Suzanne Ciani’s live performance setup includes a Buchla System 200e modular synth.
“All this gear is so many things to so many people." — Suzanne Ciani.
We recently caught up with the five-time Grammy®-nominated electronic music legend, for a chance to discuss a myriad of music technology — From the Buchla modular synth to the Xenon pinball machine (for which Ciani did sound design using a Harmonizer).
Eventide has been around for over 45 years, and Ciani has been a close friend almost since the beginning. An early adopter of one of our first products, the H910 Harmonizer, she continues the legacy by including an H9 in her current setup. Reflecting on vintage gear, she says “my favorite one was the SP2016 which I used to make the wave sounds on The Velocity of Love.” The synthesized “waves” which appear on Ciani’s first two solo albums (and provide the namesake for debut Seven Waves) are an integral part of the compositions. “Each wave was made for the emotion of the [specific] piece,” she explains. “Using this particular five-channel digital delay [on the SP2016], I could make hugely convincing waves.”
Suzanne Ciani in the late 70s at Eventide's original New York City location. Photos courtesy of Richard Factor.
Working closely with the late Don Buchla, Ciani became one of the most talented and promotional voices for the pioneering “West Coast” Buchla modular synthesizer. Ciani continues to inspire with her mastery of the Buchla 200e, which she uses both in the studio and for live performances. The ephemeral nature of patched synths serves as inspiration for Ciani. “The patches are starting points it’s the nature of technology to be fluid [...] the modular setup that I used for Moogfest doesn’t exist anymore. That’s just the way it is - there’s no going back!”
The last couple of decades, Ciani has focused on being a classical/new age pianist. Reissues of her 70s Buchla work on the influential Finders Keepers label, and a chance introduction to protege and fellow Buchla enthusiast Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, have seen Ciani return to a composition and performance with her new set up of a Buchla 200e and two H9 Harmonizer stompboxes. Reflecting on her background as a pianist, then synthesist, then pianist, and now synthesist again, Ciani jokes “I went acoustic, then electric, then acoustic again, then electric again!” Enough to make Bob Dylan’s head spin a bit.
As a performer, Ciani places great value on what can be done live with “hands-on” equipment - and how it can be communicated to the audience. Using GoPro cameras, she’s able to project her live work with both the Buchla and the H9 Control iPad app, demonstrating everything as it happens in real time. “The H9 is perfect for live performance. With the camera, I can pick up the iPad and perform that effect - and people can hear the difference!”
Working live with two H9s also helps fulfill Ciani’s passion for spatial performance. All her performances are done in quadraphonic sound. “In a large venue, if your quad is too discrete, then the space is too large to allow your sound to really connect. I use one H9 to go with discrete spatial movements...the spatial rhythm. Then I use the other one as kind of a filler, so that there’s never a totally blank space between the speakers so the sound can connect more smoothly.” With the current renaissance of modular synthesizers, Ciani is excited to see a boost in spatial performace. “I think as electronic music performance comes back as analog and modular euroracks, quad and spatial manipulation of sound will be very important.”
Ciani will soon be bringing her story,her method of performance and composition to a wider audience. Her upcoming documentary, A Life in Waves, directed by Brett Witcomb and Bradford Thomason, will soon be released by Window Pictures.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (L) and Suzanne Ciani (R) making Sunergy. Spot the two H9s!
In addition to her performing, composing and sound designing, Ciani found time to record Sunergy with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. The album was recorded live at Ciani’s home in the coastal town of Bolinas, California. Sunergy features many of Ciani’s favorite H9 algorithms: Digital Delay, Band Delay, Crystals, Shimmer, Ultra-Tap, Filter Top, Rotary, Chorus, Hall, Looper, Underlayer, ModEchoverb, Spring, and Plate Reverb. For an extended preview, check out the documentary by Sean Hellfritsch on the making of the album, featuring beautiful shots of the ocean and of Suzanne and Kaitlyn’s setup.
Check out a full list of gear from Suzanne Ciani’s seminal first two solo albums at Synthmuseum