Suzanne Ciani will give a performance with her Buchla synthesizer at the OK LÀ festival

The OK LÀ festival will welcome a rare visit on Saturday: Suzanne Ciani, composer, pianist, sound designer, pioneer of electronic music and virtuoso of the intimidating Buchla. One of the first modular synthesizers to be marketed, the Buchla holds no secrets for Ciani, who was able to afford his precious Model 200 by working on the assembly line of the small company founded in 1966 by the engineer Don Buchla. His unparalleled mastery of the instrument has allowed him to record visionary albums while leaving his mark in the world of cinema and advertising; The duty spoke with the one who is nicknamed “the Diva of the diode”.

Suzanne Ciani welcomes us virtually to her Californian studio. The piano on her left, the Buchla 200 on her right, “the cat sleeping behind, and me working in the middle of it all,” she explains with a smile. At 76, she has no shortage of work: these days, the pioneer is reworking the tracks of an upcoming album by Italian composer Donato Dozzy, preparing to launch a new album of original material recorded in collaboration with the French Jonathan Fitoussi and rehearses one hour a day at the grand piano in preparation for a recital. “It’s been years since I’ve given one! she confides.

” I have a switch in my head, explains Suzanne Ciani. When I spend time playing on the Buchla, I can’t play the piano, and vice versa. Professional deformation: student of classical music at Wellesley College near Boston (where Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright graduated) in the 1960s, it was while studying composition at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968 that she meets Don Buchla and his curious instrument smeared with buttons, indicator lights, dangling electric wires and which can be played without a keyboard — unlike the Moog synthesizer, which appeared at the same time. “Playing with the Buchla in the 1960s and 1970s, I understood, like others, that the traditional keyboard was an enemy in our understanding of music”, summarizes Suzanne Ciani.

For music, the organization of sound, sound itself — “Between music and sound, is there really a difference? asks the Californian during our long interview — is also understood in the way we handle the instrument. A keyboard: seven white and five black keys per octave. Twelve tones in a chromatic scale. What about the sounds that exist between the black and white keys?

“Playing Buchla is speaking a language, a vocabulary, and I speak it,” says Suzanne Ciani, who in 1976 published what she calls a “Buchla 200 recipe book” that aficionados still consult today. today. “When I play on the Buchla, I know what the result will be by ear. Now, I say that this instrument is alive, because one plays it by controlling the electricity, and because the instrument is alive, and because one works with voltages that one controls, the result is of a great complexity. » The piano has its register, the note can be strong or soft depending on the attack of the performer, « it offers its own universe of sonic possibilities, and the same goes for the Buchla. Except that we control a multitude of other parameters, not only the note or its volume, but its timbre and the movement of the sound in space”.

What was difficult to conceive at the end of the 1960s, one imagines. Suzanne Ciani recorded in her garage in Berkley a first album, Flowers of Evil (set to music of Baudelaire’s poem), in 1969, which no house agreed to publish. It was not until 2019 that it finally saw the light of day thanks to the label Finders Keepers, which has given itself the mission of revealing to us the formidable unpublished archives of Suzanne Ciani. “It was impossible to release albums like that at the time, and releasing them ourselves was not financially possible. I needed money to create my music…”

I understand the issue of women in music, but behind that, the truth is that electronic music was for me the way to circumvent the system of the music industry to create my own music, to keep control of it

The world of advertising production offered him a first outlet, which still took him away from his musical aspirations. In the mid-1970s, she left California with her Buchla for New York, hoping to advance her musical career, with difficulty — penniless, she squatted for a while in Philip Glass’s studio. However, at the end of the 1970s, his sound creations for advertising provided him with a pleasant income. One of his most famous creations was the “pop!, pscht!” gurgle…” from the bottle of Coca-Cola poured into a glass of ice cubes on TV. Another mandate will inscribe her name in the history books: in 1981, Suzanne Ciani became the very first woman to compose solo music for a Hollywood film (the science fiction comedy The Incredible Shrinking Womandirector Joel Schumacher’s directorial debut).

No one knew his identity, but the majority of viewers at the time had listened to his sound compositions. ” I was happy [dans le domaine publicitaire]. I put my heart and soul into it, and it was fun to do. I worked hard and I earned money, which allowed me to support my personal creation, which I did on the weekends. And I have always worked as an artist: regardless of the mandate, I had all my freedom, I worked on instinct, I expressed myself. »

It was in Japan, where electronic music seemed less strange (thanks to Tomita and Yellow Magic Orchestra, among others), that she finally found a record company that would release her first solo album, Seven Waves (soon to be reissued too), which revealed all the warmth of which electronic instruments are possible, his dear Buchla, but a panoply of others as well — the Prophet V Sequencers, the Roland TR 808 Rhythm Composer, a Synclavier II, a synthesizer from ARP strings, the expensive Polymoog, you name it.

These sounds dear to Ciani which seemed so strange forty, fifty, sixty years ago are now part of the vocabulary of pop music. “It’s funny, I thought for a long time that electronic music was on the verge of being recognized — in the 1960s, I really imagined that it was only a matter of a few years before it became a cultural norm… Not fifty years! I am lucky to live long enough to see this dream come true; at the time, when I had an idea in my head, I had to wait ten years before people paid attention to it. What is happening today excites me. »

For the past ten years, Suzanne Ciani has benefited from a renewed interest in her work as in that of many other women who have played decisive roles in the evolution of electronic music, but whom history has kept in history. shadow of men — the Laurie Spiegel, Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, all featured alongside Ciani in the essential documentary Sisters With Transistors (by Lisa Rovner, 2020).

“I understand the issue of women in music, but behind that, the truth is that electronic music was for me the way to circumvent the system of the music industry to create my own music, to keep control of it, comments Suzanne Ciani. . I couldn’t have accomplished what I accomplished without remaining independent. »

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