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Music Review: Suzanne Ciani and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith … and Don Buchla

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By Paul Ashby

In 1980 I was working at a Long Beach record store called Music Plus. One day a colleague pulled me aside and flashed a copy of Morton Subotnick’s A Sky Of Cloudless Sulphur / After The Butterfly LP.

“That Eno stuff you play all the time — it’s alright, but you need to check this out. I’ll tape it for you.”

I still have the cassette (he put John Cage’s HPSCHD on the other side, incidentally — possibly one of the more unlistenable recordings ever released). I checked out the Subotnick portion, immediately bought the LP, and played it repeatedly.

After all these years, I continue to marvel at the weirdly organic nature of Cloudless. It’s not easy listening. The manner in which such an a-melodic work seems plugged into the human nervous system, however, is timeless, in the truest sense of the word. Sometimes I manage to convince myself that the music resembles the sounds that oh, I dunno, subatomic particles must emit as they whiz and dart around and across some theoretical plane(s).

(micro, neural, macro, quantum. oh wow).

Anyway. I seem to have digressed. My point?

The synthesizer upon which the piece was composed and performed was invented by Don Buchla.

On the afternoon of September 16th of this year I was trying to stitch together a few weeks’ worth of scribbled notes for this piece when I read that Don Buchla had died.

Fifty years ago he introduced the Buchla Series 100, at roughly the same time Robert Moog was developing and selling his first modular synthesizers. There are those who will argue that Buchla invented the first analog synthesizer. He certainly pioneered touch sensitivity interfaces for some of the earliest commercially-available synths.

Subotnick’s Cloudless and the albums discussed below would not have happened without Don Buchla (April 17, 1937 – September 14, 2016). His hardware*, influence and vision live on.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani Sunergy (FRKWYS/RVNG U.S.)

Suzanne Ciani was one of the pioneering adopters of the Buchla modular synthesizer in the early seventies. She commenced an extended dalliance with new age piano/synth instrumentals in the 80s and those albums are finding a new audience, as well, but her Buchla work remains her most challenging and interesting.

There’s not much Buchla to be seen here, but it gives you an idea of what she was into circa 1980:

In an era where “synthesist” meant, to most people, Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, Ciani proved she didn’t need a band, could make money on Madison Avenue, and still pursue both the experimental and the artistic. And the fun. She pulled the synthesizer into the realm of sound design.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith had released a couple solo albums featuring Buchla’s creations when she met Suzanne Ciani at a dinner party a couple years ago.

“I didn’t know who I was talking to until it clicked when she asked me what I played, and I answered ‘the Buchla,’ and [Ciani] knew about it.”

And the rest, as they say, is Sunergy.

Smith joined Ciani at the latter’s Bolinas, CA home overlooking the Pacific and recorded the two side-long pieces that make up Sunergy.

The first side of the LP, “A New Day,” builds slowly, as daybreak is wont to do; there’s even a false dawn, of sorts, around the four-minute mark. It’s followed by the fading-up of pulsing, repetitive tones, accompanied by the e-twittering of birds. The middle section devolves into some daydream-inspiring, bleep-and-bloop meandering, a pastiche of synth pads, subtle sequencing and Ciani’s wind sounds. The general effect is natural — the randomness of the organic non-order of things is well-rendered here.

The real substance of “A New Day” is in the momentum of the final eight minutes, where the disparate sounds gather, cohere and crescendo. Think of tiny balls of mercury from all directions rolling along and gathering musical speed as they finally hook up. It’s one the finest freeform electronic rave-ups I’ve heard in a long time. Yup, “A New Day” is wonderful.

Side two, however, “Closed Circuit,” goes beyond wonderful. While “New Day” drones anticipatorily and sorta breaks down in the end (not that there’s anything wrong with that), “Closed Circuit” grooves in a manner most transcendent for each of its twelve-plus minutes.

The first few moments usher specters of Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick — A Rainbow In A Curved Sky of Cloudless Sulphur — the maximalist meeting the minimalist, if you will. The burbling sequencers fade abruptly, giving way to whooshing, seaworthy sine waves as we wend and wind our way up and down and around hazy, white-noise-laden ladders of arpeggiated tones. Roughly halfway through, a woozily ethereal presence coaxes the listener to the end of the album. The climax is remarkable — far better than anything, say, Tangerine Dream has done in the past 35 years.

The sonics? On vinyl, “Closed Circuit” seems much higher fidelity than “A New Day.” The latter has some bass synth tones that veer into the red and seem a bit weedy during the first portion of the track. Side two sounds as though it was from a different session; there’s actually some depth to the soundstage in “Closed Circuit.” The differences aren’t as pronounced when listening to the Bandcamp FLAC of the album.

But talking about such stuff isn’t fun. There’s no mistaking that Sunergy isn’t some exercise in electronic hardware academia or audiophile verb-o-wank. There may not be a whole hell of a lot of toe-tapping material here, but Ciani and Smith have crafted a FUN album, one that simultaneously engages the gut and the mind, and manages to both entertain and push the experimental realm. Few can pull off that sort of tightrope act without trotting out the dogs and ponies, mixed-metaphorically speaking. Not that dogs and ponies are a bad thing, mind you.

Suzanne Ciani, from the liner notes:

Playing with Kaitlyn was a natural fit. I do think that the whole was somehow more than the sum of the parts. We just jumped in, taking turns being the “master clock” and freely improvising while listening to the sound of the ocean just outside the window … my favorite sound. I was Kaitlyn’s age when I first moved to New York City in 1974 to give a live Buchla concert at an uptown art gallery. I can only imagine what she will be doing in 40 years!

You can stream, sample, and buy the download, LP and CD on Bandcamp.

In yet another display of the universe’s perverse sense of humor, the street date for Sunergy coincided with day that news broke of Don Buchla’s death.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith EARS (Western Vinyl U.S.)

I can’t vouch for Smith’s whereabouts or output in 40 years. But on April Fool’s Day of 2016, she released her third solo album, EARS.

Smith credits herself as contributing Buchla Music Easel, EMS Synthi, Arp 2600, Oscar, Korg Mono/Poly, Electrocomp 101 and Moog Werkstatt. Woodwinds are attributed to Rob Frye of Bitchin’ Bajas.

Unlike Sunergy, this KAS solo vehicle sports songs. Shorter songs. More of them. Songs with structure. Songs with Smith’s processed, multi-tracked vocals, which are, more often than not, wordless, à la Bowie’s invented language on side two of Low.

Following a classic prog-rock sequencer intro courtesy of the monolithic ARP 2600, we’re blessed with an incantation, an invocative chant, suitable as the soundtrack as you’re rolling up to Monsanto’s Adventure Thru Inner Space Disneyland ride. That’s “First Flight”, the album opener.

There’s songs with a simple, sampled, Laurie Anderson-style sequence topped by a chorus of woodwinds (“Envelop”). You want percolating synth patterns and staccato abstract vocals interspersed with brief flutters of woodwind-birdsong? You got it:

“Rare Things Grow”‘s sped-up synth-and-woodwind shuffle seems bent on deriving a peppier vibe from Terry Riley’s Happy Ending, and it succeeds with ease. “Anthropoda” sees a see-saw synthesizer slowly ascending, surrounded by processed animal noises and, again, extraterrestrial multi-tracked chant — this time amid proto-baroque polyphony. There’s no refrains, only verse. Along with “Rare Things,” it’s among EARS‘ most distinctive and memorable tracks. Next, imagine Steve Reich at 16RPM (which is to say, well, normal speed) conducting a synthless, organically systemic woodwind round. That’d be “Stratus.”

The album closes with “Existence in the Unfurling.” Sound cosmic? You don’t know the half of it. The lyrics are cryptic — what can be understood of them; I think I caught “wonderment” and “it’s the only thing …” The vocal portion of the intro gives way to a throbbing, buzzing drone that soon swells into a full five minutes of some seriously — make no mistake — maximalist root-dee-doo. As album closers go, it’s a jaw-dropper.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=3318091763/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/artwork=small/track=3342334328/transparent=true/Even without Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s exhale-licious vocals and the close-mic’d woodwinds, EARS would breathe. The album works on an experimental level, a pop level — and some other subconscious, organic level that’s another thing entirely. It’s nurture and nature and science and nexus [there he goes again with the oh wow stuff].

If nothing else, this is an album that’ll coax you outdoors — where the life is. It’s only natural that Smith was chosen by Google to score its The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks presentation in celebration of the first 100 years the of National Park Service.

This is the best headphone album of the year — on FLAC. I have but one reservation about EARS.

The vinyl. Something happened (or didn’t happen) during the mastering phase. The LP just doesn’t sound right. It’s as if it was just cut from the same files as the FLAC without enough regard for the vagaries (or potential) of the LP medium. It’s flat, relatively lifeless, with, possibly, one of the more shallow soundstages I’ve ever heard. On the quieter pieces, there’s significant pops and clicks. The FLAC of the album is relatively two-dimensional, as well — the dynamic range of most songs clocks in between 7 and 9 — but the turntable portion of the EARS experience just doesn’t do the album right.

Regardless of my minor mastering quibbles, EARS really is the kind of album you can just crawl inside and love. And love more, the more you listen to it. I hope it’s not presumptuous to hope that Don Buchla got a chance to hear this recording. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has harnessed Buchla’s hardware to an impressive extent and produced something special, something of which I feel he’d be proud.

From her NPR interview:

His instruments have life in them. They are breathing electricity that you can sculpt. What makes his work so special and different from others is that every instrument he designed presents an opportunity to create an ecosystem. You can watch its behavior unfold the way you would craft a terrarium and let it have a life of its own while simultaneously being the observer and the creator. They talk back. They are conversational and offer the same mental stimulation any good friend would — engaging you to be in the moment and ready for spontaneity.

You can stream, sample, and buy the download, LP and CD on Bandcamp.

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* It should be noted that, as pointed out in the NY Times obituary above, Buchla licensed his trademark and hardware to Buchla Electronic Musical Instruments in 2012, was fired as a consultant in 2013, sued the company in 2015 and settled under undisclosed terms in 2016.

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