History Hunt: Suzanne Ciani

This week, we’re back to another living legend in the field of electronic music. Like Wendy Carlos, Suzanne Ciani was one of the first people to make music with synthetic instruments–but she had some very different ideas about what electronic music should be. What are those ideas? You’ll see!

Suzanne Ciani was born June 4, 1946, to an Italian-American family. She was a music-lover from the very start: when she was five years old, she taught herself to play the piano. One of her favourite composers when she was a kid was J.S. Bach, and she loved the European classical music of the Romantic Era (from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, approximately). Soon after, she started piano lessons to better grow as a musician.

At first, Ciani studied classical music, but when she was getting her first music degree at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, everything changed. She met a professor at another university who was trying to create the sound of a violin using a computer–something that’s simple today, but that in the 1960s seemed almost impossible.

Ciani was inspired, and she decided to change her focus from classical music to the brand new field of electronic music. Unfortunately, when she went to get her Master of Music degree at the University of California in Berkeley, her teachers didn’t understand what she was doing. One day, when she performed a piece she had composed in front of her class, her professor’s response was “What is this noise? What are you doing?” (Source: Dazed) Unsurprisingly, Ciani was very discouraged, but she didn’t give up.

The next big change in her life came when she met instrument designer Don Buchla, who had invented an electronic instrument called the Buchla 200. Right then and there, she knew she needed to have one.

The Buchla 200 was an expensive instrument and Ciani didn’t have the money for it, but that didn’t stop her. She started working in Buchla’s factory for low wages and at difficult times of day. She also started using her genius for electronic music for all kinds of different companies, making sound effects and music for them. Have you heard the sound of the bubbles in a Coca Cola ad? What about the jingle for Energizer? Those are just some of the sounds Ciani created (and you can listen to some of them here on her website).

Even though Ciani had to fight against the prejudice that existed against female composers (and unfortunately still exists), and eve though many people who didn’t understand her music or how she made it, she still found success. In 1974, Ciani moved to New York and lived for a while on the couch of her friend, Philip Glass, also a famous musician. She put together her own company, Ciani/Musica, and became a commercial musician in tremendous demand. Sometimes she would do fifty jobs a week! She also composed the music for the 1981 movie, The Incredible Shrinking Woman.

It wasn’t until 1982 that Ciani finally had time to release a CD of her compositions. That CD was Seven Waves, and while in general people in her home country of America didn’t really understand what she was doing with music, in Japan, the music was a hit.

Ciani had (and still has) strong ideas about what electronic music should be. She believed that connecting electronic music to historic genres, the way Wendy Carlos did with her album Switched-On Bach, wasn’t the right way for this new kind of music. She believed it needed to grow into something new.

After a while, Ciani became frustrated with the direction she saw electronic music going and, after twenty years, returned to playing and composing classical music for piano. She hasn’t completely given up electronic music, though: her most recent album, Lixiviation, was a compilation of sixteen years of her electronic music work, and, as of 2012, she’s been considering returning to the Buchla after her long hiatus.

Below are two examples of Ciani’s work–one piece she did on her own, and one that’s a very interesting collaboration…!

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To Learn More (sources):
Suzanne Ciani: Biography and Resumé
Suzanne Ciania: America’s First Female Synth Hero at Dazed
Interview: Suzanne Ciani On…Her Buchla Beginnings, Talking Dishwashers and Why No One Got Electronic Music in the ’70s at Self-Titled (Note: Mentions of national prejudice and sexism)
Suzanne Ciani at Wikpedia.org

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