Original Creators: The "Diva of Electronic Music" Suzanne Ciani
Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Suzanne Ciani. Go here for previous Original Creators.
Whether recording Coca-Cola jingles, music for pinball machines, or pioneering avant-garde electronic albums, Suzanne Ciani’s work with modular electronic instruments, specifically the Bulcha, back in the 1970s laid down the ground work for today’s electronic music culture. Although classically trained, Ciani got into electronic music through Don Buchla, who she met while at the University of California, Berkeley, and became enamored with his electronic musical instruments, which were seminal in the field of synthesizers.
This led to her experiments with the Buchla 200 and, in the early 70s, she would go on to compose audio installations for galleries and dance performances in California. She then moved to New York in the mid-70s when electronic music was still something relatively new and alien and played her avant-garde compositions to the likes of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. After struggling to pay the rent in the Big Apple, she set up her own company Ciani/Musica. Inc., which made TV commercials and sound design for arcade games, including Coca-Cola and Atari.
Her commercial success afforded her the financial stability to forge her own music career, and she went on to record the classic Seven Waves, her first album. But before this album, her very first record was Voices of Packaged Souls, which came from a collaborative sound sculpture with the artist Harold Paris back in the early 70s—the music was made to accompany the piece but is now considered a classic in its own right.
She has since gone on to become a Grammy-nominated artist and now plays mainly on the piano. She was also the first female composer of a big Hollywood movie, providing the score for Lilly Tomlin’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
The record was produced while Ciani was on the nightshift at the radio station KPFA. Between the hours of midnight and six in the morning she had complete access to the tape machines at the studio. It’s this untamed freedom that informs the uncanny warped vocals and ethereal, muddled voices in French and English that make up this 20 minute gem. At the time, only 50 copies were printed and it’s now a hard-to-get collector’s classic. It’s experimental in form, featuring strange noises and haunting electronic sounds, with the bleeps and blips that are now familiar to us through chiptune music. But this is much more experimental and odd, both noisy and tender.
Meco’s Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk
Intergalactic grooviness is the order of the day with this “space disco” version of the Star Wars soundtrack. The drumming, R2-D2, bass, and other sci-fi audio fabulousness were created by Ciani on her beloved Buchla synthesizer, which was so big it had its own car. The album was a Billboard No.1 and went platinum.
Xenon Pinball Machine
In 1979, Bally Entertainment, who made arcade machines, commissioned Ciani to make the music and design the sound effects for their pinball game Xenon, which came out the following year. After hanging out at an arcade she came up with the idea of having the machine’s sound react to the players. For the sounds, she recorded her own voice, distorting it through a custom made “Voice Box”—which included a harmonizer, vocoder, various filters, and processing modules—to create the many auditory incarnations that emit from the machine. The music and voices were then encoded into a computer chip. The game became the first pinball machine to use a female voice.