At once boldly experimental and melodically accessible.
The Buchla modular synthesizer is an imposing device. A series of boxes and wires that looks like so much multi-colored spaghetti, one makes music from its chaos of circuits by means of patch cords that connect among dozens of ports. This is the challenging instrument that synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani mastered. Originally recorded in 1969, Flowers of Evil issues previously unreleased work from the student days of a musician whose audience would go on to include anybody with a television set. But this isn’t mere juvenilia; it’s at once boldly experimental and melodically accessible.
Even if you don’t know Ciani’s name, you’ve probably heard her music. Her wide-ranging c.v. has careened from ‘80s new age to the funky Star Wars-inspired pop of Meco and session work for Starland Vocal Band; that whoosh in the easy listening staple “Afternoon Delight”? It’s her work. Ciani also made her name (and fortune) in advertising, using the Buchla to create such once-ubiquitous sounds as the pop-pour sound effect in Coca-Cola commercials. So a musical setting of work by a 19th century French poet may seem atypical of this forward-thinking artist. Flowers of Evil may not make you want to pop open a soda bottle, but it’s far more enjoyable than you might expect from an experimental electronic adaptation of Baudelaire.
The 14-minute title piece opens with a series of notes that suggest an organ fanfare. A repeating figure ensues that recalls Terry Riley’s landmark work A Rainbow in Curved Air, which Ciani has named as one of her all-time favorite albums. But while you can hear Riley’s influence (like Ciani, he favored the Buchla), her electronic melodies are more patient and less prone to purple flourishes.
Ciani intended to recite Baudelaire’s poem “Elevation,” first published in 1857, on top of this electronic base, but she reportedly wasn’t happy with her Italian-American accent’s attempt at the original French, so she farmed the task out to an unnamed language student from nearby Mills College. Although Baudelaire had written this verse more than a century before Ciani’s recording, his words seem to resonate with a troubled time; remember that the University of California at Berkeley, where she was studying with Buchla at the time, was a hotbed of student protest. “Elevation” seems to look at a way up and out of discord. From William Aggeler’s 1954 translation:
Beyond the vast sorrows and all the vexations
That weigh upon our lives and obscure our vision,
Happy is he who can with his vigorous wing
Soar up towards those fields luminous and serene
At the crossroads of the future and the past, Ciani found an ancient beauty in the modern. It seems inevitable that she would turn to new age music later, but as she explains in the fascinating documentary A Life in Waves, it seemed to be the only genre that had any hope of describing her music, not pop nor jazz nor classical.
The shorter tracks that fill out Flowers of Evil, which runs only 26 minutes in total, sound more like the score to a science-fiction fantasy (she would later compose music for The Stepford Wives and The Incredible Shrinking Woman). “Glass Houses” is a percolating track that looks forward to R2-D2 and the chimes Ciani developed for a GE commercial promoting a new dishwasher. The two parts of “Token Spokes” are more sinister, with an electronic breath suggesting some kind of robotic beast. It also seems to anticipate, in a wildly different tone, the sensual electronic voice Ciani created for the pinball game Xenon.
Ciani shifted from electronics to acoustic instruments in the ‘80s and then back again, the development vaguely coinciding with a failed marriage, and it’s tempting to read her music as a metaphor for human connection. While her piano-based new age work reflected a romanticism, did she return to synthesizers after that illusion was shattered? Before she used her distinct music to sell products from bath soap to weed whackers, Ciani, with Flowers of Evil, raised profound questions about the relationship between man and machine—a duality that seems to run throughout her work, even and perhaps especially in what you heard on TV.