Suzanne Ciani is a five-time Grammy award nominated composer, electronic music pioneer, and neo-classical recording artist whose work has been featured in countless commercials, video games, and feature films.
Over the course of her 30+ year career, she’s released 15 solo albums, provided the voice and sounds for Bally’s groundbreaking “Xenon” pinball machine, received the 2017 Moog Innovation Award, played concerts all over the globe, and carved out a niche as one of the most creatively successful female composers in the world.
At last month’s Moogfest 2018, Suzanne Ciani and collaborator, Layne, unveiled the world premiere of live score in spatial sound to 1920 German silent horror film ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari‘. Considered the quintessential work of German Expressionist cinema, this performance featured Layne and students from Berklee College of Music, where Suzanne is Artist in Residence and Visiting Scholar in Electronic Production and Engineering. After the performance, I managed to catch up with Suzanne to discuss what drew her to the film, her process, and her relationship with Moog.
“When Moog asks me to do something they always take me out of my comfort zone.”
What was your first introduction to ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’? What was the aspect of the film that most stood out to you?
We were searching for the correct film we wanted to do a live score to. We went through many films including some of the earliest films including many of the earliest that women had produced. We looked at the first film ever made by a woman, ‘Where Are My Children‘ and other films, but then we popped on ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’. It is an art piece. A German Expressionist film where every frame is a designed visual picture. I couldn’t have found a better film for our purposes. It carries itself in many ways but really needs support. Our assignment was to emotonally enhance the structure of the film.
The performance here at Moogfest was within the multi-dimensional “Spatial Sound” environment. When you were working on the score did you have this presentation in mind or did you have to make some adaptations after the fact?
It just so happens that the sound company, Meyer Sound, is located in Berkeley, which is my neigborhood. They demonstrated some of the system’s capabilities and, as I was writing, I did an extra layer of composition called Spacial Orchestration. As I work in quad all the time, spacial movement and choreography are part of my normal live performances.
Then, we had to harness this capability. I had an independent quadrophonic setup that fed into the Meyer Sound system that I could control. They translated it into a much wider context so, instead of four speakers, there could be five…in each corner and in the center of the room. Overall, it was a really powerful experience.
Can you explain the individual roles you and your collaborators, in particualr Layne, had during the project and performance?
Layne is my assistant, whose real name is Rachel. We have been working together for a couple of years and it was wonderful to have her incorporate her music easel into this project. She did a lot of the pre production. We first had to find the film and she found the consumate version. Then, there were some sounds that were very specific, so she worked with the Producer and Meyers Sound on the STEMS, which we didnt even use in the end since it was going to ultimately be a largely improvised live performance. When you start working in this silent chasm, it does help to have a bit there to work with that this. She used Native Instruments’ Thrill app, where you can slide on an xy axis and increase the intensity of orchestral sound. We started out with her entering these Thrill Pads that gave us queus and heightened the emotion. Then I constructed a theme for Dr Caligari, which was based on a very particular Dorian scale in the key of B flat. That became the motif for the entire composition. We never left that key.
Did you listen to any past performances and soundtracks made for the film?
I didn’t want to listen to any other scores. When we were searching for the definitive visual, we came across a score or 2 but none of them interested me at all. I’ve learned so much about scoring over 50 years and I knew I wanted this project to have the excitement of structured improvisation in live performance. For example, I had given the cellist a score, but I also told her that it was simply thematic notes. I purposely wanted to take the risk and these musicians delivered. These kids are geniuses. They are four kids from Berklee who are amazing and highly intuitive.
How did Moogfest become the world premiere for this project?
When Moog asks me to do something they always take me out of my comfort zone. It has always been a very big enrichment in my life when they do.
What about the licensing aspect of the film. Who did you have to contact to clear it for the project?
Moogfest did all that! We simply had to pick the film we wanted and they did all the administrative work.
Finally, as the film is a quintessential example of German Expressionism, as well as within the inter war Weimar Republic period of art, many view its themes of paranoia and authorotarianism as holding parallels with actions and trends in todays world. Did you incorprate any of these theoretical ideas into the project?
I know there is a political basis for the film’s concept but it is also so well made and brilliantly staged that it works on multiple levels. I went with the emotional story. I think that is the most powerful message you can have and if you want that message to translate into oppresive government and manipulation of the people, you can. It is a parable of our time because we experience powerlessness now all over the place.
Featured Image: Carlos Gonzalez 2 Moogfest