The intersection of art and commerce has always been a volatile place.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Suzanne Ciani made it her playground. The electronic-music pioneer was living in New York, scoring commercials for Madison Avenue by day, performing avant-garde electronic music downtown by night. The results are collected on a fascinating new retrospective album, “Lixiviation,” which comes out Tuesday.
But Ciani says the disc documents her time at a more important intersection. “Art and technology was a vibrant crossing,” she says over the phone from her home in Bolinas, Calif. “They were separate worlds, but when you brought them together fireworks happened.”
Ciani bottled those fireworks in advertisements for Atari, Almay, Coca-Cola and others. On “Lixiviation,” her corporate audio tags and commercial themes blip, bloop and fizz alongside her more serious work: compositions that explored the possibilities of electronic sound with playfulness and warmth.
Classically trained in piano at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, Ciani’s musical course shifted when she received a fellowship to attend the University of California at Berkeley. “I arrived at Berkeley in the late ’60s with tear gas coming in through the windows,” she says. “It was a very revolutionary time and it was exciting.”
Even musically. As she studied composition, she fell under the influence of synthesizer designer Donald Buchla and began composing on the Buchla 200, a hulking chunk of knobs and wires once at the vanguard of analog synthesizer technology.
“It was like going to the moon,” Ciani says. “Everything was a miracle back then. There was no past. If you developed a technique for playing an instrument, nobody had done it before. Everything was brand-new.”
Ciani traveled to New York City in 1974 to perform in concert and decided to stay, crashing on the floor of Philip Glass’s studio while she looked for work. She remembers confounding audiences with her performances, creating unfamiliar sounds by twisting dials and plugging in different patch chords. “Nobody understood electronic music,” Ciani says. She remembers audience members asking, “Where is it coming from?”
Record labels were equally flummoxed, so Ciani tried Madison Avenue. “Commercial advertising, they were looking for something new,” she says. “I was never really conscious of the guys in the suits. . . . I had total freedom. I had this thing that nobody understood, so they didn’t feel like they could intrude.”
She began designing audio logos for companies, little 2- to 3-second swatches of sound that had to be simple, adventurous and memorable. “I loved the compact world, this microcosmic compositional form,” Ciani says. “You had to appreciate the complexity of making a lasting, deep statement in such a short time.”
She was good at it, landing commercial work for Merrill Lynch, AT&T, Columbia Pictures, Black & Decker and General Electric. She composed music for pinball machines and TV newscasts. She made appearances on the children’s science program “3-2-1 Contact” and “The David Letterman Show,” where she was told she’d be allowed to perform her own music after giving a demonstration. (Instead, Ciani remembers Letterman cutting to commercial on his short-lived morning show.)
“I was very visible,” Ciani says. “I had the number one sound design company in New York. . . . And much to my chagrin, the commercial work kept attracting all of this attention. I wanted the attention on my music.”
That changed when the title track of her 1986 album, “Velocity of Love,” became a hit in a then-burgeoning new-age scene. Her 1988 album, “Neverland,” earned a Grammy award nomination. Numerous recordings followed, with Ciani slowly moving away from electronics back to her to her classical roots.
“I know people will come to hear synthesized music,” Ciani told the New York Times in a 1974 profile. “I grew up with classical music, and it took me a long time to appreciate rock. But the two are coming together, and electronic music is where they meet.”
Prescient words. Electronic music is all around today, but Ciani doesn’t feel connected to the world to which she helped pave the road.
“I don’t like mousing around,” she says of making music on a computer, the way virtually all electronic music is made today. “In the old days, you turned knobs and dials. . . . It was a choreography of motions.”
But Ciani doesn’t feel left behind, either.
“We used to think of [technology] as this trajectory that was always new and going forward, but now that we have such a backlog and a history of it, it’s starting to recycle a little bit,” she says. “The old technology is becoming interesting again.”