The musicians disappear into the work.
Synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla passed away two days before the release of Sunergy. It’s a shame he didn’t live to hear this fantastic tribute to his legacy. Composed with just two Buchla synths, Sunergy makes up for its severely limited palate through the sheer ingenuity of the two musicians behind it, both of them intimately familiar with their instruments.
Its backstory is delightful. 71-year-old Suzanne Ciani is one of those musicians you’ve probably heard even if you don’t know who she is. She played on Starland Vocal Band’s notorious “Afternoon Delight” and Meco’s disco version of the Star Wars theme, and she’s done sound effects for dozens of ads, most notably the “pop” you hear in Coca-Cola commercials. She’s also the first woman to score a major Hollywood film by herself (The Incredible Shrinking Woman, 1981) and has a prolific, five-time-Grammy-nominated career as a new age artist.
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, a 30-year-old ex-folkie who happened to live in the same town as Ciani, ran into the elder musician by chance. They bonded over Buchlas and, under the patronage of the RVNG Intl. label, recorded Sunergy as part of the consistently great FRKWYS series.
Sunergy, then, is a labor of love by two people with nearly symbiotic bonds to their instruments. But don’t let the backstory trip you up. There’s not really any palpable sense of collaborative joy; at risk of sounding rockist, I’d argue the synergy the FRKWYS series – which pairs younger musicians with older kindred spirits – is better transmitted through a band setting.
What Sunergy does bring to the table is the thrill of hearing two skilled musicians push their instruments to the limit. Listening to Sunergy is like listening to a Hendrix or electric Miles Davis album in how it challenges your perception of what the instruments it was made on can sound like. Appropriately–given Ciani’s history using Buchlas to replicate everyday noises– Sunergy doesn’t sound like synths so much as animal noises; opener “A New Day” isn’t too far off from Pink Floyd’s tape experiment “Several Small Species Of Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave And Grooving With A Pict.” This isn’t one of those revivalist kosmische albums that openly touts the fact that it’s made on synths. It sounds like something else entirely.
Sunergy is split into three tracks, two on vinyl. “A New Day,” a slowly crescendoing sea of avian burbles, takes up nearly half of the album’s runtime. Thankfully, it never builds into anything so noisy as to break its ambient spell. “Closed Circuit” is weaker, flitting between dynamics seemingly at will, but it’s thankfully short compared to the other two. The final track, “Retrograde,” is perhaps the best thing here, its phased-out drone evoking the hazy bliss of Michael Stearns or fellow FRKWYS participant Laraaji. I advise anyone but collectors and zealous record fans to stay away from the vinyl edition; it’s underwhelming without “Retrograde.”
This is a good album, but it doesn’t quite capture the collaborative rapture that makes the FRKWYS series so special. The two best FRKWYS releases – Laraaji’s joint with Blues Control and the Congos’ album with Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras – worked because of the obvious thrill the older and younger parties got out of mixing their styles into an integrated whole. On Sunergy, the musicians disappear into the work. This isn’t an album with a whole lot of personality, but it’s a good-sounding one, and one of the year’s better ambient releases.