Being Neighborly: An Interview with Synth Masterminds Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani

On September 15, 2016

by Gary Suarez


We talk to Suzanni Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, whose FRKWYS Vol. 13: Sunergy is in our Members Store today. 

While the synthwave soundtrack to Netflix sensation Stranger Things has a surprisingly vast community jigging in their loveseats, a quieter electronic undercurrent prevails in the secluded seaside community of Bolinas, California.

A challenging drive from relatively nearby San Francisco, the small coastal town has a reputation both for insularity and creative spirit, counting Jim Carroll, Grace Slick, and Harmony Korine, among others in the arts, as residents at various points in its history.

Home to Suzanne Ciani for well over twenty years, Bolinas seemed an unlikely place for the pioneering electronic composer to find a likeminded collaborator who could understand and appreciate the rare and relatively obscure Buchla analog instruments she's spent decades working and performing with. Yet despite the absurdity of the odds, a kindred spirit recently emerged. A critically acclaimed rising star and fellow Buchla synthesis devotee, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith came to meet Ciani in such an unexpected way that in the moment she was unaware of whom she was speaking with.

The situation was too fortuitous and too opportune for Ciani and Smith not to partner on new original material together. Though the digital age has created greater opportunities for remote collaboration between electronic artists, the nature of their respective Buchla instruments and the happy coincidence of their being neighbors compelled these two composers to write and perform literally side-by-side, looking outward at the Pacific Ocean. Recorded as an installment of the FRKWYS series for Brooklyn-based indie RVNG Intl., the resulting Sunergy contains a beauteous handful of improvised electronic music pieces that shimmer and surge, often recalling the very waves the duo would have seen from the studio.

In advance of the record’s release this week, I caught up with Ciana and Smith, who incidentally are no longer neighbors, by phone to discuss the coincidences and circumstances of its making.

Vinyl Me, Please: I was immediately struck by the twin coincidences of this project, namely your regional proximity and your shared appreciation for Buchla synthesizers. How did you two connect, and were you familiar with one another’s work prior to meeting?

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: We met in Bolinas at a community dinner gathering that my husband and I were cooking for. I was well aware of Suzanne’s music. We just got to chatting, and I didn’t know that I was speaking to the Suzanne Ciani. As we were talking, I made the connection mentally. We both got excited about being Buchla players and started hanging out.

Suzanne Ciani: I was astonished to meet another Buchla player. You don’t meet those every day, especially not in a small town and especially not a female Buchla player. All that was kind of stunning news to me.

How long from then did it take you to start collaborating?

Ciani: It’s very hard in this small town to find people for studio assistance, so I did hire Kaitlyn to come and work here from time to time as I was getting ready for a tour in Europe. But we didn’t really jam together until we actually did this [FRKWYS] project. Kaitlyn knew of this series; I had never heard of it. That became the vehicle for our focus to work together.

So is the material on Sunergy the result of that initial collaboration between the two of you, or did you play and rehearse other material prior to this recording?

Smith: No, it was all recorded live. It is improvisations on a theme that stemmed from a recipe book that Suzanne wrote in the ‘70s that got reissued on [Andy Votel’s] Finders Keepers for one of her albums.

Ciani: It came out this year. It’s called Buchla Concerts 1975. He did two editions, one was a collector’s edition with the booklet. So this recipe book is in the release, which is a historic archival reissue of live Buchla concerts done in 1975.

On a project like this, I’m interested in knowing the nature of the collaboration. What was the division of labor, if any? How did you approach the composition?

Ciani: Kaitlyn’s pretty sharp, and very intuitive. We didn’t have a lot of formal sitting down and talking about how we’d do it. We just had a starting point, which is the sequences, and the two machines. She played a Buchla Music Easel; I played a Buchla 200 E. We set ourselves up here in the studio with a view of the ocean and hooked ourselves together. We took turns being the clock. In order to get these two machines to stay in sync with each other, you have to patch the clock output of one into another so that they stay locked. We really didn’t have any technical problems, except for maybe the first day, It went very smoothly.

Smith: It was a lot of fun. It’s neat when you see the documentary along with it, because you get more of a sense of how we’re both along for the ride as we’d doing it. We’re making intentional decisions but sometimes there are surprises and you just go with it.


What is it about these Buchla synths that creates such diehards and devotees like yourselves? What do they offer to composers that other analog models don’t?

Ciani: Of course, I go all the way back to the late ‘60s with these machines. I worked for Don Buchla. I was very intimately associated for maybe a period of ten years where I worked exclusively on the Buchla. What I like about it was that his vision was of a performance instrument, which is a distinction in electronic music. A lot of so-called synthesizers--we didn’t use the word synthesizer--they were studio instruments, recording instruments. What attracted me to the Buchla was the amount of feedback you get in a live situation so that you can interact with it intuitively in the moment, live. The Buchla’s very good at that.

Kaitlyn, you came to the Buchla differently. I’d read your first one was loaned to you for a year or so.

Smith: That was a different system. That was my first introduction to synthesis in general. A part of why the Buchla speaks to me was because it was my first experience. I had such an intimate relationship with it, in a cabin, in an isolated place. It feels like what I found my voice with, with electronic music. That’s a big part of my relationship with it.

What did you learn from each other in the process of making this record? Were there tricks or techniques or approaches that you picked up from one another?

Smith: I learned a lot in all of my time spent with Suzanne. She’s a wonderful teacher. Just getting to discover her system with her and her recipe book with her, it was a very educational experience. It’s hard for me to narrow it down to a few bullet points, because it was such a vast knowledge-gaining experience.

Ciani: For me it was fun, because I don’t collaborate very much. I had collaborated on the tour with Andy Votel and [Demdike Stare’s] Sean Canty. Technology can be stressful when it’s live, and when you’re sharing some of that possible stress it becomes more comfortable. That’s what I learned, that it can be more relaxing. It’s hard to coordinate collaborations. This one worked out!

Are there plans for you to perform together, either for this material or otherwise in future?

Smith: Now that we’re living in separate places, it takes time to figure it out and rehearse it. So much of it was improvised.

Ciani: The nature of technology is that it’s fluid. It changes every day. The configuration that I had when we did this project is gone now. The system is completely reconfigured. I think there probably was a moment when it was still in the machine. Certainly, an improvisation or collaboration could still be done. But the machine has already moved on to a new identity. That’s the way it works. Even though it’s the same Buchla! It’s nice to think of it as a set thing, but it really isn’t. My new system has maybe a half dozen modules I didn’t have then. I’ve gotten rid of some of the ones we did use. The basic starting point, we certainly could do again, raw material it was based on that we could use again.

Do you miss not being able to recreate that experience?

Smith: I can only speak for myself, but I think that we could recreate stuff if that intention was there from the beginning, if you’d put in your mind that you’d need to recreate this. When I need to do that, I just write with that in mind and figure out the chain of events of how I can get it that way, and then practice it so that it’s a muscle memory thing.

Ciani: Literally repeating it is not the objective. Being in that pocket is absolutely possible. We did like two days of improvising on the themes that we picked. There’s a certain magic that happens in the moment. Sometimes that’s the nature of improvisation. Things kind of click, and they happen. You kind of live for those moments. That is not something you reproduce. You create a new magic, another opportunity for magic.

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