PHILADELPHIA — Sound zoomed around the darkened auditorium in the Lightbox Film Center at International House. Atmospheric and enveloping, a deep timbre grew to a growl, before shifting to electronic beeps, then seat-shaking bass. Suzanne Ciani, a pioneer of electronic music in the 1970s and ’80s, was playing her Buchla 200e (a modular electronic music system) in a rare improvised performance in this small Philadelphia theater, and it was completely packed. People who were likely familiar with her trailblazing work in the ’70s were there, alongside millennials, cramming into the theater in a way I had never seen in seven years of patronizing the place.
Ciani is perhaps an unlikely heroine of electronic music. At 70, she is still girlish in demeanor and soft spoken, though a fervent feminist who speaks openly about embracing her femininity while competing and working in a genre heavily dominated by men. Brought to Philadelphia as a precursor to the upcoming exhibition, Making/Breaking the Binary: Women, Art, and Technology (1968—85) at University of the Arts, opening in August, she spoke about her work and trajectory with curator Kelsey Halliday Johnson prior to the performance. Ciani explained how she chose to work solely with female engineers, because she felt women communicated with the electronic equipment in a way that was inherently different from men, creating more intuitively driven soundscapes.
She stumbled into electronic music almost by accident after decades of rigorously studying classical music. In 1968, while in college at Wellesley, she happened to encounter a professor at MIT who was attempting to synthesize the sounds of a violin on a computer the size of a small room, and she became instantly fascinated. Ciani went on to graduate school at Berkeley as a classical composer, but was ultimately frustrated by the limitations of the instruments, and sought answers in a new instrument built out of the kind of technology she had witnessed at MIT: the Buchla. Invented by Don Buchla in 1963 and streamlined throughout the decade, it’s a cumbersome instrument; weighing around 30 pounds, it looks something like a phone operator’s switchboard and takes over two hours to tune, which must be done after each time it travels.
Buchla resisted the label “synthesizer,” as he felt the term didn’t accurately describe what the instrument’s touch-sensitive knobs and inputs accomplished. Instead of just reproducing sounds found in nature, it was also capable of creating its own unique soundscapes. Ciani does a bit of both when she plays her Buchla. The music she creates is uncanny, because it feels both so familiar and so foreign. Without sampling, the machine can be engineered to perfectly mimic certain sounds, as when Ciani carefully renders crashing waves, in much the same way Vija Celmins does with graphite.
Some of Ciani’s electronic sounds have also had lives of their own out in the world. In 1974, she moved to New York with her Buchla, a suitcase full of inputs and wires, and little else. She slept on the floor in Philip Glass’s studio and moved in the circles of avant-garde artists like Steve Reich, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, often performing the Buchla live in galleries. After several years of scraping by, she got a break in commercial advertising. She harnessed the technological utopianism already present in her avant-garde music and created iconic electronic sounds such as the Coca-Cola “pop and pour,” the intro for Columbia Pictures, the beep for a dishwasher made by General Electric, commercials for Merrill-Lynch, Atari, Clairol conditioner, and Skittles, and even sound effects for pinball machines and B-movies. In 1981, she became the first female composer to score a major Hollywood film, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, starring Lily Tomlin. This work allowed her to pay for her expensive equipment while subversively bringing experimental electronic music — which hadn’t been considered a real form of music — into the ears of millions of Americans. Today, these projects lend her work another, unintended effect of making her music feel strangely self-reflexive, looping in sounds that now feel distinctly familiar, nostalgic, and redolent of the past. You feel you’ve heard these sounds somewhere before, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.
In between her commercial work, Ciani released several of her own albums: Seven Waves (1984), The Velocity of Love (1986), and Neverland (1988). These New Age electronic albums, which combined electronic music with other instrumentation, were her first commercially viable works as a recording artist. (In 1970, she released an album of avant-garde music created only with the Buchla, which failed to gain any traction.) In 1992, she was diagnosed with breast cancer; around the same time, her Buchla stopped working. “The impossibility of fixing it brought me to the brink of a ‘breakdown,’ so identified was I with that instrument,” she said in an interview with NPR last year. She left everything in a storage unit in New York and moved to California, where she focused on her health and reinvented her career as a classical pianist, releasing many albums in the classical genre and receiving five Grammy nominations. Her past as an experimental electronic musician was largely buried until 2012, when the British label Finder’s Keepers re-released her early recordings alongside selected commercial work to critical acclaim.
At the Lightbox theater, droning wails layered with bright, scaling notes reminiscent of a John Carpenter sci-fi thriller, warped, wandered, and trailed off before returning again with force. Her crashing waves appeared, then transitioned into what sounded like a car door slamming again and again. A series of R2-D2-like bleeps morphed into a dog howling in a desert, which went haywire and became a bird before transforming into a metronome, then trickling raindrops, ricocheting and encircling the room. The calm of this sound was abruptly interrupted by a blast of harsh noise that reminded me of a skeezy noise show in a basement. Ciani clicked away rapidly, turning knobs deftly, her back to the audience, but an image of her hands with the Buchla’s tangle of wires projected on the screen, overlaid with a video of mutating blocks of color, programmed to react to the machine’s permutations. The sound felt at moments hopelessly dated, fixed in the time in which it was first made, then in an instant surpassing the technological nostalgia and transporting me to another plane, like a half-remembered dream. The Buchla descended into a vacillating drone and Ciani turned around and raised her arms, beaming. She danced to her own quavering, atonal rhythm for a moment before declaring, “I just want you to know, I could listen to this for days!”
Suzanne Ciani in Concert took place at the International House’s Lightbox Film Center (3701 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia) on March 29 as part of Making/Breaking the Binary: Women, Art & Technology (1968–1985), co-presented with the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Music’s 2017 series MUSICA PRACTICA / ELETTRONICA VIVA and Ars Nova Workshop.