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Suzanne Ciani's plugged-in path

The electronic music maven began carving out a niche for herself over four decades ago, a journey chronicled in her new collection 'Lixiviation.'

March 06, 2012|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani's new album is "Lixiviation."
Synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani's new album is "Lixiviation." (shakermakerpr.com )

About 15 minutes into a phone conversation regarding her new collection "Lixiviation: Ciani/Musica, Inc. 1969-1985," electronic music composer Suzanne Ciani tossed out a surprising musical factoid.

In her youth as a busy session player in New York City, her mastery of early portable synthesizers resulted in as many as four gigs a day. It also landed her a guest spot on David Letterman's old daytime show and provided an opportunity to make the tones, moans and Vocoder-enhanced voice of Bally pinball's android seductress Xenon. But her best-known creation arrived when Ciani was hired by producer Phil Ramone in 1975 to craft an electronic sound effect for group called the Starland Vocal Band.

The idea was to create on the synthesizer the sound of rockets firing through the air during "Afternoon Delight," the lusty hit song about a midday rendezvous.

"Yes," says Ciani, laughing, "the skyrockets." In that and other sessions, she says, she would load the jukebox-sized Buchla synthesizer into the control room, with its "hundreds of little blinking lights and knobs," and commence noisemaking until something stuck. Although now all that processing power and more can be carried on your iPhone, in the '70s Ciani needed a hired mover to travel with her from studio to studio.

The work from those sessions became advertisements for Atari computers and Almay lotion, experimental sound sculptures to accompany museum installations, corporate audio logos for Discover magazine and a PBS show called "Inside Story" – and now they're the highlights of "Lixiviation." The album captures a fascinating moment when computer-generated music was easing its way into America's subconscious one corporate tag, quirky pop-fizz and orgasmic missile at a time. Named for a chemistry term that Ciani used for an art gallery commission, the collection features 16 pieces — some, like her Atari audio logo, as brief as seven seconds, others such as "Second Breath," extended synthesizer compositions — that shine a light on the oft-anonymous realm of commercial music composition.

Ciani, who is best known for her string of 1980s and '90s albums such as "Hotel Luna" and "Dream Suite" (both of which earned her Grammy nominations in the new-age category), studied piano and composition at Wellesley College in the 1960s before continuing her education at UC Berkeley, where sound theorists Max Matthews and John Chowning were making revolutionary advances in frequency modulation and synthesis.

A friend of Ciani's told her about his neighbor, who was teaching music at Berkeley. "He took me next door to Don Buchla's equally big loft and there was a towering, massive musical module there," recalls Ciani on the phone from her home in Northern California. "For me, this was a meeting that was like destiny. I had been looking for electronic music."

The epiphany, she says, was in the richness of the tones that the machine created, a sensation that's hard to fathom four decades later. "Nowadays, a lot of ears have heard a lot of things, and they don't understand the newness that was part of it back then," says Ciani. "Your ears woke up. The frequency spectrum was so much bigger. It had the high end and the very low end, and you could go to the very top and the very bottom. After hearing that, acoustic music seemed to occur along a very narrow path. It wasn't alive."

Plus, the whole endeavor was much more efficient, she says. "You realized very quickly the challenges of that career, because many composers die without ever hearing their music performed. There was something about electronic music that had the promise of freedom, where I could create my own — and have control of my own — world as a composer. I could do it myself."

But that was easier said than done in the mid-1970s. At that point the closest things to mainstream success in electronic music were Walter Carlos' "Switched on Bach," the quirky novelty hit "Popcorn" by Hot Butter, and Keith Emerson's towering synth castles created as part of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Record labels that did express interest wanted Ciani to sing songs, or offered her an hour of studio time when she needed at least a week. "One morning I woke up and thought, 'Where is the money?' And I realized it was in advertising, and that advertising in fact embraced the unknown, and something new. The record companies were looking backwards. They wanted 'one of those' — something that had already happened."

At ad agency studios the enthusiasm was palpable, says Ciani: "It was more, 'Wow, we don't know what this is but it's exciting — let's do it!' In advertising, I had a lot of freedom, because nobody knew what these machines could do, and so I was left on my own to create."

Indeed, it's the kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm that drives "Lixiviation" and its tidbits of commercial music and melodic sketches. The spot for hand lotion Almay's 'Eclipse' product feels like something swiped from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"; the Coca-Cola "pop-and-pour" logo is memorable exercise in sonic branding; and those of a certain age can't hear her "Atari Video Games Logo" from the late 1970s and not feel a primal affection for the Space Invaders-suggestive tones. Says Ciani of these sonic logos: "It's part of our DNA."

randall.roberts@latimes.com

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