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How a Chance Meeting in a Tiny California Town Yielded This Year's Most Colossal-Sounding Synth Record

Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s FRKWYS album is a celebration of the happy accident—and the sun.

by Colin Joyce
Aug 15 2016, 2:55pm

Photos by Sean Hellfritsch.

Free Radicals is THUMP's column dedicated to experimental electronic music. Each month, we take a look at the trends emerging from the frayed fringes of the dancefloor and why they're meaningful.

Since moving from her longtime home base of New York City a little over two decades ago, the electronics pioneer and esteemed new age composer Suzanne Ciani has lived in the significantly sleepier locale of Bolinas, California, in Marin County. The unincorporated town of 1,600 is located 30 miles to the northwest of San Francisco, and has famously insulated itself from the bustle of the tech gentrifiers who've recently flooded the area. As such, it's afforded Ciani the opportunity to "hide out," as she describes it, in a house on top of a hill overlooking the roiling waters of the Pacific Ocean. The quiet town isn't a place where she'd expect to run into anyone familiar with her esteemed compositions for Buchla and strings from back in the 70s and 80s—much less a spiritual successor, and one of the foremost contemporary synth artists today.

But it's exactly where she met the ambient composer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith a couple of years ago, at a rotating dinner party for residents of the town. On a night when Smith and her husband were cooking bone broth soup, the artists ate their meals seated on the floor of the private home housing the dinner, then started making small talk. Suzanne asked Smith, "Well, what do you do?" To which she responded, "I play the Buchla." The coincidence prompted them to become fast friends.They bonded over their shared instrument, and over the fact that they were both women operating in a field whose most visible practitioners are men.

After years spent making more classically minded compositions, Ciani was also in the midst of preparing for her first live shows with the Buchla since the 1970s, so the acquaintance couldn't have come at a better time. She swiftly hired Smith to help her prepare. They spent several days a week together, talking and working, preparing to send Ciani on her way. Over time, the pair realized that they approached the instrument similarly, as composers rather than just experimenters, wringing tonally rich structures out of the sometimes obstinant machine—which, incidentally, doesn't feature a keyboard or sequencer.

A year after they met, Smith told me she spoke to RVNG Intl.'s Matt Werth about how excited she was about her new friend and collaborator, and he suggested that they formalize their musical partnership for a release on RVNG's FRKWYS series, which pairs experimental pioneers with new masters of the form. They soon started the recordings that make up their new LP, Sunergy, which is due out September 16 on the label. With Smith sitting behind a Buchla Music Easel and Ciani at the mammoth 200e—a 21st century revamp of Don Buchla's classic 200 series that combines modular and digital components—the pair conjure the energy of the world outside, the buzzing interchanges between sun and sea, the colossal breathwork of nature that's so often overlooked in discussions of electronic music. The pieces on the record are as vibrant and gleaming as anything they have released over their storied solo careers, a testament to the beauty that can emerge from chance.

On a July morning, THUMP caught up over Skype with both Ciani and Smith—the former in her Bolinas home, and the latter in Los Angeles, where she now lives—to discuss the serendipitous nature of their bond, the unpredictability of the Buchla, and the strange joys of their new record.

THUMP: Suzanne, I know you started working with Kaitlyn for a tour with your Buchla, but Sunergy is the first new studio material for the instrument that you've released in decades. Why now?
Suzanne Ciani: It started with [reissue label] Finders Keepers. [Founder] Andy Votel contacted me and said, "We'd like to release some of your early, unreleased stuff. It took a long time for me to get around to doing that, because it was buried in a storage vault with no lights on in there. It was like going into a cave to find these old recordings and then get them transferred. It got attention, which was surprising for me.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: Sometimes I wonder if Suzanne knows how much of a cult following she has presently in the electronic music world.

Ciani: Right. I came out from under a rock like, "What's going on out here?!" [laughs] I was surprised [at the response].

Also, Don Buchla has been a longtime friend. [At that time], we were [mostly] playing tennis together, and even though I saw him frequently, I had no plans to get one of the new 200es. I don't know how it happened, but suddenly I had a new instrument.

Early on, did you find that you have similar approaches to working with the Buchla?
Ciani: I came from a classical background and I used pitches in my music. Kaitlyn also uses pitches, so we had a lot in common musically, even though the Buchla isn't one thing. She was playing the music easel, which I never played. When we played together, I played my new 200e, and she played her music easel. They were both Buchlas, but very different Buchlas.

Smith: I think we're both composers, first and foremost. One of our instruments happens to be a Buchla, but we both enjoy writing for other instruments. Suzanne is an orchestral composer, and she writes piano music. Both of us aren't limited to just electronic music.

Ciani: I think that's a big part of it, because there are many ways to come to the machines. I know the first time I came to the Buchla, I threw out just about everything [I knew]. I never used a keyboard—I tried to discover the new language of what this electronic music was. I think Kaitlyn is right when she points out that compositional consciousness. Because these machines really do give you such absolute control over your composition, it's kind of like a composing instrument where the composer and the performer are one.

There's a mode of thought that says, "The end result is worthwhile based on the experimentation itself." What you guys do seems to gesture at something grander than just "These are the sounds that we made."
Smith: I think for both of us, we're experimenting, but for our music we just wanted to have harmonies going on while we're experimenting, so it's more pleasant. Not that it's unpleasant to listen to atonal stuff, but for our preference I think that's just what happens.

It's been said that this album is in some way attempting to reflect the character of Bolinas. What can you tell me about that?
Ciani: From my studio I have a big picture window that looks out over the ocean.

Smith: She has the best view in all of Bolinas.

Ciani: I have a great view, and the sun comes up right out that window every morning, unless it's really foggy. That energy system—we're very connected to it here. There's not a lot of other energy in Bolinas. It's not like in New York, where you walk outside and there are millions of people. We have birds flying by, ocean waves, and the sun and moon.

I'd always wanted to write the sunrise, and I couldn't do it! It just didn't happen. At a certain point, I realized that the sun was an electronic energy. It wasn't the piano; it wasn't instruments. It was electronic. Just when I realized that, there was Kaitlyn! We did this piece right there in front of that window, where the sun energy came. You're very close to nature out here.

Smith: Yeah, it's kind of inevitable that it's in everything you create. Everywhere you look is just insane beauty.

I'm interested in how that idea corresponds to some of the darker moments on the album.
Smith: I think it has that energy because it's a minor scale.

Ciani: It's also the contrast: when the sun comes, it comes out of darkness. There's this primal transition that happens where first you have nothing, then you have this rumbling darkness, then you have the breakthrough of the sun.

Kaitlyn, you've said before that your music is existential. Could you explain that?

Smith: I feel like for me, working with the Buchla puts me in the flow state. You're trying to tame it part of the time, and other times trying to listen to it and respond to it. It puts me in this very meditative state, where I don't have many thoughts, but the thoughts that I do have feel very potent. For me, that's when I feel the most connected to the universe.

Both of you talk about your work as being intertwined with nature. I feel like that's kind of the opposite of how a lot of electronic musicians think about their material.
Ciani: One of the strongest connections that I have is to the ocean. The endless rhythm of the sea is kind of how a machine works. The wonderful thing about a machine is that it's dependable, will go on and on, and doesn't stop. I don't think it's that distant to look at nature as having the same motor rhythms and underlying forces.

Smith: You're also kind of sculpting electricity, so you are sort of working with nature. And the Buchla makes such great ocean sounds.

Ciani: It's a feminine energy as well. For me, when I discovered the machine, it gave me a great sense of security and peacefulness because it was so dependable. Then you find out that actually when you're working in technology, it's a real mixed bag. Sometimes it doesn't work—you have that built in frustration. It's always a dual reality.

Smith: I feel like it teaches you the life and death cycle, and how to not be attached. You'll be making something really amazing, and then get up and get a glass of water, and it will be destroyed [laughs].

I'm interested in you saying that it's a feminine energy—what do you mean by that?
Ciani: The things that attracted me to electronic music originally were being able to have a rhythm that was very slow and not pounding. There's usually a traditional rhythm, like a dance rhythm or a rock rhythm, that will hit you over the head. Humans naturally don't play really slow rhythms easily. With the machine, you have perfect dependability and very slow tempos. To me, that becomes sensual; it becomes slow and I think it's a dimension that traditionally men don't explore. I think that's more of a feminine force than the pounding rhythms that people frequently do with the machines.

Smith: I think it's just fun to be in the electronic world and be hanging out with a female doing that. I'm coming across it more and more, which is exciting. I know it was really novel to me to be like, "Yes I'm hanging out with a master, who's also a female."

Ciani: Honestly, I saw myself early on in a mentoring role. I've always wanted there to be more women in electronic music. I too have noticed that there are more and more. I bump into them when I'm on tour. I think things have changed. It is interesting when you look back, though—that they're discovering that all these early pioneers of electronic music were women.

Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's Sunergy is out September 16 on RVNG.

Colin Joyce is THUMP's Managing Editor. Talk to him about synthesizers on Twitter.

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