As the market for electronic ambient music continues to growâ€”thanks to artists like Daniel Lopatin and the Emeralds trioâ€”a reevaluation of the genreâ€™s forebears seems increasingly helpful as well as vital. Â This column will take a look at some of the greatest â€śnew ageâ€ť artists of the recent past and the palpable influence theyâ€™ve had on the work of our favorite contemporary synth wizards.
The name Suzanne Ciani is probably unfamiliar to you, and thatâ€™s a shame. If youâ€™re a fan of Emeralds, Daniel Lopatin, Stella OM Source, or Rachel Evans, then you have Ms. Ciani to thank. She released not one but two albums in the eighties that pretty much defined the â€śelectronic ambientâ€ť genre, combining her classical training with a love for then-nascent musical technology; the results ought to speak for themselves, but alas, they seem to have been lost to time and few decadesâ€™ worth of instrumental electronica. In the synthesizer, Ciani saw the opportunity to create her own private symphonies with the synthetic sheen of the Berlin School and the romanticism of â€śnew age musicâ€ť at a time when â€śnew ageâ€ť was still indeed a novel concept. Her works are more melodically driven than those of, say, Apollo-era Eno, but also less concerned with atmosphere than Phaedra-era Tangerine Dream. Her best music avoids appealing to nostalgia, instead delivering its messages with an unironic directness that would be considered schmaltzy today if it werenâ€™t so good.
And thatâ€™s what makes Cianiâ€™s music so memorable and worthy of our reconsideration; itâ€™s really, really good. Whatâ€™s more, she peaked early; despite releasing compelling material well into the 2000s, her two greatest albums were also her first. 1982â€™s Seven Waves is an absolute revelation, offering track after track of steadfastly electronic music thatâ€™s as enrapturing as it is catchy. Connected by a nautical theme complete with rolling waves, windswept FX, and an uncanny sense of peaceful isolation, the seven songs on Waves are begging for modern reinterpretation. For instance, some savvy aspiring rapper would do well to sample â€śThe First Wave: Birth of Venus.â€ť All it needs is a driving beat; its regal, heartbreaking melody is one of the best that e-music has ever had to offer, and itâ€™s already got a killer bassline to boot.. Itâ€™s perseverant and mournful, stately and cathartic; itâ€™s the sound of a burial at sea that is only eclipsed in its tragedy by the beauty of its setting. The cascading scale-hopping that starts 1:51 is an especially majestic moment both in its own right and as a transition between the trackâ€™s quieter introduction and its subsequent melodrama.
Meanwhile, Lopatin would have a field day with rippling arpeggios on â€śThe Third Wave: Love in the Waves.â€ť And yes, the title is serious; as I said before, Ciani was never interested in irony. She delivers these songs with a romantic sincerity thatâ€™s anathema to todayâ€™s jaded, memory-evoking class of synth enthusiasts. At the same time, the electronic instrumentation prevents things from getting too precious, which illustrates another one of Cianiâ€™s strengths: a terrific ear for just the right sound.
In the late 1970s, Ciani was a commercial artist, exploring the potential for synthesizers to recreate sounds for commercials and jingles that would otherwise be unattainable. For instance, as a 1979 article in Contemporary Keyboard explains: â€śRemember that Coca-Cola commercial where someone pops open a bottle of Coke and pours it into a glass? Guess what. That wasnâ€™t the sound of a bottle of Coke being opened. It wasnâ€™t the sound of Coke being poured out, either. It was the sound of a Buchla synthesizer being manipulated by Suzanne Ciani to sound like Coke.â€ť In fact, Ciani herself elaborates on this:
â€śAt first I had all kinds of ideas for that. I tried to make the bubbles sing. I was going to play the jingle in the bubbles. I had all the harmonics tuned to play a melody, but it didnâ€™t work out. Again I was given a hole to fill and the thing that read quickest and worked the best was the single line up to infinity. Itâ€™s a perfect pour. Itâ€™s really very easy. The harmonics are the harmonics of a subaudio fundamental. You sweep up the harmonics, and then the noise part of course is FMing the filter. Thatâ€™s how you get that fuzzy soundâ€ť
Well of course. In this context, Cianiâ€™s timbral adroitness becomes all the more evident on Seven Waves. And so the piano keys on â€śThe Fourth Wave: Wind in the Seaâ€ť are appropriately rich and organic, never seeming too serious or out of place; meanwhile, the electronic rhythm on â€śThe Fifth Wave: Water Lullabyâ€ť is gentle but structuring, framing the whistling, brassy synth tones and robotic choir coos within a pop music context, and when it suddenly cuts out at the 1:30 mark, the remaining tones sound all the more poignant for its absence. â€śThe Sixth Wave: Deep in the Sea,â€ť for its part, begins with aptly alien synth notes dripping alongside the rushing pulse of high tide, like a submarineâ€™s descent into uncharted waters. And what waters they are: the melodyâ€™s twists and turns are as fascinating as the coral reefs one imagines when hearing the song. Itâ€™s the kind of indelible listen that usually only musical veterans can offer, which makes it all the more remarkable as a debut effort . Indeed, on every track, one gets the distinct impression that each note was masterfully yet effortlessly composed by an artist for whom the emotional capacity of â€śe-musicâ€ť has never been in question.
Though Seven Waves is Cianiâ€™s masterwork, it was her next release that made her a name in the world of electronic ambient music. 1986â€™s The Velocity of Loveâ€”especially its title trackâ€”has since become a wedding reception staple; itâ€™s a classic of the genre, unfortunately obscured by its â€śsentimentalâ€ť leanings. Seeing as how it begins with a track called â€śThe Eighth Wave,â€ť however, itâ€™s not unfair to view it as a sequel to Seven Waves.
And I suppose itâ€™s true that The Velocity of Love is slightly less groundbreaking than its predecessor; the electric piano is a little more typical, and the cymbal crashes are more obviously dramatic than anything found on Seven Waves. But Cianiâ€™s an innovator, and Velocity still contains plenty of breathtakingly gorgeous and imaginative moments. The glissading, whale-sound-like synth pads on â€śLay Down Beside Meâ€ť are beckoning and vaguely jazzy, while the title track makes up for its admittedly sappy piano playing with one hell of a hook. (After all, thereâ€™s a reason the tune became so popular.) Sweeping and tender, â€śThe Velocity of Loveâ€ť manages to become the undisputed highlight of the five-track album, despite being its shortest track by a good four minutes. Similarly, â€śMalibuziosâ€ť overcomes its pan-flute schmaltz with a calming patience that Muzak makers wish their hold music could impart.
As electronic ambient music continues its recent renaissance, it is vital that we remember its forebears. Among them, Suzanne Ciani stands tall as the proud author of at least two synthetically romantic masterpieces that resonate as much today as they did back in the mid-80s. In fact, given the fact that Cianiâ€™s delicate fingerprints can be found all over some of todayâ€™s most renowned beatless electronic music, one could make the argument that her music is even more important today than it was at the time of its original release. Seven Waves and The Velocity of Love are essential listens: grand, aching, and pioneering in their insistence upon injecting electronic music with a very human beauty.