The Cello Can't Play These Chords

By Helen Epstein


Suzanne Ciani, a slightly built, dark-eyed 28-year-old, does not wear steel-rimmed glasses, talk in abstract gibberish, move like a robot or conform to other misconceptions one might have about a player and composer of electronic music. The daughter of a Boston physician, she began studying piano at the age of six, and had a traditional liberal arts education at Wellesley and Berkeley. She likes music by Mozart, Bach, and Carole King. Although she often sits down at a piano to play her own songs, her instrument is a 160-pound mass of panels, wires, knobs, buttons and a piano-like keyboard called a Buchla. Miss Ciani describes it with almost evangelical enthusiasm. "The design of the system is really very elegant," she explains. "It's sleek, compact, portable. Humanly engineered. The idea is not to impress you with walls of blinking lights but to facilitate performance and put all functions within easy reach. When I bought it three years ago, I made an $8,000 investment. Since then, I've expanded the Buchla to twice its original size. As it's modular, you add onto it as finances permit and need dictates. If and when I can afford $50,000 for a computer, it will readily interface with my system. Nothing becomes obsolete."

The synthesizer is an electronic music-making apparatus which produces virtually any sound its player desires. Synthesizers have been used to produce everything from eerie squeaks on science fiction soundtracks to special effects in Stevie Wonder records and sound signatures for television networks. Although the modern synthesizer was made possible by advances in electronic technology, the earliest known synthesizer (literally, a machine which makes sounds synthetically) was built in 1906 by an inventor named Thaddeus Cahill. Cahill's music machine is said to have weighed 200 tons and required twenty railroad boxcars to transport. Needless to say, the gargantuan gadget proved impractical. Thirty years later, when the tape recorder became generally available, musicians again became intrigued with the possibility of new sources of sound.

In Paris, a group of composers, including Edgard Varese, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry began to work in a style they called musique concrete, a means of composition based on the manipulation of tape-recorded sound. "For example," explains Miss Ciani, "by tape-recording - at a very high amplitude - the sound of a tuft of cotton falling, you could get a sound never heard in nature. Or by recording the sound of rustling leaves and then editing portions of the tape in a certain way, you could produce complex and totally original sonorities. As a means of processing sound, this technique had almost limitless possibilities."

Gradually, equipment was invented that could generate as well as process sound, and when computer technology developed, it too was adapted for musical purposes. In 1959, Columbia University in conjunction with Princeton installed at Columbia University's Neviss Laboratory an ambitious, unwieldy RCA computer which cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars. It was hoped this would become the definitive instrument for producing electronic music and, unlike Cahill's invention, it had institutional support.

"The trouble was, you couldn't just sit down and play it," says Miss Ciani. "You had to give it instructions in a language it understood (in this case a punched paper tape), and it would then translate them. The process took time and meant that composers had to learn a new language. Traditionally, there had always been a delay between writing music and hearing it played. But when the composer is working with notes, he develops an inner ear and knows what those notes will sound like. With electronic music, the composer is working in a new idiom, with a new notation and so many unknown variables that he wants instant feedback."

Synthesizers that could give the composer that feedback were developed simultaneously in the early 1960's by Donald Buchla on the West Coast and Robert Moog on the East Coast. The results of their work meant that synthesizers, like horns, violins, and other conventional instruments, could be played spontaneously. This capability attracted to the synthesizer students, rock groups, film makers, composers and advertisers. Synthesizers became a consumer item: Brands like Moog, Buchla, Arp, Putney and Electrocomp became the Ford, Maserati, Chevvy, Volkswagen and Honda of the field. A sizable market for synthesizers now exists in elementary schools where experts find them a creative outlet for children. High schools and universities buy
more elaborate systems, and the newer models are becoming inexpensive enough for
individuals to acquire.

The availability of the synthesizer represents a significant change from just six years ago, when Suzanne Ciani was an undergraduate student at Wellesley and the only person she encountered working with synthesized music in Boston was an eccentric professor at M.I.T. "He was working with computers," she recalls. "It was my introduction to synthesized music, and I fell in love with it immediately. I was always strong in mathematics and I'd been frustrated in my writing for instruments. I wanted things I couldn't get: the bassoon couldn't trill across these notes; the cello couldn't play that chord. This professor was trying to synthesize string tones, one of the most difficult things in sound synthesis. But when I heard his music, I understood that here was a new instrument.

"A synthesizer is a musical instrument," Miss Ciano explains, "just like a violin or oboe. All three generate musical tones. But a synthesizer does it in a different - you might even call it unique - way. A violin generates sound waves with a vibrating string, and an oboe does it with a vibrating reed. The pattern of sound that is set up with any musical instrument is very complex. It's made up of many elements and depends on many different factors - which is one reason why the violin sounds different than the oboe. Now a synthesizer generates musical tones too, but it does it by sending a correspondingly complex electrical signal through wires to a loudspeaker or to a tape recorder."

Sound synthesis is the process of separating elements of sound - such as timbre (color), amplitude (loudness), pitch and attack - and then reconstructing them according to the composer's specification. Certain techniques of sound reproduction are especially suited to this kind of music. Quadrophonic sound, for example, enables the composer to give the illusion that a fragment of music is actually moving around a room. This technique can make possible new musical textures for a synthesizer composer aware of its possibilities.

When Suzanne Ciani left Boston to do graduate work in music at Berkeley, she found no one interested in the kind of music that attracted her. "The students wrote pieces in the abstract, discussed them in the abstract and played everything on the piano, no matter what it was written for - trombone, guitar, or piccolo," she remembers. "Occasionally we'd be lucky enough to get our music performed. But even this was frustrating, in a way...misinterpretations, wrong tempos, wrong notes. I longed to have complete control, and I knew that the precision of a computer could help me to get it."

By a happy accident, she found a new electronic music center at Mills College in Oakland, California. For five dollars an hour, it was possible to rent a studio with Buchla synthesizer. After an introductory lesson (all anyone received) Miss Ciani was spending more time there than at Berkeley. That summer, she took a course in computer music at Mills with Max Matthews, an electrical engineer with Bell Laboratory, and studied acoustics, the psychology of acoustics and the generation of sound by computers. She began to give concerts at Berkeley and in the Bay area art galleries, and worked with a dance company. In 1969, she earned money for the first time by composing twenty-three ads for Macy's department store.

After graduating from Berkeley, she went to work in the Buchla factory. "I was hoping to learn enough about the design of the instrument so that I could build one myself," she explains. "So I sat and soldered joints and drilled holes for three dollars an hour. When the synthesizers were finished, tested and shipped off, I felt as though I were losing children. But at the same time, I was able to use Buchla's studio. Meanwhile, the Mills synthesizer had become so popular that I was lucky if I could get an hour a week with it. It became clear I had to make enough money to buy my own synthesizer.

"So I went out to make my living at music. I did educational films and the first one won an award. I did commercials. I once did the sound effects for a Kung Fu film where I synthesized the sound of a man's head being chopped off and a horror film where I did effects for snakes. I found a film studio to back me. But, as I took my music around to recording studios in San Francisco, I realized I didn't know how to sell it. I'd play my reel and people would ask, 'Terrific music, did your husband write it?' As far as buying a synthesizer was concerned, everyone thought I was crazy. 'Why don't you play the flute?' they would ask.

"Rather than go through all that, I started a furniture company. After six months, I had created two of the most unsalable dinosaurs in all furniture history. I couldn't even get them out of the studio. Everything went wrong: a fire, then thefts, then vandalism. Finally I thought: all this, and I'm not even doing what I want. So I decided to go back to music, and I moved to Los Angeles." Soon Miss Ciani got an agent, a studio and advertising work. Doyle, Dane and Bernbach; McCann-Erickson; and BBD&O were among her clients. She did a radio identification package for Philadelphia station WCAU, wrote sound effects for the television series "The Search," and did numerous shorts, features and filmstrips. All the while, she wanted to devote more time to composing music - not sound effects.

When Miss Ciani sits down at the Buchla to compose, she may begin with a melodic, rhythmic or acoustical idea which she tries out on the machine. Then she molds the sound by adjusting the switches, walking away to hear the results, then returning to adjust some more. When a piece is finished, the score consists of several hundred such movements - an intricate choreography that she must rehearse until the piece is smooth.

The more Miss Ciani composed, the most interested she became in live concert performances and the more frustrated she felt by the lack of an audience in Los Angeles interested in her kind of music. And so, a few months ago, she packed three aluminum suitcases full of wires and a couple more with clothes and arrived in New York.

"I think that there are audiences for the kind of music I write but they have to be exposed to it and nurtured," she says firmly. "So much of the synthesizer music I see in record bins is trash, concocted by opportunists of questionable talent. The music of serious composers like Varese and Ussachevsky is esoteric and academic in orientation. That's why it's not popular.

"I know people will come to hear synthesized music. There's a huge audience on campuses, and children are now growing up with synthesizers - the idea is not strange to them. I grew up with classical music and it took me a long time to appreciate rock. But the two are coming together, and electronic music is where they meet."

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Reprinted from The New York Times Arts and Leisure section, Sunday, July 21, 1974.

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