Suzanne Ciani played King’s Place on 26th September as part of the Venus Unwrapped series. Madeleine Wrench headed down to witness the pioneering modular-synth icon in action.

“I only have one love and that’s the Buchla. I don’t play anyone else’s switches.” A small silhouette against her one love, Susanne Ciani begins to play. A wave careers around the four speakers in the room before she has even finished speaking, building to a low, fat squelch that pulsates in time with my heartbeat. 

We’re here to see her play the Buchla 200e. A rival to Bob Moog, Don Buchla’s analogue modular synthesiser is a beast. In the 1970s Ciani travelled around New York with only a suitcase of clothes and this enormous piece of hardware, sleeping in Philip Glass’s basement studio and scraping cents as a session musician. Informing us that she will be playing a Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator in quadrophonic, the synth-enthusiasts in the room practically vibrate with excitement. Ciani’s career has been extensive and wildly varied, peppered with brave and sometimes strange successes – she provided sound effects for a disco version of Star Wars IV and was the first female vocal heard in a pinball machine. Best-known to the wider public for her neoclassical piano compositions, she really is a pioneer of electronic music and sound. 

The low, rumbling wave of sound rolls back and forth as a livestream of the Buchla is projected above the stage. This makes it seem even more titanic, dwarfing Ciani who rocks back and forth on her heels as she flicks switches and changes wires. At one point she unplugs a yellow cable and suddenly there are five minutes of pure percussion. As the layers build, they ricochet off the walls, hurtling around the edges like a freight train. The audience’s rapture is broken only once when a low battery sign appears on the projector, met by a ripple of laughter as we all realise we’ve been holding our breath. I can’t hold it any longer and make a dash for the bathroom; when I return the usher at the door puts her finger on her lips and shakes her head: ‘Suzanne hates latecomers.’ ‘I’m not late, I just went for a piss.’ ‘Same thing.’ I wring my hands in exasperation, feeling panicked. The usher turns towards the door and I bolt back in, crawling back to my seat as quietly as possible. Ciani is furiously clicking switches, bathed in blood-red light, and on the screen there are three tablets she is using as midi keyboards. This melding of digital and analogue seems strange, and as she swipes her hands across the tablets they feel so much more precarious. As the synths weave in and out of the continuum and slowly fade to an echo there is a pause before Ciani turns and bows. 

Held in the second season of Luminate at the newly rebranded King’s Place, Ciani was invited to take part in Venus Unwrapped –  a year-long series focusing on female and female-identifying composers.