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Interview with Suzanne Ciani, March 1997
Interview with Suzanne Ciani, image 1
KP: "Suzanne Ciani and the Wave Live" is your most recent album, your tenth, and your first-ever live recording. Why did you decide to do a live album?

Ciani: Number one, I love live performance. Over the years, in my artistic evolution, I have moved away from electronics to acoustics, starting with "Pianissimo". Performance is a much more viable form of expression for me. In the old days, when I performed my electronic compositions, I had to go onstage with this huge array of gear. I always felt as if I were sending the space shuttle up, and wondered if it would all come off. I get a lot of enjoyment from playing acoustically without the threat of techno-madness. Also, it was fun for me to re-orchestrate some of the pieces that had been born in the electronic medium. That was exciting - to discover that I could take some of my favorite pieces and re-arrange them for this special group.

KP: How did you put The Wave together?

Ciani: Actually I think that happened because I moved to Northern California and I began to meet some of the wonderful musicians here. It was an evolutionary process. Paul McCandless lives down the street from me, so that was the beginning. Previously, I had worked with Teja Bell on the "History of My Heart" album, so I had been coming to California to do some of my recording even before I moved here. All of these musicians are actually recording artists in their own right. Kalani I knew through his work with Yanni.

KP: He's the only one who isn't actually in Northern California now, right?

Ciani: Right, but he was born and grew up here, so he fit right in! I met Michael Manring by going to a solo bass concert of his, which is pretty incredible. And so, slowly, I met all of these people, and Joe (Anderson) coordinated it.

KP: Will you be able to tour with them?

Ciani: We've already got a tour in the works. We're going to Spain in March. We're really psyched! I've been going to Spain for years - it may actually be my best market.

KP: What about the concert video?

Ciani: They did a beautiful job on the video of the two concerts at the Herbst Theater (San Francisco 3/97). It was all recorded digitally. We're looking at completing two different programs - one for TV broadcast (we're in discussion with PBS) - then we're also going to do a longer version for distribution on video that we'll offer in '98.

KP: Why did you start your own record label?

Ciani: The reason we started Seventh Wave ("we" being my husband, Joe, and myself) is that I would have greater artistic freedom. I left the majors over an artistic difference - they did not want me to record "Dream Suite". That was at the same meeting where they told me that they couldn't deal with an orchestral album. They were saying, "And even Yanni wants to do orchestra! He wants to do this silly concert at The Acropolis!" We laugh about that! And, of course, "Dream Suite" was nominated for a Grammy. Having my own label also allows me to support other artists that I believe in, so it's not just about me. I know so well how difficult it is for an artist to feel supported in a major label environment. It can be a dreadful experience, but who knows if it is commercially viable to be "nice" to the artists? This is our experiment. The most important thing is to maintain ownership of your work - your master and your publishing - and most of the majors don't allow you to do that. BMG owns five of my masters, and now I own five. I don't think one realizes the magnitude of what you're agreeing to.

KP: What is it like working with your husband after being independent for so many years?

Ciani: Actually it's a partnership that's very synergistic. Joe is an entertainment attorney, so this qualifies him in a realm in which I am absolutely not expert. We complement each other so well that way. He handles the business aspects. I used to be a businesswoman, but I'm not anymore.

KP: It must be kind of a relief.

Ciani: Yes, it's heaven! The other very special thing about Joe - the unexpected bonus - is that he has golden ears! The guy is incredible! He was a musician when I met him, in a rock group, and I knew he loved music, but until we got into the studio, I didn't realize just how fine his taste, sensibility, and talent were. He's the only one who has ever acted as my producer. He produced "Pianissimo II" - that was the first album that we worked on together. I was working on "Dream Suite" when we met, but it never occurred to me to let him participate. On "Pianissimo II", I needed a producer in the control room since I was out at the piano, and that's when we discovered how well we work together.

KP: After living and working in NYC for nineteen years, you moved to the end of a dirt road. What was that like?

Ciani: Actually I think that happened because I moved to Northern California and I began to meet some of the wonderful musicians here. It was an evolutionary process. Paul McCandless lives down the street from me, so that was the beginning. Previously, I had worked with Teja Bell on the "History of My Heart" album, so I had been coming to California to do some of my recording even before I moved here. All of these musicians are actually recording artists in their own right. Kalani I knew through his work with Yanni.

KP: So that really is kind of a California thing - it's not just a joke?

Ciani: Right! For me, I used to travel to The Caribbean or to South America or wherever, and when I traveled, I took my inspiration and brought it back to NY. NY created a need in me to evoke this other place. Now I'm lucky in that I'm right in the middle of it - I don't have to go to another place. For years, I've been traveling to write my albums, and all of a sudden I realize I don't need to go anywhere!

KP: Was your bout with cancer one of the reasons you moved out here?

Ciani: Absolutely! That was when the signal came through loud and clear. I had wanted to leave NY, but there is such a magnetism to that city - especially when you've been there a long time. That (cancer) was the catalyst for cutting all the threads. I had a huge investment in NY - I had a million-dollar recording studio; I had a business that was ten years old and doing very, very well, so it was NOT easy to get out. I had a lot of people that I cared about working for the business, and I didn't want to leave them all high and dry, but with the health reasons, it became non-negotiable for me. So yes, that had a lot to do with it.

KP: Now you're completely free of cancer?

Ciani: Yes, I was lucky in that it was discovered early. At the time, I was in LA recording "Hotel Luna". I had just come back from Italy, and had run out of a prescription. I was told that in order to refill the prescription, I would have to see a doctor. When you're recording, it takes up your whole life, so I really resented having to see the doctor. I went and they gave me a mammogram, and they called me a few days later and said, "You have a problem". I said, "That can't be", and ignored them. I finished the album and went back to NY, and refused to follow up on this. You know, denial. I tried all of these alternative health approaches, and one day I asked the "doctor", "Is there any chance that these potions will not make the tumor disappear? Should I approach conventional medicine as well?" He said "Yes!" so, after six months I went in and found out for sure that I had the big C.

KP: That experience must have been life-changing.

Ciani: Yes, but in a very good way! I really do think that there is the yin and the yang to everything. On the other side of every loss or disaster, there is an equal and wonderful gift that comes with it. That's a nice thing to find out.

KP: I've noticed that some of your more recent compositions feel much more classical and complex. They also show you to be a very accomplished pianist - more so than some of your earlier work. Is this a conscious change or part of a natural evolution?

Ciani: I'm not aware of that, but I suppose that perhaps the truth is that I'm playing the piano more. In NY I didn't really play the piano, and a lot of the pieces were not written as piano pieces, but if I play something like "Tuscany" or "Go Gently", these are demanding on the piano - as is "Love Song". So I think the complexity of something like "Butterflies" could be because it was originally conceived for The Wave. I don't know - I'm not as aware of these things as an outside observer would be. It is also different writing at the piano with the end product being the piano. When I was writing at the synthesizer for orchestration at the synth, I wasn't dealing with the sonority of the piano or using the piano as pianistically. So maybe it's more idiomatic for piano now.

KP: You were performing on the Buchla synthesizer around the same time Hannah Shapero wrote about in her three-part article{in Wind and Wire magazine}. She said the Buchla was not a performance instrument, but you did concerts with it. Do you want to comment on that?

Ciani: Yes. The early days of electronic musical instruments were quite different from what we're presented with today. I actually worked for Don Buchla, who was one of the originators of the early electronic musical instruments. He was on the west coast, and Bob Moog was on the east coast. I became indoctrinated in Don's philosophy very early on. I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, but spending all my time in this alternative medium. Don believed his instrument to be a performance instrument, and that's why it was made in a very compact form. The Moog was huge! It was a great big thing with panels, and you had to reach with your arms. Don wanted his instrument to be portable, so he built it into a suitcase. My early Buchla was originally in five huge road cases, but as the technology improved, it was able to be compacted down into two suitcases. I spent ten years of my life devoted to the live performance of the Buchla. That's how I came to NY - I was invited to play in an art gallery. I arrived about two months early because it took a lot of rehearsal to pull this kind of thing off. In those days everything was quadraphonic, so with Don's instrument, spatial location was very important, and the way the sound moved was one of the musical parameters that you dealt with. Other than that, it was a choreography of patches, twirling knobs and dials, and so forth, so a composition or a performance resulted from how you set up the instrument. The instrument was modular and had various functions in isolated units, and you patched them together so that one module would control another, and when you hit one key six things would happen, and when you hit another key four other things would happen. It was not a black and white keyboard. It was not conventional in any semblance, and people did not understand it! I would do concerts, and people would say, "Where is the sound coming from?" All they could think of was that there was a tape recorder inside. It took a leap of faith that people just couldn't take to know that a machine was thinking; the machine itself was part of the interaction. The Buchla was actually the beginning of my claim to fame in NY because I came in with this very exotic piece of gear and quickly found an audience in the advertising industry. One of the first sounds I did was the Coca Cola "pop and pour" on the Buchla, and people were incredulous because I'd bring this piece of equipment into the studio, and there was no keyboard. They'd say, "How do you play this thing? What do you do?" So it was kind of fun in a way.

KP: After being so focused on electronic music for so long, do you have any idea of why you changed direction to almost exclusively acoustic music?

Ciani: This is something I try to understand myself. Electronic music had two pathways. I was the proponent of the first pathway, which was this kind of exotic alternative instrument with a whole new freedom, a new vocabulary, and new possibilities. It was very liberating in a compositional sense. It was magical to be a composer and to hear your ideas coming to life right in front of you. When you are writing for acoustic instruments, you are not in real time. You are writing, then you look for players, and it's another process. I loved that immediacy of electronic music. First you had individuals like Bob Moog and Don Buchla, and then suddenly, the big companies moved in and it became a very commercial instrument - and much more limited. It became very black and white keyboard-oriented; it changed into a more user-friendly, less exotic thing. I loved the dance with technology - for me that was what was fun! And now, I still use it, but it's a tool. It's not for performing live. It has a different use now.

KP: So during the years when you were doing electronic music, you weren't playing the piano at all?

Ciani: No, I was not. So few people understood this medium, and I was a proselytizer. I thought, "Okay, there is a gap here. I need to educate the people I work with and the public at large because they don't understand this." I felt very responsible for being a spokesperson for what this was all about. I really did believe at that time that that branch of technological expression was going to go on forever. Now I look back and see it as a little bubble, a blip, a time that began and ended, but back then I thought, "everybody is going to have a Buchla built into their homes." I designed furniture with sequencers where you would sit in the furniture, and the sound would dance around you. You would have environmental synthesizers in each room! They would create ambient patterns of beautiful sound, but this didn't happen.

KP: Did you try to market that?

Ciani: I did. I actually prototyped the furniture, and it was kind of a silly thing, because I found out that the most important thing about furniture is how it fits on a truck. You have to design backwards! I designed this furniture, and it didn't fit on the truck, so it couldn't be distributed! Then I had a company called The Electronic Clothing Company. One of the partners in that company was Eventide Clockworks' Richard Factor. Richard was one of the electronic geniuses of the time, and Eventide Clockworks did the first digital delay, among other things. I was thinking that electronics were going to be part of our everyday lives, and people would wear light-up clothing, but that didn't happen either! I do have a wonderful jacket that I bring out every Halloween! I also had a dress that I wore in concert that was sound-sensitive. Instead of lights, it had 10,000 LEDs, and it responded to the music I was playing. It was a dream of mine to have this technology blended into the whole performance area, but it never became quite as elegant as I wanted. I mean, the dress weighed about two hundred pounds! It had a control box and an umbilical cord that connected me to it. It had four distinct pathways that would combine into different patterns depending on which channel was off or on. I originally wanted it to be a MIDI dress controlled from a sequencer, but it became a volume-sensitive dress, which worked very well. It had sensors on it, and it picked up the volume so that when there was a big crescendo, all the lights would go on on the dress, and when the volume was soft, the lights would just sort of purr in this little pattern. It was musically integrated. I have it on video, but I don't think it will be pulled out into usefulness again.

KP: What's next for you? Are you working on a new album?

Ciani: Actually, I have begun writing. I'm working on what will probably not be a solo piano album, but I'm not sure what shape it's going to take. I hear other parts going on when I'm writing, so I'm just kind of taking it as it comes. I'm happily composing here, and I've pretty much decided to stay home to write the next album. We'll be going to Europe in January for business purposes, and the Asian market has opened up for us. I have to say that for us, the world market is equally if not more important than the US market. It's quite a different experience. The American market is very narrow and very pop-driven because that's where the money is. The radio formats are programmed by two people and are very narrow. Of course, the other markets have their weaknesses and strengths, too, but I think there is a much more caring interaction in the field - much more personal interaction in the foreign markets. So-called new age music is a very tiny percentage of the American market. We're hoping that with the narrowing of the market that the survivors will be the strong ones, and maybe it's not such a bad thing. We're doing well by the standards of the market, but it's still very tough. Independent distribution has had some huge set-backs in the past several years, so it's a very, very tough business. The survival rate is so low, and it's not a trivial thing to put something out. It's a big thing.

KP: Do you have any plans to tour the US?

Ciani: When I get back from Spain next Spring, I plan to do a solo piano tour, and we're hoping to coordinate the telecasts of the "Live" concert around these tour dates. We're hoping to tour with The Wave as well.
Kathy Parsons
March 1997