Name: Suzanne Ciani
Occupation: Composer, pianist, producer
Current Release: Sunergy with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith on Rvng Intl.
Musical Recommendations: Jonathan Fitoussi and Alessandro Cortini
If you enjoyed reading this interview with Suzanne Ciani, you can find out more about her work on her website.
When did you start writing/producing music and what or who were your early passions and influences?
As a child, I would play Chopin’s music all day and scribble notes on paper pretending to be a composer. I was self-taught on piano and later studied at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, majored in music at Wellesley College and then got a Masters in composition at UC Berkeley. I always knew my life would be in music, though I didn’t know what shape it would take. I credit my discovery of electronic music for giving me the opportunity to make a career in what I loved.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
At the time I studied music, academic music was about difficulty, atonalism and musical systems. For me, perhaps because I’m Italian, music was about emotion and applying a conceptual system just made no sense. I remember playing the note “A” on the piano for weeks, trying to decide why it would want to move … when you took the system away, what was the generative energy? I studied Indian music and was awed that one could have a sophisticated approach without reading or writing. However, it was when I encountered the private, personal, world of electronics that I began an intuitive approach. Later, for my first album, I combined my love of electronics with my classical background and that was Seven Waves.
What were your main compositional and production challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The beginning was a long time ago and the challenges were keeping things synchronized as one overdubbed. There was no SMPTE code and no digital recording. I’ve always had the goal to record at the highest technology available and that was very expensive in my early days. One could easily spend $100,000.00 on an album. Some of the instruments cost more than that. So generating income was a necessary analog to making high tech recordings.
Over time, it is now possible to make a high level recording in a home studio, which I really prefer to going out. But now the challenge is that without the infrastructure and intensity of having every hour count, things can take years! Though not this Sunergy album!
Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
My studio is simple and uncluttered. I have a grand piano and the piano bench allows me to face either the piano or the electronic instrument / computer console. From my perch, I look out over the view of the ocean, the hills and the moon coming across the sky. The sound of the waves is always a gentle enfoldment. My one rule is that there is no patch bay. I don’t like patch bays. I try to keep it simple. Sometimes I suffer when, say, I’m recording a piano album and my hand gets stiff while navigating the computer with a mouse. I would love a voice command set-up.
What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using?
The equipment is always in flux, but some things persist, like the Focusrite Preamp, the Schoeps mics, the Mac Pro, and my use of Digital Performer.
I adore the Eventide H9 and have always been an avid Eventide fan. I love my Genelec speakers, which I got originally to be compatible with my engineer’s set- up and now I have four of them in a quadraphonic configuration, two near the computer and two near the piano … a perfect near-field monitoring set-up.
I have two computer monitors and can also connect to the digital flat screen.
Right now the Buchla gets the place of honor.
Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? Are there any promising solutions or setups capable of triggering new ideas inside of you as a composer?
It very much depends on the medium. For writing at the piano, I love the Yamaha Disklavier because I can capture ideas as I find them and go back later and choose. The Disklavier is also a great tool for setting up a microphone because one has a “constant” in the equation. I can record the exact same performance in several microphone set ups, or with various variables, like preamps, and isolate just the thing I’m testing. In terms of compositional production tools, I’m not a fan of cutting and pasting and assembling. I like to “through compose”… my ear gets fatigued by automatic approaches. In fact, I don’t think many of those tools are true compositional tools, but sidetracks and shortcuts to nowhere. Right now my ideas are being triggered by interacting with the Buchla. Before that, I had gone to Venice to write; I think places are great triggers, especially getting away from day-to-day life and being able to concentrate completely without interruption.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
My roots are in classical music, but I’ve also worked extensively in the music industry, doing session work and commercial production. I’ve worked alone and with teams, but the seed of a musical idea is always very personal and I think the ideas are there, ready to be harvested when we turn our attention to them. I can go for years without writing a new piece, until I decide it’s time and then everything else disappears and I go into that delicious space of timeless creativity. But, with Sunergy, for instance, I had been thinking about writing the sunrise for a couple of years. I would get up in the morning and be overwhelmed by the majestic energy and sit at the piano and nothing sounded right. Meanwhile, I was coming back to the Buchla and I suddenly realized that the piece had to be electronic, a medium that could communicate the slow sustain of the energy of the sunrise. Just after this realization, and in a rather coincidental way, Kaitlyn [Aurelia Smith] approached me about recording for the FRKWYS album. I didn’t want to “give away” my sunrise, but in a way, couldn’t help it. We recorded by looking out of the same window where I greeted the sunrise; that’s what the album was about. I love what we did and instead of calling it “sunrise,” called it “sunergy” … as a merging of the sun and our synergy. We also used the same 16-stage sequencer rows that I had used in my Buchla Concerts 1975 recordings, but with a brand new expression!