Laurie Spiegel and Suzanne Ciani have lived parallel lives. Both began exploring the sonic possibilities of modular synthesizers, particularly the Buchla 200, in the late 1960s. Both were at the forefront of the development of electronic music through the seventies and eighties in New York City, seeking ways to make synthesizers more interactive and accessible. Over the past five years, a resurgence of interest in both of their work has run parallel with the renewed interest in old synthesizers. They will feature prominently at this year's Moogfest, two godmothers of so much of the festival's music.
Spiegel got her start in electronic music after a 1969 encounter with Morton Subotnick's Buchla 200. In 1974, after a few years of painstaking work crafting sounds on the Buchla, she began working at Bell Labs on GROOVE (Generated Realtime Operations on Voltage-controlled Equipment), an early digital sequencer, and her vocabulary changed dramatically. Unlike the Buchla, the GROOVE's computers allowed for both real-time sound generation and memory. So she could improvise live and easily save the results, allowing her to more quickly hone her compositions. Her music from this period, captured on the album The Expanding Universe, is full of intricate counterpoint with few loops or drones. Everything constantly evolves, pulsing forever forward with a cheerfully bouncing effervescence. In a way, it's not that far removed from what Steve Reich or Philip Glass was doing at the same time.
This period is also when Spiegel recorded perhaps her most far-reaching work, a realization of Johannes Kepler's 1619 "Music of the Spheres." The "piece" is a set of mathematical instructions outlining how elliptical the orbit of each planet is and how that might sound. In Spiegel's hands, those instructions become an ominous assemblage of sirens oscillating at different speeds over different pitch ranges. Occasionally the pitches line up to create fleeting consonant harmonies, but most of the time the music's cold timbres and mathematical precision portend a well-ordered apocalypse. Somehow, her sonic representation of the solar system came to the attention of Carl Sagan as he was curating the Golden Records affixed to the Voyager spacecraft. Consequently, Spiegel's music is hurtling through space alongside that of Bach, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, and Chuck Berry.
After Bell Labs shut down GROOVE in 1978, Spiegel continued to innovate in real-time digital electronics through the eighties and nineties, developing a computer program called "Music Mouse – An Intelligent Instrument" and working on the never-released McLeyvier synthesizer. Because of the capabilities of these instruments, her music began to include richer and more varied hues.
At Moogfest, her music will appear as part of the Prelude to Sleep series in the score to a film by her late husband, Peter Schmideg, titled Maya Deren: Prelude to Generating a Dream Palette. While there has been a steady drip of archival releases of Spiegel's work, this 2016 score is some of the only new music she's released in the past fifteen years or so.
Ciani's story is similar to Spiegel's. She, too, encountered the Buchla synthesizer in 1969 and quickly became obsessed. She even worked for Don Buchla for a few years, helping to build the complicated devices. Unlike most early users of the Buchla who thought of it primarily as a studio instrument, Ciani—like Buchla himself—strove to show that it could be played live.
Once she moved to New York City in 1974, she began to perform in galleries and venues around the city. The recordings of those shows demonstrate a remarkable command of the notoriously temperamental instrument. She crafts looping strata with constantly shifting timbres. One minute, the Buchla emits ominous throbs, the next, playful beacons in vaguely funky rhythms, and later, almost percussive slaps. Her approach to sound and space still sounds remarkably fresh.
But performing experimental music in New York wasn't especially lucrative. To make ends meet, she started creating commercial music for companies including Atari, AT&T, Coca-Cola, and ABC. Each fifteen-second burst of sound contains small shards of those longer improvisations, albeit with some of the harsher edges sanded off. Heard today, they have a funny, retro-futuristic feel. In the eighties and nineties, she recorded new age records that received some acclaim, though they lacked the captivating gravity of her earlier work.
More recently, Ciani has re-emerged as an ambassador for the continued relevance of the Buchla. The instrument has changed a great deal since she started, adopting digital technology and harnessing the power of computers. She's gone back to creating long-form sound sculptures that aren't so different from those early-seventies performances. She's quick to talk about the evolution of synthesizers and how they've affected her life and the musical world at large. This is Ciani's second year as a Moogfest headliner, and she's also the subject of a new documentary, A Life in Waves, which also screens at the festival.
Both women credit electronic instruments for allowing their music to be heard. Classical music institutions in the 1970s were (and to a large extent still are) heavily male dominated, so synthesizers allowed Spiegel and Ciani to directly control their own sonic means of production. Spiegel takes it a step further, arguing that they were "outsiders trying to remusicalize and rehumanize composing." Even now, both women still seek to do that. It's a credit to Moogfest that it's giving them space for new work rather than forcing them to wallow in nostalgia.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Mothers of Invention."