'Sheer joy': Electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani inspires a new generation

Legendary electronic musician Suzanne Ciani tells As It Happens what it was like to judge a competition to create the instruments of the future.
Suzanne Ciani was one of the first women to work in sound design in the early 1970s and is a 5-time Grammy-nominated recording artist. (Submitted by Suzanne Ciani)
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Suzanne Ciani knows a little something about the world of electronic music  — and now the five-time Grammy nominated composer has helped choose a new instrument of the future. 

Ciani was one of the only women making electronic music in the 1970s.

She was the first solo female composer to soundtrack a Hollywood film for the 1981 movie The Incredible Shrinking Woman, as well as the mind behind Coca-Cola's infamous "pop and pour" sound effect.

Now, the composer can add judge to her long list of accomplishments. She recently judged the Georgia Institute of Technology's annual Margaret Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, where nine finalists presented their designs for the musical instrument of the future. 

She spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann from her studio in Bolinas, Calif., about the new generation of electronic music inventors.

Here is part of their conversation. 

Ciani, known as the 'diva of the diode,' is a pioneer in electronic music. She expressed her joy at meeting people who spoke the language of electronic music at the Guthman Competition. (Submitted by Suzanne Ciani)

Suzanne Ciani, was it difficult to pick a winner at this year's competition?

Yes it was, and I hate being a judge because I just loved everybody. I wanted them all to win.

So for you, what's the most important thing?

Because I am a Buchlaist, I play an analogue modular music instrument and this is an instrument that has been evolving even from before the days of the transistor.

And my personal mission is to advance the design of that type of instrument.

So I was drawn to instruments that demonstrated a technology that could apply to the future.

In order, the Microtonal Ocarina which came in third, followed by the GramFX which came in second. And finally, in first place, the Hyper Drumhead. 0:29

Can we go through [the finalists in the competition], maybe start with the Microtonal Ocarina?

Yes. I mean that was an unusual project because it really didn't have any technological side.

It was actually ceramic, a set of 50 ceramic ocarinas. And the beauty of this was that it was really a group instrument.

This is stunning to me because of the spatial characteristic of it.

It would be wonderful for children. You could see a classroom with all the kids kind of making bird calls with this ocarina. And it was just a very elegant and wonderfully grounded invention.  

So what about the GramFX?

The GramFX was really a combination of old and new.

So, [Jassie Rios] had taken an old manually winding turn table and she pumped up that turntable and then played it spatially by waving her hands in the air above the turntable.

It was kind of like a mad combination of a popular DJ with high tech implications.

She was the only female entrant in this group and we all know that women have a very original take on technology and we were all very impressed with her ability to pull off this interactive machine.

Ciani performing at the 2016 Red Bull Buchla concert. (Submitted by Suzanne Ciani)

Finally the winner, the Hyper Drumhead. What made that so special?

That is my favourite area because what this is, is a graphic interface and I think the future of electronic music design must incorporate graphics.

And this fellow from Italy [Victor Zappi] designed this very large table surface and he did all the technology from scratch. So the sounds produced were not achieved by triggering a sample sound. He actually designed the sounds in the machine language.

And I'm really excited about collaborating with him possibly in the future.

We maybe forget that people, fairly recently, really didn't know much about these [synthesizers]. There was no manual when you started.  A lot of trial and error. What kind of challenges do people have when they're trying to come up with new sounds, new technology, new ways of performing using these different instruments?

I think part of the problem is just to communicate with the audience. When they don't understand the instrument, they really don't feel comfortable interpreting what they're hearing.

The beauty of the Guthman is that the inventor actually performs the instrument and they explain it. And it's still mysterious.

Technology can be hidden, but part of the excellence of an instrument is that it does communicate the interrelationship of the action of the human body with the sound that you hear.

If someone makes a gesture, and you hear it change in the … music, then you start to be comfortable in what it all means.

Ciani works at a Soho studio in the 1970s. (Submitted by Suzanne Ciani)

What's it like for you, given your many years of pushing boundaries, to see a new generation of designers following in your footsteps and try to go even further?

I have come back into performing on the Buchla. When I did it 40 years ago, nobody understood it and it was frustrating. Very frustrating. To the point of … I gave up.

Now I go out and there is a sea of young people who all understand what's going on.

For me, it's a sheer joy that I can communicate with people who already speak my language.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our interview with Suzanne Ciani in the player above.

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