Music by VICE

Looking Back on the Work of Synth Legend Suzanne Ciani

We talk to the director of "A Life in Waves", a new biopic on the 70s producer who taught Philip Glass how to play synth.

by Jonno Revanche
12 July 2017, 5:00am

At this crucial moment in Earth's history, the rhythm of the planet rings loud and clear in our collective mind. The inextricable likeness we have to each other, the tiny sliver of difference in our DNA, is just a potent reminder of the responsibility we have always had to each other, and to our ecology. That sentiment becomes more and more urgent with each passing day. Bjork famously delved into this on Biophilia and on the unrelenting, mourning Vulnicura, trying to re-establish those links that western culture had long ignored, opting an alternative to dividing and conquering.

Many years before the release of these albums, Suzanne Ciani was toying with electronic music in similar ways; attending to the life-force, and pulverising frequency of natural environments, and then replicating them with synthesizers that, at the time, were utterly mystifying to the people she worked alongside.

To the unaware listener, many of the sound effects heard on many 80s and 90s adverts may have sounded more rounded, impactful and dynamic than their IRL equivalent, and most of us have never questioned why. Many of them were created by Ciani, in an uncanny replica of the real thing, designed specifically to stimulate and compel our senses. This musical wizardry made her the go-to woman for the majority of sound effects during this time, in much the same way Brian Eno did the same in the 90s for the Windows 98 opening scene. But unlike Brian, her name has been thoroughly glossed over in the rich history of innovation with her field.

Brett Whitcomb and Brad Thomason became fascinated with her legacy and set out to make the film A Life in Waves about her life and legacy. We sat down with Brett to talk about the film, its inception, and the cultural significance of Ciani.

Noisey: The documentary is really fluid, beautiful, and wholesome. How did you get the idea to do the documentary in the first place?

Brett Whitcomb: I grew up with a huge interest in Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Boards of Canada, Brian Eno, Jean Michel Jarre, and I was always interested in synthesisers and modding synthesisers. I had TR-606s and MS-20s and all these keyboards and I had friends who modded them so I was always into that, the world of synthesis and music made by computers. That was kinda in my blood. One day, Brad—who is this huge musical archaeologist—said "you gotta check out Suzanne Ciani." This was ten years ago. He showed me "Seven Waves" and "The Velocity of Love" and I was totally and completely in love with them. It wasn't until 2012 where we actually started toying with the idea [of making a film about her.]. We were making GLOW and we started talking about it because we saw that Finders Keepers was releasing some of her older work, we saw the re-releases, we were like "what? I wonder, what she's doing? Is she working on new music, what's her story?" We innocently reached out and started that dialogue..

She seems like a really approachable, warm person.

She absolutely was. Suzanne instantly wrote back. She has always controlled her "brand" if you will. It's her market. She never gave up the rights to herself or her art to someone else, there was never an inbetween person to get to. We met her in Austin, Texas, because she wanted to feel us out and see what kind of people we were. We met up and had lunch and instantly hit it off. Just the way she presented herself, her voice, the way she talked was almost like, the perfect documentary subject because she's so confident and so sweet and warm. Once we learned she owned all her music and she had a wealth of archive footage stored in an air conditioned storage unit that was under her apartment we were like... There's no question now what our film will be. We got all her archive footage sent off to a company, who converted it and sent to us, and we just started working away with it.

In the commentary there is that mention of how her music has become appreciated and understood by audiences since the re-release, particularly by younger audiences. A lot of the things she said in the past seems like a prelude to a lot of conversations happening now, especially about women in electronic music, the labour and contributions that they've offered that have gone unacknowledged. It also feels like she has this really amazing degree of self-possession and self-knowledge and that's maybe what made her so compelling to watch. Was it easy to get her to talk about herself?

Yeah, because it kinda goes along with that confidence that she has and that it's almost like what's she's telling you. She's not talking about herself in a way that would lend itself to being off-putting, everything she says you can kinda take and apply it to something in your own life. "Wow, I can make myself better because of this." She always has these stories that are incredibly relatable and inspiring to men and women, but one of our executive producers, Ali Clark, who did the opening animation for the film, I would watch her sometimes while we were interviewing, and after those interviews she would be so filled with inspiration. Ali is working a very male dominated industry and it's not easy for her to get her foot in the door and get taken seriously. When she talked to Suzanne it was as rich as the interview.

Were there any things you learned particularly, any revelations you made during these conversations? What do you feel like you got out of the whole experience that might not have been immediately clear in the documentary?

I think I had no idea how important and how serious the Buchla was to her, as a performable instrument. Some artists like the Moog synthesiser and that's what this guy plays on stage, and this artist likes this guitar, but this was so much deeper than her relationship with the instruments. Enough so that if you read her old CDs, she lists instruments like you would band members.

One of the most interesting angles of the interviewees even just beyond Suzanne is how they talk about instruments as being these very alive things, as having agency and going off on tangents and operate on their own accord.

I absolutely agree and I'm so interested in that and it could become a whole other documentary. You can really hear that and think it's fine, but I really believed that was a thing for them and I've never had that kind of relationship with an instrument—but I've also never been on that musical level. It's all sounds, music, brain waves, and connections, and she really had a love affair with the Buchla, and spent an incredible amount of time with it on her own. She knows what every single knob does, and she knows when she patches one cable into another that it will make a sound like a wave or a cricket, to make any sound in the world. I have a human relationship to documentaries but I don't have that tangible sense of touch.

I'm a bit of a photographer and I got into photos playing around with old cameras, just trying to poke and prod at the equipment and trying to figure out if something was right for me. It definitely felt like more than just an extension of my own intentions rather than just a stationary tool. When I would ask friends of mine that were men, they would be like "you just don't get it" or they would freeze up when I dared to ask for advice or assistance. But when I was having conversations with women, they were like "oh, yeah, just find out how you respond emotionally to each camera brings out with you!" Or "this film brings out these stunning tones and reminds me of a horizon or film scene i saw the other day." It was really amazing to hear Suzanne talk about music as being inspired by environmental settings.

You're absolutely right with that, and the difference is really there. Guys are so focused on being researchy. That also lended itself to Suzanne approaching it from a different perspective and not wanting to just conquer it.

Yeah it's very empathetic. Another thing that stuck out for me in this documentary was how she said "Oh I want to sound like water crashing on the shore, or like wind blowing through trees" I thought that was surprisingly poetic. I guess the way electronic music is seen is as this very cold, machine-like thing, and people perceive acoustic as being more human, raw, real, inherently honest. She proved it wasn't totally true. Even as she was creating these otherworldly robotic noises, it was all very utopian to me.

Brad and Lawrence worked really close together on scoring the film and also doing sound design. Lawrence is from Middle Valley which was right next to Suzanne. If we needed sounds, he would go to the forest we were actually at or the beach we were actually at, at the very same spot to get those sounds because we knew if we were making a documentary about Suzanne Ciani, that the sound would be the most important thing in the film. There are moments where there are beach sounds so we use real beach sounds, and there are times later in the film after you've been through a little bit of a journey, we only used electronic beach sounds that she made. We don't really tell anybody, but you might be able to tell if you're very in tune or in a nice theatre, haha. But those kinda things were what we tried to tap into.

I definitely didn't notice it in an overt way but I certainly felt the way that the musical backdrop was done was very purposeful manner. It contributed to the film even if I didn't necessarily have the words to articulate that it was happening. So that's really great.

Brad had such a wealth of music and Suzanne—I honestly don't know how someone who has that much purely instrumental music. Happy, sad, fun, exciting, scary… Everything was covered. Brad just went through and picked the right sound for the right scene. That's why we made sure at the end of the movie to put a note on the screen "Every single sound and song in this film was created by Suzanne Ciani. "I don't know many movies that I've seen that have done that, especially documentaries.

I think the reason that it worked well was because it felt like as much of her as possible was present, her influence was felt even when she wasn't appearing on screen. Instead of being this voyeuristic look into her life, it looked like she was collaborating with you guys.

Absolutely. Maybe that was done more innocently than we even know, because it was kinda like our documentary GLOW. Sometimes don't have a lot of time to spend with the people we're making a film with, but because they're letting us into their life, we're trying to incorporate that into the film as a whole. That's why we decided to put things in, like when she ad-libs that she's smelling weed on campus in between one of her monologues, or asking about what her sister's said about her. That's her personality in there.

I think those moments really made the film what it is. I've seen a lot of documentaries lately that are so stony-faced and really emphasising the divide between the maker, the object and the viewer and I often wonder: How do you walk that line, and portray someone ethically? When you're documenting someone's life it's inevitably going to be as much about you as it is about them in some way.

Right, but subtly trying to inject some of your personality, things that you like and want to explore, how can you do that? We could have made a really experimental art film out of this thing. We really wanted people to walk away knowing who she is, knowing her background and history, and still showing all these insane beautiful archive footage of her videos of pink horses galloping through the clouds. It was a little bit tough to balance that line between a straight biopic and trying to inject what we thought should be in the film.

It never felt forced. There were those insights into her life and much as it was into her life and relationships and work, It all feels very tempered and expert.

Haha, thank you so much! I'm very similar to you in the way you got into photography, I didn't go to film school but I had this incredible love affair with films and something inside of me went off and said, "I want to make films that move people." It was the most important medium. And I still think that. I just watched thousands of Netflix movies and studied them and was completely inspired by that and went headfirst and made a million mistakes. I was trying to learn the technical, but if you don't have some kind of style or eye for what you're personally interested in, it's hard when you fail at making other people happy. But at least when you fail, you've made something you like.

VICE Video are presenting a screening of 'A Life In Waves' at Revelation Perth International Film Festival this Sunday. To win tickets enter here.

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