Lost Notes: Exploring the world of modular synthesizers with Suzanne Ciani

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Suzanne Ciani Photo by: Maria Jose Govea

On this week’s episode of Lost Notes, composer and synth wizard Suzanne Ciani tells contributor Michelle Macklem the story of her journey in modular synthesis. Ciani’s story is one of breaking through the wiring of awkward male fragility in a burgeoning technological scene, as well as navigating the advertising world, and eventually the music industry. A cult figure and legend, it’s lovely to hear Ciani’s story in her own words.

Suzanne Ciani has seemingly always been open and willing to share her experience (as you can find on YouTube clips of Ciani on Letterman or 3-2-1 Contact in the 80s) but she is still a kind of enigmatic figure. Macklem gets to the heart of her story and then expertly weaves it together with her own score (produced on a Buchla). The result is a really dazzling episode that reflects and refracts itself like a diamond.

I reached out to Macklem to ask her about her experience making the piece and the Lost Notes Million Dollar question.

KCRW: As I kid I remember being introduced to synthesizers on shows like Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow. And I was so fascinated I begged my folks for a synthesizer. Until recently, I didn't recall that my initial introduction to Suzanne Ciani was via a segment on “3-2-1 Contact,” where she essentially explains synthesis...do you remember your first becoming aware of Ciani?

MM: I actually hadn't been fully aware of Suzanne's work until the past couple of years. I'd started playing synthesizers and in 2017, I went to a film screening of “The Delian Mode” – a documentary about Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – and “A Life in Waves,” about Suzanne Ciani. I'd been way more aware of the Radiophonic Workshop, and figures like Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, but hadn't heard as much about Suzanne's work, which had come chronologically later than them, and emerged out of the modular synth world. After seeing the documentary, I'd had a bunch of questions that just kind of rolled around in my head for months afterwards, particularly around advertising and sound, so I was thrilled when the opportunity came up to pitch to Lost Notes.

KCRW: You scored this episode using Buchla technology. How did you first get involved/interested in modular synthesis? And what was it about it that drew you to it, as opposed to more "in the box" type synths and equipment?

MM: My first foray into modular was actually on the Buchla Music Easel at the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (MESS) in Melbourne. Strictly speaking, it's semi-modular (meaning some of its modules have default or normalled interconnections), but it was fascinating to feel and see that connection of sound and electricity at play. And also – very confusing! Modular can be super daunting for a whole slew of reasons, the main one being that you generally do need to have some background and understanding of how synthesis works to be able to play.

On the other hand, I've actually found keyboard synthesizers intimidating in their own way – it feels so much like there's a right and wrong way to play, and a whole tradition that's held over from the forebears of acoustic keyed instruments like pianos. The thing I love most about modular is developing approaches and working through a really experimental sense of the instrument. With the Buchla 200, for example, there's such little information about how to learn it online and the manuals can be unclear, so it's all about developing your own relationship with the instrument.

KCRW:  In the piece, Ciani talks about how in this world of modular synthesis men weren't "against" women necessarily, just "uncomfortable." Do you find that to be a true statement in your experience?

MM: My experience is a fairly varied one – both positive and negative. On the one hand, I've experienced so much dude and bro culture online with modular synthesis, and any sort of tutorials – they're almost always by men. There's a ton of tech talk, and really obtuse and deliberately opaque language that circulates online that I find frustrating. On the other hand, there are incredible resources and support popping up for women and non-binary folks that are actively welcoming us into this space. MESS, for example, hosts nights specifically for women and non-binary people to learn and experiment on their synths. In online spaces too, some people are encouraging women and non-binary people through being more transparent about their craft. Certainly from my vantage point, there are more men visibly seen throughout modular synth culture – but that's changing, and there are people who are working hard to make that happen.

KCRW: What are some good points of entry for anyone interested in modular synthesis? Albums and/or beginner tech?

MM: There are a few inexpensive semi-modular synths available now, like the Korg Volca Modular. The Moog Mother 32 is a really solid place to start, for many people. Then there's the much cheaper world of virtual modular synths; online, there's the free and cheaply expandable VCV Rack, and in iOS, there are lots of apps that allow you to play and learn, like Moog's Model 15.

Album wise, the work of Caterina Barbieri really stands out for me right now. It's emotional and expansive and beautiful. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (who is also in the documentary) makes amazingly warm and earthy work. I've also had my head in some of Melbourne-based artist Jannah Quill's work, that uses modular synths and strobing solar panels.

Modular synths can get expensive fast. I'd recommend seeing if there are any workshops or other opportunities that people can access locally. Often, stores like Moog Audio will have workshops or demo nights. There are organizations starting to pop up all around the world where you can play vintage and rare synths for a relatively low cost (like MESS); I saw that even the public library in Lawrence, Kansas has a modular synth people can use now. Really, they're starting appear all over!

KCRW: Lastly… and this is a question I've been asking every contributor. What's an album that saved your life?

MM: Broadcast's Haha Sound. It rattles and rolls around scratchy melodies led by Trish Keenan's dizzying voice. Any bad day can be calmed by putting on 'Ominous Clouds' and taking a pause.

Which album saved your life?