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A Conversation w/ Analog Synth Queens Suzanne Ciani & Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

A Conversation w/ Analog Synth Queens Suzanne Ciani & Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith

I spoke to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith—“Modular Synth Sound Sculptress and Orchestral Composer” (according to her Instagram)—and Suzanne Ciani—“synth pioneer” and “Diva of the Diode” (according to Red Bull Music Academy)—on Skype last week as they prepared to release their upcoming joint album, Sunergy, which was just rated “Best New Music” on Pitchfork.

With a 40-year age gap between the two, Kaitlyn and Suzanne may not resemble obvious collaborators. The two met in the small town of Bolinas, California—an isolated Marin County community accessible only via unmarked roads. After the women were introduced to each other as fellow musicians at a local community dinner, Suzanne was “in shock” to learn that her neighbor’s preferred instrument was the Buchla.

The Buchla 100 Series Modular Electronic Music System was pioneered by Suzanne’s friend and colleague Don Buchla in Berkeley in the 1960s. Suzanne met Don through her then-boyfriend while she was in graduate school for music composition at UC Berkeley. The machine is credited along with the Moog Synthesizer as the first of its kind (the Buchla is the more esoteric, West Coast counterpart to the Moog—Suzanne tells me Don’s machine resembles a switchboard). “Once your ears heard electronic,” Suzanne tells me of falling in love with the Buchla, “the acoustic world seemed very limited. So my ears wanted electronic sound.” In its recent profile of Kaitlyn, Pitchfork wrote that the Buchla’s “colorful, cord-laced interface reflects how it tends to rewire the brains of its custodians.”

Suzanne Ciani (left) and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (right)

On Sunergy, Suzanne returned to the Buchla for the first time in 20 years. Kaitlyn was introduced to the instrument by her neighbor while living in her birthplace of Orcas Island, Washington following her graduation from college. Like Suzanne, Kaitlyn studied music composition at school, where she had access to a full orchestra and recording studios. Once out, she quickly learned how unattainable this was in the real world. Suzanne similarly expressed a “sense of doom” as a composer because it’s so logistically difficult to manage an orchestra. The Buchla solved this issue for both women—suddenly, they could create orchestral music while working independently.

Aside from the Buchla, Kaitlyn and Suzanne are united by their strong ties to nature. Kaitlyn was raised on the pristine Orcas Island, a place she describes on her Bandcamp page as “one of the most magical and peaceful places I have ever been.” Suzanne moved from Manhattan to Bolinas with plans to stay for a year, but never left. “They say I’m a prisoner of beauty,” she tells me.

Sunergy is a portmanteau of the words “synergy,” which represents the synergistic energy the women brought to this collaborative work, and “sun,” which symbols the energy of the sun rising. They recorded the album in Suzanne’s home-studio, which overlooks the ocean. Kaitlyn tells me that they couldn’t help but have the beauty of the space “seep out of [their] creativity.” What’s more, Suzanne explains that Buchlas themselves have “a wonderful propulsion and energy built into them […] I think it’s kind of a primal energy, the machine energy.”

Perhaps fittingly, our call is cut short because Kaitlyn loses service while driving to the mountains with her husband Sean Hellfritsch, a filmmaker whose documentary will be released in conjunction with Sunergy. I receive a text from Kaitlyn hours later apologizing—she lost service on the way to Buckhorn in the San Gabriel Mountains, but found a “great cold water dipping spot.” Read my conversation with these two inspirational women below.

ANNA DORN: What brought you both to Bolinas?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: I grew up on Orcas Island, [Washington] and was living there after college. My now husband was up there with me as well and he needed to be back in the Bay Area for his work because he’s a filmmaker. We knew were were going to move back to the Bay but we didn’t want to live in the city. A friend of ours bought a place in Bolinas and we lived in a bus on her property for a while when we first moved there because it’s hard to find housing in Bolinas.

AD: What about you, Suzanne?

Suzanne Ciani: I moved here in one fell swoop from the middle of Manhattan. I came out here for one year, I thought. And then a few months later, I met my husband. We’ve been divorced for a few years, but that was enough to keep me rooted here—and then I just fell in love. It’s very hard to leave Bolinas. They say I’m a prisoner of beauty.

AD: I used to live in the Bay Area but I never went to Bolinas. Where exactly is it?

SC: Well it’s hard to find on purpose. I say it’s famous for wanting to be unknown. They take down the signs. So there are no signs, but now with the GPS, it’s pretty easy to find any place. It’s right after Stinson Beach.

“You’re just surrounded by the ocean and pristine beauty there. You can’t help but have it seep out of your creativity.”

AD: How did the physicality of Bolinas inspire Sunergy?

KAS: Well, Suzanne’s house and studio have one of the best views in all of Bolinas. It’s incredible. And she has a ginormous window, with a mirror across from the window in her studio. So the view is just everywhere. And you’re just surrounded by the ocean and pristine beauty there. You can’t help but have it seep out of your creativity.

AD: What does Sunergy mean?

SC: Well it’s kind of, as you probably guessed, a play on two words [laughs]—synergy, which is the energy that we brought to our performance, a synergistic energy; and the sun, the energy of the sun rising, which is something that I see from my window every morning—like it or not—the sun comes up right dead center across that window. So those two words combined are Sunergy.

AD: Is this either of your first time collaborating with others?

SC: I don’t collaborate a lot, but I’ve really enjoyed collaborating in electronics. Performing on Neotantrik, I collaborated with Sean Canty and Andy Votel. I did my first solo concert this year. There is something to be said for both. When you’re solo, you kind of don’t have to worry about anyone else and can be in control. But when you’re collaborating, it’s a wonderful uplift if the energy is good. But it’s just more complicated to organize.

AD: How did you two meet?

KAS: We met in Bolinas at a community dinner. I don’t know if it’s still going on; it probably is. Bolinas is a very small town and there is just one restaurant, so there is this woman who was coordinating these community gatherings at different households. They would trade off who was cooking. My husband and I were cooking for one of the dinners and Suzanne was there. We got introduced to each other and she asked me what my instrument was. And told her the Buchla and then she knew about the Buchla and it clicked for me who she was. And I got very excited.

SC: You didn’t mention how utterly in shock I was. For me to meet another Buchla player is already kind of an event. But to find one right in my small down was surreal.

AD: Can you all tell me about the Buchla and what drew each of you to it?

SC: I was drawn to it in the ‘60s when I was in Berkeley. I was in graduate school doing a traditional composition degree, but had fallen in love with this new thing, this electronic thing. I was lucky enough to meet Don Buchla through my boyfriend at the time. I went to work for Buchla after graduate school, and then basically dedicated my life to that instrument for about 10 years. And now I’m coming back to it after being away from it—gosh, let’s see—maybe 20 years.

AD: The Buchla was one of the first synthesizers?

SC: It’s considered on the West Coast the first. Bob Moog was on the East Coast and Don Buchla was on the West Coast. And they pretty much much simultaneously developed voltage control analogue systems. Don Buchla never used word “synthesizer” because of the associations with that term, that maybe it was synthetic—electronics weren’t well understood when they first happened. Bob Moog popularized his instrument by putting a traditional keyboard on it so that people felt more comfortable. Instead of looking like a switchboard, it looked like an instrument to people. Don Buchla never did that because he wanted to be true to the new potential, the new language. So they were simultaneous designers with very different followings. Don Buchla’s instruments were super expensive and mostly in institutions. And Bob Moog came up with some nice affordable designs, like the Minimoog, that made him very popular.

AD: Was it partially the newness of the Buchla that drew you to it or was it the sounds it could make?

SC: As a composer, I think I had this sense of doom. It’s very hard to get your music performed in the traditional world. There were two things. One, I was just in love with the sound. Once your ears heard electronic, the acoustic world seemed very limited. So my ears wanted electronic sound. And it also gave me independence. I didn’t need to hire musicians or find an orchestra. I could control the creation.

KAS: Yes! I share that sentiment. The time that my neighbor lent me a Buchla 100, I was just coming back from college where I studied composition and sound engineering. And in college, I had access to a full orchestra and recording studios and had gotten pretty used to having an orchestra record compositions easily. And then when I got out of college, it quickly came to my attention how unattainable that is. So the first time I played the Buchla and experienced how many sounds I could create and how it could feel like I had this orchestra, I just went down the rabbit hole and never turned back. Except now I’m trying to incorporate both—acoustic instruments and synthesized.

“Once your ears heard electronic, the acoustic world seemed very limited. So my ears wanted electronic sound.”

AD: Can you tell me a little bit about the documentary?

KAS: Yeah, it’s kind of a mixture of moments of Suzanne and I making the music, and then really beautiful shots of Bolinas. My husband did it; he’s a filmmaker. Sean Hellfritsch. And so he was there with us during the three days, filming the whole thing. And then he own his own did beautiful shots of Bolinas.

SC: I think he did a great job. Originally, the idea was to document the performance. But as Sean said, it gets a little boring watching chicks twirling their wires. He got the connection. And I think he just did a beautiful job making the visuals reflect the energy.

AD: There’s a very cinematic quality to Sunergy so I think it makes sense that it has a film component. Was the cinematic aspect something you had in mind when you made it?

KAS: Well that’s also one of the areas that Suzanne and I meet—that she is a film composer, and that’s something I aspire to do. So there was an intersection there and maybe it just subconsciously has that energy.

AD: That makes sense.

KAS: Suzanne, weren’t you the first female film composer?

SC: Well, I have a credit as first woman to be hired by a major motion picture company. I don’t know how you quantify it.

AD: I think that’s how you quantify it. What film was it?

SC:  It was called The Incredible Shrinking Woman with Lily Tomlin.

KAS: I love that movie. Have you seen it, Anna?

AD: I haven’t, but I love Lily Tomlin.

SC: I love that movie too. And I think it still stands up. It was maybe ahead of its time—the thing about products shrinking us. Yesterday there was article in the Times about all these people losing their hair from this shampoo. Wen. It’s advertised on television.

KAS: That’s so scary.

SC: And there’s no regulation. When that film was made, it was about the side effects of household products. There’s no regulation even now.

KAS: So the moral is don’t buy from TV.

SC: And careful if you start shrinking, I guess.

AD: I need to see that movie now. Slash never wash my hair again. Good thing I don’t that much anyway. Kaitlyn, have you scored any films, or is it something you just think about?

KAS: I’ve scored a lot of short films. I haven’t done a feature yet. That’s something I’m hoping will happen soon.

“That energy of the machine propels you. And you respond to that. I think it’s kind of a primal energy… the machine energy.”

AD: Do you all have an approach when it comes to scoring films?

SC: I ask for no input, first of all. I want my original response to occur the first time I see the film. The first time seeing the film is the most impactful. If you can keep yourself raw and open, you come up with your creative approach. After that—it’s just a huge process. The creative process is one of intensity; to get the best product you need to be left on your own. We didn’t interfere with Sean when he did the video.

AD: Do you imagine Sunergy to be listened to in a certain way?

KAS: I’m not really a big fan of trying to put an idea out there for someone to listen in a certain way. But stereo is always nice, like stereo image. That’s my own request. What about you, Suzanne?

SC: I think the stereo is important. I’m totally spoiled because I listen to it in my studio with my big speakers and that’s the only way I’ve ever listened to it. So I don’t even know what it sounds like otherwise.

AD: What about a certain context—like while driving, or while in nature?

SC: I used to tell people not to listen to my music in the car because they might go to sleep. But I’ve had reports from people who say they listen to it while driving. Or background music while working. Frontground music. It’s whatever suits somebody. I think it would be wonderful to put on set of headsets and isolate yourself in the sound. Because I think it’s something you can enter. There’s some complexity in there that could be appreciated.

KAS: Or find waterproof headphones and go swimming. I wanna do that.

AD: What are the themes of the album, conceptually?  

SC: It’s kind of about some primal energy. We’re dealing with the energy systems of primal forces and natural energies, and not in a pompous way at all. But I think that when you’re dealing with the machinery—these machines, they have a wonderful propulsion and energy built into them that you’re riding when you’re performing it. That energy of the machine propels you. And you respond to that. And I think it’s kind of a primal energy… the machine energy.

AD: How did you each get into music and why?

KAS: This is a big one. You go first.

SC: I got into music as a kid. I thought wanted to be a ballerina. My mom got a Steinway piano in the house. I was able to teach myself to read music. I knew that middle C was under the “S” in Steinway and I would look at the score and figure out the rest. I was self-taught until I went to high school. In high school, I took lessons. I had a big family, so I got lost in the shuffle. But that was fine, because I loved that privacy I had growing up in a big family. I knew that music was my life. I had a revelation one day and it was music. I was never one of those people who wondered what I would want to be when I grew up.

I always knew it was music.

[This is when we lose Kaitlyn to the mountains.]


Sunergy is out now on RVNG. This interview has been edited for brevity.

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