· 6 min read
Suzanne Ciani Live in LA, or The Three Great Problems of Electronic Music
Written by Tyler Etters
"Tyler, wake up!" Max says, psychically prodding me via Puerto Rican driftwood contact mic fetish. "You're the Los Angeles correspondent. We need coverage. Digger is still in Namibia, Trix is in Tokyo, Gus on that Evergreen tanker somewhere off the coast of Finland, and I'm stuck at Klang HQ for at least the next two weeks covering this diesel generator endurance piece. You're Klang's only shot."
Blueprints for the Klang website and underground tunnel system spill off my dresser as I arise and fumble for my glasses.
"Not again, Max. I just can't. Not part of the deal. I'm out, remember? Creative direction, skunkworks, and R&D only. I can't handle the field anymore."
"One more job, kid. For me. Your co-founder. Your Editor in Chief." And he does that pouty Max smile, a single sliver of blue ganja smoke escaping his left nostril.
The church parking garage reeks of weed and I immediately know it was the right decision to accept the assignment. Ambient Church has been running for several years and boasts an impressive gallery of experiences and artists. Tonight, Suzanne Ciani is playing along with Nailah Hunter.
Ciani, "America's first female synth hero," is one of the seminal artists of electronic music. She was among the first to connect the sonic vocabulary of electronic music to both the commercial and film industries. Imagine, if you can, the 1970s. Next, imagine how alien and futuristic it must have felt to hear a filter sweep in a Coca-Cola commercial — it blew people's minds. She heard the future and shared it with the world.
Klang readers deserve the authentic California experience, so edibles are on the menu tonight. I've been on this new blend that's cooked up by AI. Very niche, very artisanal, very not-yet-illegal. They only accept payment in Ethereum and you gotta supply a blood sample ahead of time for the shotgun sequencers. I pop half a gummy behind my black N95 mask, timing the dose to peak with Ciani's set.
Doors just opened and I need to scope out the hardware before there is standing room only. I wander over one to one of the quadraphonic relays. A tech is in mid-explanation of the system, its construction, and its placement. Microphones are curiously installed in the crossing and ambulatories. I imagine they are for archival purposes, but wonder if they're actually for some type of location-specific feedback loop.
OK, time to see it. Let's get it over with:
I make my way to the spectacle. A small semi-circle of pilgrims are Instagramming away. It is difficult to fully separate Ciani from her instrument of choice. It sits on the altar of the First Congregational Church of LA like some strange cyberpunk idol on life support. Keepers of ancient wisdom and rites shuffle around, moving a light here, wrapping a cable there.
The indivisibility of Ciani from her system is problematized by a recent sour turn of events. This is neither the time nor place for a full exposé of that part of the story, but I would be remiss to not mention it in passing. Gonzo journalism leaves no stone unturned!
This is The First the Great Problem with electronic music today: Unless you enjoy soldering, you must hitch your wagon to something that has been trademarked, branded, and mass produced. Sure, you can go boutique and support small-scale companies but you're still attaching your name to their ethics, politics, and environmental impact. I gaff tape the logos of my gear not because I'm trying to keep a secret, but because I'm rarely comfortable associating my likeness with corporations at any scale. No one asks what brand of cello Yo-Yo Ma plays. Meanwhile, everyone obsesses over what gear Boards of Canada or Autechre use. The cosmic joke is it really doesn't matter.
So, seeing Ciani's instrument deployed on a literal altar of worship is almost too apropos for me to handle.
About half the crowd is masked. I think I see folk legend Ben Babbitt of Kentucky Route Zero fame sitting in the fourth row. I sit behind him and wonder if he wonders about seeing folk legend Tyler Etters of Klang Magazine. We're both masked so we'll never know.
Susurrations of the crowd ratchets up one unit as slow, filtered drones rumble to life out of the abyss. I am excited to be here and look forward to having an experience. I try to allow myself to melt into the music…
... until someone is talking very loud and very fast. I struggle to remember the last time I had my mellow harshed this quickly. Ah, the peppy church-dude is on stage, info-dumping way too loud and way too fast about the largest organ in a church in the world, or maybe second largest in America, or actually… I'm not sure what. The organ isn't at all part of tonight's performance. Wait, does the size of an organ matter? Are larger organs intrinsically better? Is this actually some sort of mating call? Did you know you can rent this church for your own events?
It is bewildering to be solicited for the very space I just paid to experience. Is American law fungible enough to open a tax-exempt venue under the auspices of religion? Asking for a friend…
And this leads us to The Second Great Problem with electronic music today: Ya gotta buy it. There's probably $30,000 of Ciani gear up there. What message does this send? Synth nerds will be able to divine some clues about the sound of things to come - some control voltage here, some DSP over there... Meanwhile, the un-initiated will see a rats-nest of cables, their ignited imaginations wondering what "class of thing" it could even be. Tragically, too many aspiring musicians will misconstrue it for some sort of entry fee: "Can't write music like this unless I have gear like that."
Ciani takes the stage with mad swagger. This is one of the biggest rockstars of ambient and she knows it. Smiling, after taking a well relished bow, she turns her back to us and begins playing. Ciani boasts exquisite command of the frequency spectrum. Her timbres are supremely satisfying. You can really chew on them and feel the transients getting stuck to your filings. Opening waves of noise mutate into voltaic drones. I deeply appreciate Ciani's stage presence. It feels like we've been invited into a mad-scientist's laboratory to witness her work. She wants us to see her hands, what she's doing, how she's doing it.
Your average punk-rocker can shred power chords on literally any guitar and - in tune or not! - open up a circle pit within a few seconds. Another synthesist would likely not be able to play Ciani's instrument. Sure, they might get lucky and tease out some noise but, ultimately, the configuration of the instrument is inseparable from both the composition and the proclivities of the artist. This is the The Third Great Problem with electronic music: you have to take it with you. Ciani must travel with $30,000 worth of gear because there is literally no other option. This abject materialism has dire implications for the culture of electronic music because no one can really play each other's instruments. Only those of the DJ-caste are afforded the supreme luxury of standardized backlines and interoperability.
The performance continues and the whole beautiful mess gets routed through gated VCAs and we are pushed into a psychedelic fugue. After dashing through the corridors of Fort MKULTRA, we escape into a quadraphonic snare labyrinth. This is the only noticeable demonstration of the surround sound technology. It is thrilling, though too quiet. (The entire night, my volume meter never broke 75dB, roughly the level of a microwave.) We return to the Jovian ocean of white noise. Failing morse code from Giedi Prime bids us farewell and the crowd erupts in applause.
Ciani thanks us and starts talking about her history but… The Fear has already overtaken me.
"Please, Suzanne. Don't do it," I think to myself. "Please, keep this just about you."
She lovingly gestures towards her instrument and I brace for impact.
Pregnant with suspense.
She does it.
She utters the name-brand.
And the entire night collapses into an Ovaltine commercial.
Tyler Etters is an artist based in Los Angeles, CA. He is the co-founder and creative director of Klang Magazine.