I’m being sold the memory of a weed-eater dream at the speed of August. The motor’s vortical hiss, slowed into an alligator groan. A commercial for the Black and Decker Cutter appears on a split screen, now a quadrant, continuously subdividing, each cell occupied with its own product activity, vying for attention and competing with human physiology, the maxed bladders and empty guts that threaten to spirit us away from our sponsor. A GE dishwasher offers to pamper the china. The Merrill Lynch bull walks into a popular idiom, a commercial space that is shiny but not as clean as ITT’s “Clean Room,” which, as claimed, is quantified a thousand times cleaner than an ER: “hyperclean.” It all seems to be happening at once.
(I am suddenly compelled to trim the patio near the statue of a headless saint by the garden where I once interred my pajama bottoms beneath a geode.)
To the ear, the weed-eater spot could be selling the Buchla 200 synthesizer, if not the work of Suzanne Ciani herself, an electronic-music composer who mastered Don Buchla’s switchboard of patch bays and oscillators. She’s a classically trained pianist who abandoned the keyboard interface (and its muscle memory) to revolutionize music, sometimes anonymously, right under your TV tray. The grid of old TV ads flashed on the screen in A Life in Waves, a documentary about Ciani’s life and career directed by Brett Whitcomb. Now available, it screened at Moogfest at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, North Carolina, last May.
An original plug tuner, Ciani created identities for logos and products in the seventies and eighties as a way to support her own music projects and studio. Brands and their sonic referents may have been owned by the client, but the sounds themselves belonged to a woman whose work was singular in a field that was then undefined: routing signals and ideas into tiny spaces and “microcosmic time slots,” all while creating her own signature in the male-dominated world of advertising. Electronic music was largely mysterious then, a time when a modular synth for “Planetary Peace” would cause a bomb scare at the San Francisco airport. The media was no less baffled, but especially so with a woman behind the controls. “This is an album,” said one awkward TV interviewer, doing his best Perd Hapley. That’s about as far as he got. Cut to a commercial. Read More