIDI piano, so I'm playing acoustic piano, but also controlling a patch that I've designed to go with that particular piece. Here at the Klemdag festival I'm just going to be using the M1R and the piano, because it lends itself perfectly to this kind of simple interaction. In performance you can limit the ranges of each part of the sound and easily control it. Another possibility is combining that with other live players. Since my next album will be with orchestra and piano, I imagine that my live performances will start involving live orchestra."

On the subject of her favoured equipment, Suzanne had the following to say: "I have a very consistent setup now because I'm using my performance rack. Obviously, I've added things to that over the years, but it's a huge task for me to break in a new module, because then I have to re-program hundreds of pieces. I'll use anything really. I use the Korg M1R a lot, and also like the Roland JD800. For realistic sounds, I use the Emu Proteus/2 to give me an idea, but prefer to use real players for the final recording. I like to create a little aura by mixing real strings with synthesizers, and I don't think that I would be happy with just a real orchestra and the piano, for instance. I need to have that extra shimmer; otherwise it becomes boring and dead to me."

"I still use the Roland Super JX for analogue sounds, and for sampling I've gotten rid of my Synclavier and AudioFrame, and now use the Roland S770, though I don't use the sounds that come with it. Its main role is during my heavy-duty electronic performances, because I have sounds from generations ago stored in there that were originally made on the Buchla and other instruments, sampled into the Synclavier and then transferred to the AudioFrame, or whatever. The same sounds just keep on travelling! I never really used the Synclavier on my albums, because I didn't like the sound; the sampling was the best thing about it. I did most of that on my commercial productions, but for my earlier work most of the sounds were created on the Buchla, which I still have, although I haven't fired it up in a long time, and it's now under my bed!"

Suzanne with her Buchla modular in Soho Studio.Suzanne in Soho Studio.Photo: Lloyd Williams

Great Expectations

Having dedicated so many years of her life to electronic music, Suzanne is perhaps in a better position than most to begin assessing why the genre appears to be overlooked by the media in general, and indeed why events like Klemdag '93 are so few and far between: ""I guess it is not an obvious a scene as it was in the late '60s and early '70s. There is certainly a lot of electronic gear used in production, but I don't call that the electronic music scene. I always felt in the beginning that electronic music would become a very major force, but I don't think that my expectation ever came true in the way that I foresaw it. Nevertheless, I am happy to see at Klemdag in Holland that there is an educated and sophisticated electronic music crowd who can appreciate the origins and possibilities of the music."

Electronic music could be seen as a very male-dominated field, both in terms of the audience it attracts and the performers. Does Suzanne have any opinion on this?

"That's a very good point; I've often wondered about this myself, because the nuances, sensitivity, subtlety and patience that electronic music requires are qualities that women possess possibly more than men. My engineer for years in New York City was a woman, and when I first started, I did try all the hot-shot male engineers, and found that this was a whole new language and they were not as quick to perceive it as this one woman who I worked with for ten years. I always felt that she lent a particularly female talent to my recordings as well. But in all my years in electronic music, the thing I noticed most was the vast gap in understanding by the general public.

"I hear the phrase 'synthetic music' used as if electronic music were some form of substitute for something else. This is a gross misrepresentation of what this music is! I think there is a fear of technology that prevents the public at large from even being able to look into what this medium is about. Perhaps the way to deal with this is visually, with video tapes of artists at work in the studio, to make it real and not just abstract music. Even electronic music comes from the heart, mind, and soul of the person making it. That's the connection that needs to be made. Even though I'm knee-deep in cables and technical gear all the time, I don't see this as some kind of mental obstacle. These machines are very human, and are replications in a sense of our humanness — they have intelligence, warmth and communication. It's just a matter of getting to know the equipment; it's not about science and white coats!"

Since the time of this interview, Suzanne has kept in touch and work is progressing on her new album Dream Suite, as indicated in a recent letter: "I'm planning to record the new album in early April 1994 in Moscow, with the Young Russian Orchestra. I'm very excited about this, but it is, needless to say, taking immense amounts of preparation. I considered coming to London to record, but like the idea of Russia. My label is trying to convince me about London, however."

At least the weather will not play a part in influencing her decision!

Working With Don Buchla

Suzanne's working relationship with synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla at the tail end of the '60s makes for fascinating reading, and sheds light on her reasoning for pursuing electronic music in the first place, before the likes of Peter Baumann and the rest of the emerging German experimental music scene had ever set eyes upon a synthesizer.

"I was indoctrinated by Don Buchla, because I was working in his factory on the assembly line. There were no electronics people working for him, and instead he had a scholar from Berkeley, a philosopher and an Indian dancer! It was very interesting because I knew that this was very important for me, but Don saw me as a silly female; there was a big gap between my seriousness and the way I was perceived. For instance, he fired me after the first day and I refused to leave; I stayed because I was very passionate about it. Working there was an advantage because I got to learn all about analogue synthesis, and also got to play in his studio at night, where he had a huge modular system. Eventually,of course, I was able to buy one of his instruments."

"Electronic music had so many things to offer, because to be a composer in the traditional sense back then was very limiting. Academic music and the way serious music was being taught was dead. It was difficult to get performances and generally very restrictive. Electronic music meant that nobody could tell you what to do, and you were free to do whatever you wanted — you could make a piece that went on for a month!"

Suzanne Ciani's Studio Gear:

SYNTHESIZERS/SAMPLERS:

  • Alesis D4
  • Emu Proteus/2
  • Korg M1R
  • Roland Super JX
  • Roland Planet S
  • Roland D550
  • Roland JD800
  • Roland S770
  • Yamaha TX816
  • Yamaha SY55

MASTER KEYBOARDS:

  • Yamaha Disclavier
  • Yamaha Clavinova CLP760

COMPUTERS/SOFTWARE:

  • Apple Macintosh IIcx (with 20Mb RAM and 80Mb internal hard disk)
  • Digidesign SoundTools
  • Encore music printing
  • Hewlett Packard DeskJet printer
  • Mark Of The Unicorn Digital Performer
  • Mark Of The Unicorn Unisyn
  • Opcode Vision
  • Opcode Galaxy
  • Seagate external drive (1 gigabyte)

MIDI INTERFACES:

  • Mark Of The Unicorn Video Timepiece
  • Opcode Studio 5

PROCESSING:

  • Drawmer Dual Gate
  • dBX 160X
  • Eventide SP 2016
  • Lexicon 224X
  • Yamaha Rev 7
  • Yamaha SPX90

MIXING:

  • Mackie 16:8
  • Yamaha DMP7 (x4)

RECORDING:

  • Sony TCD-D10 Pro II DAT
  • Alesis ADAT
  • Digidesign Audiomedia Card and Audio Interface
  • Nakamichi EX-125 stereo cassette

SPEAKERS:

  • Yamaha NS10M
  • Yamaha S20X

VIDEO:

  • Sony Video Projector
  • JVC VHS
  • JVC 3/4"

MISCELLANEOUS:

  • Neumann U87 mic
  • Time Stream Visual Conductor

Discography

The catalogue numbers below refer to the CD versions of all of Suzanne's albums which are currently available through Private Music, although the original year of release is listed. The Private Music Of Suzanne Ciani is a compilation album and serves as an excellent introduction to her recorded works to date. Piano Two and The Private Music Sampler are compilation albums also featuring other Private Music artists. Interested parties should note that these albums can be obtained in the United Kingdom through Compact Disc Services, a specialist importer/distributor of this kind of music. Private Music's catalogue is distributed in the UK through BMG Records.

SUZANNE CIANI SOLO:

  • Seven Waves 1982 2046-2-P
  • The Velocity Of Love 1986 01005-82085-2
  • Neverland 1988 2036-2- P
  • History Of My Heart 1989 2058-2-P
  • Pianissimo 1990 2073-2-P
  • Hotel Luna 1991 01005-82090-2
  • The Private Music Of Suzanne Ciani 1992 01005-82103-2

WITH OTHER ARTISTS

  • Piano Two 1987 2027-2-P
  • The Private Music Sampler 1988 2045-2-P

Further Information

Private Music: 9014 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles,CA 90069, USA.

C & D Compact Disc Services: Magnum House, 140 Seagate, Dundee DD1 2HF, Scotland.

Tel: 0382 76595;

Published May 1994