FOUNDATIONS: Suzanne Ciani, Composer And Sound Designer

Written by: Andrej Imamovic –

– We are launching a blog with first article in our Foundation series, covering work of people who had great impact on electronic music and sound making in general. This section is envisaged as an introduction to electronic scene – music producers, instrument makers, composers, writers and other players. At the beginning we will go back to the seventies and rediscover work of one of the sound design pioneers, and surely not just that, Suzanne Ciani.

Ciani was born in 1946, she is a pianist, composer and sound designer who studied music composition and computer generated music in California, USA, in the early seventies, when she met Don Buchla, maker of a famous Buchla synth. Becoming obsessed with this ingenious music making machine she spent around a decade working with it. This synth was used in most of her sound design works in 70’s and 80’s. Later she turned more towards classical instrumentation, at which she also excelled, but let’s stay here and explore her early music and design works.

In 1974 Suzanne moved to New York and started her company Ciani/Musica, producing music for TV advertisements and working for companies like Coca-Cola, AT&T and General Electric. She produced soundsets for Roland DX7 and is also famous for her sound design work on pinball game called Xenon. The famous “Ahhhh” that machine was playing when you insert a coin or a “Try me again” was actually her voice, and it was a first female voice in a pinball machine. Ciani is even featured in the Pinball Hall of Fame. About this time she says that “there were some vocal things I wanted to do that were to far out for the manufacturer. Like when you hit the flippers, I used harmonizer to lower my voice so it went “Ohhh, ahhh, ohhh!” I also wanted to put whip crack sound on the flipper but they wouldn’t let me do that.

Her love for sound experimentation, sensual approach to technology, and her business skills brought her to one of her most famous sound design works, the one she did for Coca Cola. “I used Buchla to make the sound of fizzing and the lid popping off. They made a whole campaign around it, this pop and pour”, says Suzanne. Yes, that is how famous Coca Cola bottle opening sound was made, it was never a real bottle opening recording, and it sounds better than in reality. “When you think about real bottle opening it does not have all that finesse and detail. So you create a sound that is the platonic ideal, an imagined perfection that does not really exist”, she added in a talk with Donato Dozzy for Electronic Beats magazine.

What she said is actually a very good basis for creation of a great sound design. Using imagination instead of imitating real world sounds was always her thing and approach to synthesizer playing, and as she said, “you actually dont hear bubbles when you open a Coke”. That is what makes this relatively simple work so great, and probably one of the most well known designs in the field of advertisement sound.

Beside her work for advertising, TV and movie industry, in 1982 Ciani began to record albums of her music. Her first album, “Seven Waves” was released in Japan in 1982. During 90s she founded her own music label, Seventh Wave, on which she has released her more classically oriented recordings. At home in Bolinas, California, Suzanne found the tranquility and inspiration to hone her reputation as a technologically self-sufficient New Age artist. This synthesizers devotee used to leave her massive Buchla synth running for months at a time, programming it to compose and play endless compositions. Altogether she released 16 albums until today.

When I started working with electronic music there was no velocity or pressure control. So i built a device I called the “Voice Box” which was an assembly of processing stuff: compressors, vocoder, equalizers. It allowed me to use my voice to control dynamics and expression on a synthesizer. It’s charting that continuity between nature and machines again right?”, she says. Similar principle was used in a few software solutions for electronic music lately, which just shows how much Ciani was ahead of her time. Her whole method of music making is something that everyone can learn from, direct contact with a machine, experimentation and sensual approach in which you let machines live their lives in a way. We can lately see in many hardware and software products that this approach is still considered the right step, the step forward.

During the time she collaborated with Don Buchla, testing his synthesizer at one point she said that “this is not tuning properly”, and he said, “Well do something else”. “The attitude was that you should not come to the machine with a preset idea of what you want to do. You should feedback with a machine and evolve your language with it”, says Ciani. This is exactly the thing that we often miss in contemporary electronic music…

I can’t recommend enough checking out the work of this great composer. We selected some videos with her music, live performance and a TV appearance below. There is also a documentary movie premiering in March, at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, called “A Life In Waves”, which follows Cianni’s development. The documentary is made by filmmakers Brett Whitcomb (director), Bradford Thomason (writer, editor) and Ali Clark (executive producer), and combines archival footage of the musician and features a soundtrack of her music. The film will also take the opportunity to look at Ciani’s connection with Don Buchla of whom she was a student, who passed away last year.

Check Suzzane Ciani videos bellow

Suzanne Ciani – “The Fifth Wave: Water Lullaby” (1982)

Suzanne Ciani Live Performance in Stockholm, Sweden (2017)

Ciani on Letterman Show (1980)