Signal Path Podcast: Suzanne Ciani
Listen to the latest SIGNAL PATH podcast with the electronic music pioneer SUZANNE CIANI, an analog synth innovator known for her groundbreaking work with quadraphonic sound.
Welcome to a refreshed Signal Path, with our new host Zakia Sewell. An award-winning broadcaster and DJ who has appeared on the BBC, NTS, Tate and Boiler Room, she will lead exclusive interviews with sonic innovators, exploring those defining moments that influenced how they think about sound.
Episode 054: Suzanne Ciani
For our inaugural reboot episode, Zakia chats with modular synth legend Suzanne Ciani. Among the few women on the frontline of electronic music in the 1970s, she went on to become one of the most celebrated artists in her field for her ethereal and future-facing compositions. Over the course of her career, Ciani has earned five Grammy nominations and infiltrated the mainstream through TV ads, Hollywood soundtracks, and pinball machines; paving the way for the new generation of electronic experimenters that followed.
ZAKIA SEWELL: Perhaps you can tell me a little bit about your early life, your upbringing, and the sounds, the music that you grew up with.
SUZANNE CIANI: Well, I grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, and I fell in love with music early on. My Mom brought a wonderful piano into the house, a Steinway grand, and my older sisters were taking lessons. I wanted to be a ballerina, but I found that I could play their lessons without having had any lessons. The other musical influence was my grandfather. I had an Italian grandfather who never learned to speak English and he loved opera. So he lived for opera and I grew up kind of enveloped in this Italian opera and in the music that came into my home.
And do you remember a particular moment when you realized that you wanted, not only to listen and consume this music, but to be a musician?
It's funny, it happened really early and I can't explain it, but one of the things that comes to mind, my Mom brought home this huge stack of vinyl records that had come from a fire sale and they were all classical and I would put these records on and I would just go out of myself, you know, and I would just swoon to the emotional sound of this music
And then I started to write, you know, there were some manuscript papers near the piano. I don't know why, but I would scribble on it, even if I didn't know what it all meant. And in fact, I eventually taught myself to read music.
And how old were you when you received these records? And can you just sort of paint a picture of that scene, would you listen alone? Would you listen first thing in the morning? Would it be the last thing at night, or were there people around, or was it quite a private experience of you communing with this music?
Well, in my house, it was hard to be alone. There were six children, so I had four sisters and one brother. We moved when I was in the third grade, we moved to a nice big house where I loved the fact that I could hide. I also loved that I came from a big family because I had a lot of privacy. I don't think my parents knew my name half the time. You know, really there were just so many kids. And in fact, when I played the piano in that living room, I was convinced that nobody could hear me. And that's why I felt free to do what I wanted.
It was only years later when somebody else played the piano that I realized you could hear it all over the house. So yeah, my sister always accused me of hogging the piano, but that's just the way it was
Perhaps you did. So your first love was the piano. Could you tell me how you came to study composition at Berkeley?
So there I was, trying to make sense of all of this, you know, desire to be a composer. I felt I was a composer. I was in love with Chopin. I was playing his pieces over and over again. I was scribbling on paper, but I didn't have any clues. Then in high school I found that my math teacher was also a musician and he gave me private lessons in harmony. I discovered a school in Boston, the Longy School of Music. And what I found out when I went there. I did an audition and they asked me to play and I, you know, sat down and confidently started playing the Rachmaninoff piano concerto that I had been teaching myself. And she said, “play a scale”. And I “a scale. What is that?” And I realized that in my world, I had made it all up. I didn't know what a quarter note was, or a half note. I played by ear. I played by relative visual cues. You know, a black note was maybe not as long as a white note, do you know? But I didn't have any structure to my learning. And so I started all over again. I went to college at Wellesley. I majored in music. I was in love with music, uh, there. And then I went on to graduate school in composition and I got a fellowship to University of California at Berkeley. So my goal was to be the composer that I thought I was.
And what was your experience there and what was, could you set the scene a little bit about the sort of music scene around you as you were studying during that period? You know, did it feel like an exciting time to be in California?
That university had been rated number one in music. And I thought, oh, this is wonderful. But then when I got out there, I realized it was number one in musicology, the study of dead composers. So there wasn't really, I did study composition and it was very, uh, grueling and miserable. Partly because, you know, in those days we were at the crest of a wave of women's liberation, but we certainly weren't liberated. And we weren't seen as people really, you know, I had got a lot of criticism in my classes. My conducting teachers told me that women had no right on the podium. My composition teacher told me what's wrong with women. They can't write major pieces of music. And all of this was very discouraging. And I remember a moment where I went into the ladies’ room and I looked in the mirror and I burst into tears. I knew that this just wasn't working and crying, you know, wasn't going to help. And in fact, I was, denigrated, really for even crying for having emotions, you know, around this. So it was about that time, I think this was the, there were a lot of things going on then because Berkeley was one of the focal centers of the free speech movement and the protests against the Vietnam war. And, you know, there was another moment where I was in the piano room playing Chopin and a rock came through the window and I looked out the window and I saw, you know, people running, throwing stones, tear gas, and I thought, oh my gosh, you know, everything is up for grabs here. It's not normal times. So I think that the historic period, the women's liberation movement, you know, we were burning bras, the social upheaval, all of that laid the found foundation for my investigating something completely different, which was electronic music.
Listen to the full interview with Suzanne Ciani and subscribe to Signal Path with the podcast provider of your choice below.
Host: Zakia Sewell, Producer: Alannah Chance, Creative Producer: Joshua Thomas, Creative Lead: Ty Stanton-Jones, Music: Yip Wong, Agency: Commune