Super-synth-woman Suzanne Ciani hits International House for two radically different showcases

If anyone can lay claim to a pioneering role within the vanguard of American electronic composition and its diverse forms -- the avant-garde, commercial advertising tool, dreamy New Age, and lush dance-a-tronica -- it is Suzanne Ciani. A classically trained East Coast pianist lured as an early adopter of synthetic music through such builders as Walter Moog and Don Buchla, Ciani quickly became known as a superstar of the Buchla Analog Modular Synthesizer – an easily manipulated instrument she’ll pull from its case this week when she plays two nights (one acoustic, one synthetic) at International House.

“Right now, my sole commitment is to the Buchla, for many reasons,” Ciani said from the SXSW music fest in Austin, Texas.  “I had intimate connection with the evolution of that instrument in the late '60s and devoted myself to it exclusively for 10 years.  Now that I’ve come back to it, and coupled with the renaissance in electronic music that we’re experiencing – to say nothing of the sad fact that Don passed away last year – I think I have an important role to show where we came from.”

Not only did Ciani help train icy modern classicists such as Philip Glass in the ways and wiles of the synthesizer in the late '60s, but also by the later '70s and '80s, she worked for Madison Avenue ad agencies creating music and sound effects for commercial clients such as Coca-Cola, Merrill Lynch (“I was driven by hunger, basically, and was very stubborn in pounding on advertising agency doors”),  Lily Tomlin’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman (“I was hired by a woman, miracle of miracles … and was presumably the first woman to be hired to score a major Hollywood feature … and the second was Shirley Walker 14 years later”), and disco producer Meco’s 1977 smash Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk (“At the time, I was, I believe, the only person in New York City who could have pulled off recreating such sounds for that record”).

When she got bored doing this, she all but created the smooth, spacey New Age sound in 1982 through her own independent label, Seventh Wave. 

“Precisely because I was an Italian American woman, not much was expected of me. … There were five girls in my family, and my father hoped that we would marry, period. A woman’s job was 'to shave a man and polish his shoes.'  We did all get great educations, though. … I guess because his sister had gone to Radcliffe [Harvard] and there was a tradition of academics going way back.” Ciani laughs recalling her father’s attendance at a 1974 Buchla performance where he beamed with pride at her accomplishment. “Then again, he did not approve when I became too financially successful. When I showed him my new Mercedes convertible, he said I had lost my bearings and was too interested in money.”

Along with talking up the differences between East Coast vs. West Coast sound as if talking about rap battles (“we never used the term 'synthesizer' because it had all sorts of loaded connotations, from being 'synthetic,' yech, to being 'imitative' of other instruments, horror”) and MIDI technology (“there’s a place for MIDI, but not in my live modular electronic world”), Ciani chatted about her return to the classical worlds from which she hailed in the early '90s.

A period of rhapsodic, piano-based albums such as Dream Suite, Turning, Pianissimo II (“I was as surprised as anyone that I came back to the piano after excoriating it for many years … it just happened, like going back to childhood”) was halted when handfuls of her aged improvisational analog material such as Lixiviation were reissued in 2012 -- and happily accepted by a new audience.

“I thought of myself as being on an electronic hiatus,” says Ciani, "was about to record a new album, which I’d written in Venice, Italy, and suddenly got caught up in this tsunami of electronica and wanted to make the contribution that I can make … to be a voice for the earlier ideas, specifically Buchla’s ideas."

Not only does that mean a recently released collaboration with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith on Frkwys Vol. 13: Sunergy, with the RVNG label (an “older artist/younger artist” format that RVNG curates), but live events.

The renaissance of which Ciani speaks not only brings her to Philadelphia’s stages for two nights – “an ‘improvised’ live set on the Buchla 200e and a selection of my compositions for piano” – but also finds her reimagining herself as industrious as she was in her past. "At this point, I’m considering starting a new indie electronic label to release my Buchla recordings.”

Ars Nova Workshop presents Suzanne Ciani at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at International House, 3701 Chestnut St. $15, arsnovaworkshop.org, ihousephilly.org.