Music by VICE

Don Buchla's Modular Revolution, Remembered by Suzanne Ciani

"The Buchla is a living thing."

by Emilie Friedlander
Jun 29 2017, 4:09pm

Suzanne Ciani and Don Buchla. Photo courtesy of Ciani.

"A keyboard is dictatorial," Don Buchla once said. Nine months after his death, the quip still sums up the Bay Area-based synth inventor's contribution to electronic music better than anyone else has. Modular obsessives will remember him for creating game-changing performance instruments like the Buchla Music Easel, MIDI controllers with names like "Thunder" and "Lightning," and one of the earliest voltage-controlled sequencers. But according to longtime friend and collaborator Suzanne Ciani, it was Buchla's ideas that made the biggest impact.

Amid the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, Buchla was quietly calling into question the foundations of music-making itself, crafting electronic instruments that eschewed the logic of Western tonality and rhythm in favor of a more open-ended, tactile experience. "The beauty of the Buchla is that it has an open architecture," Ciani told THUMP. "There is nothing defining about the way you use it—you create your own instrument within the instrument." Watching her perform live, one of the first things you'll notice about Buchla's modular creations is that they hinge more on twisting knobs and patching cables than "playing" in any conventional sense.

Ciani met Buchla in 1969, while studying composition at the University of California at Berkeley. After grad school, drawn in by the "liberating" potential of electronic music, she decided to forego the traditional composer's route and take up a job soldering circuit-boards in his studio. Though she would go on to become one of America's most celebrated synth composers and performers in her own right—and a pioneer in the use of electronic instruments for sound design in advertising—the trajectory her career is intimately bound up with the machines Buchla created.

In the below text—compiled from discussions we had with Ciani at this year's Moogfest and over the phone—the Bolinas, CA musician opens up about her 50-year creative relationship with Buchla, and the freedom that comes from playing his instruments.


Suzanne Ciani: I like to think that I was in the right place at the right time. I went from the East Coast to the West Coast [to study composition] at the University of California at Berkeley. And that's where Don Buchla lived. I didn't know he was there—I met him just by accident.

My boyfriend's art teacher, Harold Paris, had a sculpture studio next door to Don's studio. One night I visited him, and he took me to see it. I was already aware of the Buchla as an instrument, because I had gone to the San Francisco Tape Music Center at Mills College in Oakland, where they had a Buchla 100 and a Moog, as well as a bunch of spare parts from war surplus. I had done a lot of work with electronic instruments at Mills, but I wasn't prepared at all for the revelation that it was to meet Don.

Don's studio was a fantasy—this darkened warehouse with hundreds and hundreds of modules that were being manufactured right there. It had a big swing in it, and he collected instruments from Borneo, so there were racks of gongs, and very colorful stuffed birds stuck up here and there. Don had kind of an unorthodox manufacturing set-up. The people there weren't trained engineers; they were unusual people that he liked, including a poet, a buddhist, and an Indian dancer. This was the 1960s in Berkeley—we were an alternative culture.

You don't build something just because you can—you build something because you have an idea you need to express.—Suzanne Ciani

I decided then and there that I wanted to work for him when I finished school, and I did. I made $3 an hour. My job was to look at schematics and assemble circuit boards. So, look at the schematic, pick up the right part—the transistor, the capacitor, whatever—and plug it in and solder it.

I was fired at the end of my first day—they found a cold soldering joint. But I just came back the next day, and I said, "You can't fire me." Don was a tough cookie, but I was also very determined. We never had any long talk about anything; it's just that I ended up working there again.

I think the thing I'll remember most about Don is his silence. He was not a big talker, but he had a presence that was stronger because of that. It was an amazing thing if he told a story, because he didn't talk. But he was a great listener—you always sensed he was there, but people would feel awkward and try to fill in the space. And he was an adventurer. He loved to go off to Borneo and have adventures.

I came under Don's spell in a way, because he was a very serious person. He was very committed to his vision of what these instruments were, and he was never catering to a market. His goal was to make the most refined and excellent instrument that could be made. And he did it all—he designed the instruments, he did all the graphics, he designed all the cases, he worked out how they could be transportable. It was a really hands-on, artistic pursuit.

What I got [working] with Don was the inside—a place where you could see the circuit boards, where you could see the instruments being made. Don had built his first analog electronic music instrument in 1963, and he's credited with being the first one to do that. I met him in 1969, and by that time, he had really evolved his concept. If you talk to Morton Subotnik about his first years with Don, the goal was to make an instrument that could sound different and that you would use to record. But by the time I met Don, five years later, he had evolved this idea of making an instrument that was performable. And that's when I came in: I was dedicated to performing on this.

Suzanne Ciani in New York. Photo by Riva Freifeld.

For me to say, "Hey, I'm going to work for Don Buchla after I get my Master's Degree," was kinda crazy. Here I was, this [composition student] with a huge investment in my academic life, and now I was going to go solder. But what does a composer do? It's not an easy place to make a living or a career, and it was especially difficult if you were a woman. Everybody thought that if you were a woman, you were going to teach music—[and if you wanted to go the composer route], suddenly you had to integrate with the infrastructure of contemporary composition, which was very difficult.

Let's face it—even today, women composers have very little visibility. But the promise of electronic music for me was that I could be independent, and not depend on orchestras. It was very liberating.

So I started working hard to get my system started, and then after a few years, I moved to LA with my Buchla. That was my only axe. It was new and exciting, and all the Hollywood composers went crazy for it. I gave lessons to a lot of big shots down there in exchange for film-scoring lessons, and I did some commercials. It was all done electronically; [the Buchla] was a wonderful compositional tool.

But because I had been proselytized by Don, I thought the instrument was for live performance. And I had a friend—Ron Mallory—who was having an art opening in New York in this Fifth Avenue uptown gallery and invited me to play. So I packed up the Buchla, did my concert, fell in love with New York, and decided never to go back to California.

Photo by Lloyd Williams.

In those days, I was in with this artist community in SoHo. Philip Glass was there, but it was a lot of visual artists. And a visual artist had something to sell—whereas a musician had nothing, because it was before we could make our own product. To get an LP, you had to have a record deal, so the only way you could make money as a musician if you didn't have a record deal was to perform live. My first eight or so years with the Buchla primarily involved live performance and installation pieces—in museums, in galleries. But I figured out that I could get paid to design sounds in advertising, so that's what I did. I saw it as a support system for my art.

Don and I still weren't great friends during that period. I was in New York, and I would have difficulties, but I never ever could find anybody to repair the Buchla. I would ship it to Don to be repaired; he would fix it, and ship it back, and it would be broken or damaged in shipment. Also, at one point, half of it got stolen. So eventually I kind of deemphasized the Buchla; it was part of my studio, but it wasn't my whole life the way it had been for the first eight or nine years.

I moved back to California in 1992, and reconnected with Don. By that time, he was like a new person—and very sweet. I always say that his wonderful wives—he was married three times—really softened him. So I would visit him and his wife Nanick a lot. It turned out both Don and I loved tennis, so we played tennis for years, and drank beers—he always loved to have a cold beer after tennis.

If I made music on the Buchla, it was absolutely nothing like the music that somebody else made on the Buchla. It was a tool that you could customize to a great degree.—Suzanne Ciani

Reconnecting with the instrument itself was a long process. I still had half of my original [Buchla] 200 system. Half of it was stolen, and half of it was here in a suitcase. And as Don and I became friends, I opened a suitcase, and I set it up. I looked at it for the first time in 30 years, and there were parts of it that didn't work. And so Don said, "Well, I can't fix it, but you can send it up to Rick Smith in Canada; he's our go-to fix-it person." So I shipped it up to Canada, and Rick had it for almost two years before word came back: It can't be fixed. So I had this instrument, and it was not going to be revived.

When I played tennis with Don, I would go and pick him up at his studio. He was always puttering and working on designs, and I thought it was wonderful, but I wasn't being grabbed again. Part of it was that I had been very traumatized the first time; it was like a bad love affair—to be in love with an instrument and have it break and be stolen. But then one day, he said, "Look: If you're ever interested in coming back, now is the time to do it."

So I did get a small system—the 200E. It sat there for a while, until Finders Keepers released Buchla Concerts 1975, and [label founder] Andy Votel said, "Well, let's go out and play together." I hadn't played the Buchla in a long time, but we had a date at Lincoln Center. I started to play the Buchla again—and of course, I loved it. I'd always loved it. When I'm actually playing it, I'm like a kid playing with crayons. So I started to have fun with it, and then I added more modules, and eventually, I got to the point where I really had a relationship with the instrument [again].

Suzanne Ciani and Don Buchla. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Ciani.

You don't build something just because you can—you build something because you have an idea you need to express. And I think Don's ideas are what always intrigued me. He went down to the very bare bones, and asked the right questions. What does the human body want to do? How is it shaped? How does it move? And then he asked the electronic questions, like, What is going to shape the sound? How do you want to shape the sound, and how do you want to move the sound?

The beauty of the Buchla is that it has an open architecture—all these modular systems do. There is nothing defining about the way you use it—you create your own instrument within the instrument. You could choose your modules, you could connect them the way you wanted, you could design the way you used them. If I made music on the Buchla, it was absolutely nothing like the music that somebody else made on the Buchla. The way Buchla used it was not anything like the way I used it. It was a tool that you could customize to a great degree.

We're so used to instruments where you do one thing and you get one result; you hit one key on a piano, and you get a D. With the Buchla, you're controlling sound in hierarchical ways and using all your senses. There's the visual sense—because you're seeing all the information through the LEDS—and then you've got instant sound feedback. It's tactile, because you're touching all these different controls that give you more options than just a one-to-one. You're in multiple dimensions; you hit one key, or you move one slider, and three things happen, or four things happen. It's a living thing—you feel like it's alive when you're interacting with it.