Donato Dozzy Speaks to Synth Pioneer Suzanne Ciani

Words by marksmith

Since releasing a career-spanning compilation on archive label du jour Finders Keepers in 2012, Suzanne Ciani’s impact on modern electronic music has never been more obvious. From her early days soldering circuit boards in Don Buchla’s synthesizer studio to making pinball machines speak and designing sounds for big brands like Coca-Cola, 68-year-old Ciani has long sensualized technology by emphasizing its continuities with nature.

Italian DJ and producer Donato Dozzy is on a similar sonic journey. A veteran of Roman techno, Dozzy remains unparalleled in crafting tactile and immersive electronic atmospheres. Over the past decade, the Labyrinth Festival resident has been a driving force behind the highly influential techno projects Aquaplano and Voices from the Lake. More recently however, his music has broken through the confines of the dancefloor and ascended into orbit with a slew of releases on Spectrum Spools and Prologue that both define and explode the concept of “hypnotic techno.” The two met at Dozzy’s house on the outskirts of Rome and found out, after shedding a few tears, that their connections run deeper than either would expect.

Donato Dozzy: Suzanne, this is quite an uncanny experience for me, talking to you here right now. I heard your voice for the first time when I was ten years old. I’m not joking. I was with my mother on holiday and I came across this pinball game called Xenon. We were in a skiing village, and I was actually looking for the right place to go play video games, and I became fascinated by this pinball machine. I put a coin in and you showed up.

Suzanne Ciani: When you put the coin in my voice goes [puts on a sexy voice] “Ahhhh.”

DD: To a ten-year-old boy that was quite a new and exciting experience. It left a lasting impression.

SC: I like sensual technology. To me that was fun. When Bally hired me to do the sounds for the game, I had never played pinball before, and when I watched guys play it it seemed like…

DD: . . . like they were having sex with the machine?

SC: Well, in a sense. But there were some vocal things I wanted to do that were too far out for the manufacturer. Like, when you hit the flippers, I used a harmonizer to lower my voice so it went “Ohhh, ahhh, oooh!” I also wanted to put a whip crack sound on the flipper, but they wouldn’t let me do that.

DD: I remember going home after playing and I never forgot about that.

SC: [provocatively] “Try me again.”

DD: Yeah, I remember! I’d never had a machine talking to me before, ever.

SC: “Try the tube shot.”

DD: Oh my god.

SC: I was actually inducted into the Pinball Hall of Fame last year. I was the first female voice in a pinball machine. I didn’t think that was that worthy, I thought I should’ve been inducted because of all the hi-tech work we did. But I’m glad you experienced it.

DD: You and “Pinball Wizard” from The Who—the combination really fucked up my childhood.

SC: I had a lot of guys come up to me and tell me that. I wasn’t aware of it because I never went to a pinball parlor.

DD: I also have a vinyl of yours here with the recording you made for Coca-Cola, the sound of the bottle opening and the bubbles fizzing.

SC: Yeah, in terms of recording, you could never get those bubbles going up perfectly, so those are imaginary. You actually don’t hear bubbles when you open a Coke! Here was the job: I’d been trying to meet with the Coca-Cola people for a year, and I finally barged in. They had a song already made for the advertisement and they had a blank space, a little opening of a couple seconds, and then the song started again. The Coke guy said, “Can you do something in there?” I said yes, not knowing what I was going to do. He says, “Well, what do you need?” and I said “My Buchla!” I ran and got the Buchla synthesizer, brought it in, and then it occurred to me that if I did something generic without a pitch center, then they would have much more latitude in using it again—they could use it in more places. So I thought of the bubbles and I used the Buchla to make the sound of fizzing and the lid popping off. Sure enough, they used it in all their ads, every year or so they used it. They made a whole campaign around it, this pop and pour.

DD: It sounds better than any Coca-Cola you’d ever open in reality.

SC: When you think of the real sound, of an actual bottle opening, it doesn’t have all that finesse and detail. So you create a sound that is the Platonic ideal, an imagined perfection that doesn’t really exist. Then it informs people’s perception of the reality.

Working for these big companies was fun because it was different every time, and I had a lot of freedom because nobody understood what the Buchla could do. Everyone was like, “What is that?” Nobody had ever seen this machine before, and then I got hot and so everybody wanted to hire me. But the Buchla, as a modular synth, had no keyboard, and companies would hire me to play riffs and I’d have to say no because it was physically impossible to play a simple tune.

DD: Of course, it doesn’t work like that.

SC: When I went to American record companies they’d say, “OK, what do you sing?”

I’d say, “I don’t sing.”

“Oh, so where’s your guitar?”

“Well, I don’t play the guitar.”

“Well, what do you do?”

I said, “I play the modular synthesizer and I need a week in the studio to make a demo.”

“A week? We’ll give you three hours.”

Their idea of a demo was, you go in and sing a song, and for me, a demo was a week around the clock in the studio. That didn’t work, so I went to Europe because Tangerine Dream was happening here and I thought maybe Europe would have a more receptive environment for electronic music. I went all around, and it was horrible. Then I went back home and continued to work on my album, and I had about five pieces done. I heard that Japan was the second largest synth music market…

DD: …and still is!

SC: …so I went. I took somebody with me and that’s how I got my first deal. They had some electronic consciousness there. It was completely different. The worst experience was the United States: they don’t listen at all, they talk on the phone, people are coming in and out. Europe is second worst. In Japan, they’d take you in a quiet room with some tea and a good sound system and you sit and they listen to your whole record and they don’t say a word. Have you had this experience?

DD: Oh yeah. For the Japanese it’s the deepest form of respect. It can be confusing at times because you don’t know where their real interest ends and where mere politeness begins. Generally the culture is really into respecting the act of listening. I can say at the moment that Japan is probably the place where I personally have the biggest satisfaction because the people have the biggest enthusiasm towards the music. Sometimes I wish I was born a bit earlier just to experience the vibe of the past. Every time I try to relate myself to musicians and artists that belong to a different generation I feel like we are the same age. I try to look at the old days like they are present right now. This is the way I feel because I think that things haven’t changed as much as people may think. The way to the music is still the same. You’ve found your Buchla attitude many years ago and it’s still in your heart. Basically, I think you’re bolted to that.

SC: An Italian understands this. Some people think that machines are inanimate, but for those of us who play them, we know they are alive.

DD: There is continuity between nature and synthesizers. It’s not only about using an internal oscillator to create a certain sound. It’s also the way the machine can interact and process sounds coming from nature. You can manipulate nature and establish a relationship with it through the machine. So you use a synthesizer to get closer to nature in some way.

SC: Are you talking about processing a sampled sound?

DD: Yes. Recording them, watching their waveforms, comparing them to the waves within a synthesizer. The distinction between “real” and “artificial” doesn’t make any sense to me anymore. For me, a sound is a sound. I’m interested in what I can hear in my surroundings and putting them in relation to artificial ones, and seeing what happens when they are combined.

SC: You’re sonically orientated. I feel when I hear your music that you’re into the color of the sound. Because I grew up with the Buchla modular system, I have always focused on the way the sound moves. I’m talking about the old days. What happened was that people thought synthesizers were about making specific sounds like, “Can it sound like a flute or strings?” That was never a focus for me. I was all about sonic movement. No, my synth didn’t sound like an oboe, it sounded like thunder going up into the sky. It was moving in a very ephemeral way that didn’t stop long enough for you to say, “This sounds like that.”

DD: And without human control. I’ve been reading the notes you’ve printed to accompany your compositions. It seems like you have a very specific, preconceived idea in your mind and you try to use the machine to recreate something that is related to reality, to daily living. But it’s the way you make it that’s totally free from any structure. It follows what’s in your mind, an idea.

SC: It’s a poetry. You live the poetry. That’s what I heard in your music also, the conjuring up of atmospheres and environments. Every time you listen it’s different. When you make a piece to please yourself, one in which all the details are just exactly the way you want them, that’s available for people to hear. If a piece isn’t constructed right it gets so boring. Don’t you think there’s something Italian about that?

DD: This has to be related to the way we are influenced by the place that we live. California and Italy have many common points. Plus, if you add on top that you also have Italian origins, everything comes full circle. We are surrounded by environments that are full of colors and smells, and that is easily transposed into the music.

SC: When you’re working in electronic music, you do think about that, because you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, to fundamental elements of sound. You can deal with the frequencies that rub, and you can control so many raw elements when you’re electronic. You think about the pitch, amplitude, timbre; you think in all these little separate fields. You analyze sound as you’re making it.

DD: That’s totally true. The same principles can be applied to nature in general. It’s the way the universe is constructed. People get used to these principles and sounds because they’re surrounded by them from birth, so they take them as given. If you have the right attitude or if you start thinking in another way, you can see the principles of synthesis apply to everything that surrounds you. It’s about how cause relates to effect. Think of how a certain action of the wind will make things sound in a different way. It’s the sort of modulation you will find on a synthesizer. Now I’m in a stage of life where everywhere I go I hear sound. I hear something I like and wonder, “What is the pitch? What is the note? Will this fit to something else?” Electronic or not, it doesn’t matter.

SC: As humans we apply our consciousness to all sounds. We can’t help but listen in a human way that organizes what we hear. As for the ego, our judgement—why do we get wrapped up in liking and disliking and identifying with some things? It’s part of being human, yet there seems to be so much noise that goes around creation which doesn’t feel authentic. How do we get back to what is primal?

DD: The voice is the primary instrument. After years of working without vocals, I’ve regained interest in this form. I’ve gone deeper into rediscovering the origins of where I’m from, especially the musical scene in Italy back in the late ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s. I’ve been going deeper and learning about the people who had been using the voice as an instrument, like Demetrio Stratos, who died young at age 34. He had Greek origins and he came to Italy just at the right time. Not so many people know about this guy, but he was one of the fundamental elements of the Italian prog band Area, which was one of the biggest in Italy in the ’70s. Listen to Stratos’ record Cantare la Voce; it’s breathtaking the way he does things with the voice which we would do with a synthesizer.

So the point is not even the voice itself, it’s the way you use it. It’s about the brain and about the attitude. Many people do amazing things with the voice but this guy especially was doing it in a way that we would understand immediately. I’m glad Sony is repressing his works. I discovered that his vocal technique had been influenced by Eastern culture. You can watch videos of monks who can create multiple notes with the tone of their voice—singing chords. The overtones are crazy. This is what I learned: We all wake up in the morning with our own unique voice, but there are some people who are blessed and go in amazing directions. After that experience I thought that it was the right time for me to try to work with the voice. I’m not able to sing myself, just a little bit. So I thought that if I found someone who had the right voice, then I could try to work with some of these effects. In my opinion it worked pretty well.

SC: So your new album is only voice?

DD: Only voice. I made the album, Sintetrizzatrice, with a singer named Anna Caragnano. The idea came from a guy who was my mentor since I was 18 years old. He taught me how to relate myself to a crowd. His name is Paolo Micioni, and he’s a producer and DJ known for his involvement with disco. Anyhow, at the beginning of this year he was facing a very heavy illness, and he told me [Donato wells up], “Donato, I’ve always been your big brother. I’m very proud of what you do. But there is one thing you haven’t done yet: confront yourself with the primary element.” I knew what I had to do, and he put me in touch with this girl. Then I learned that she grew up in the same town where my mother was born, which is in Puglia in the southeast of Italy, a very small village called Mottola. Then I thought, “OK, this really is a sign.” We made an album in two weeks. Two weeks! It’s going to be out on March 30.

SC: For me, the voice was an expressive tool, but it was always related to technology in some way. When I started working with electronic music there was no expression, no velocity or pressure control. So I built a device I called the “Voice Box,” which was an assembly of processing stuff, like compressors, a vocoder, and equalizers. It allowed me to use my voice to control dynamics and expression on a synthesizer. It’s charting that continuity between nature and machines again, right?

I actually knew Harald Bode, who invented the vocoder. He was German, a lovely guy who worked at Bell Labs. Sennheiser had an early vocoder, but the Bode vocoder was the best, and he did a custom mod so that the unpitched part of the voice at the high end would pass through the effects so it made a more breathy sound. I have vocoder on all my albums. It was subtle, but it was there and that was why I got into it. In order to spend all the hours that you do with that machine you really have to be in love with it. You want to have a rapport, you want to feel connected. Early on I went through a period where I said, “This machine isn’t behaving like a machine! It’s not calibrated, why doesn’t the tuning hold the way its supposed to?” It’s supposed to do something logical. And then I said to myself “Oh my god, it’s not a machine. It’s human! It makes mistakes.”

DD: In Buchla terminology, this is called the source of uncertainty.

SC: I said to Don Buchla, “This is not tuning properly,” and he said, “Well, do something else.” The attitude was that you shouldn’t come to the machine with a preset idea of what you want to do—you should feedback with the machine and evolve your language with it. But I came to the new version of the Buchla with a language developed on the old machine. So I’m suffering now because I’m not approaching the machine on its own terms. I want it to do what it used to do, and it’s not doing it. When my original Buchla was stolen, I . . . [with tears in her eyes] I basically had to have an intervention. Friends came over to try and get me back on track. I was suffering. The machine broke down, and I broke down.

DD: I feel so bad.

SC: People in New York said, “We have to do something.” Somebody actually bought me another machine and said, “You just have to start playing something else.”

DD: Like after you have a car accident, you just keep moving and eventually start driving again.

SC: Then my studio became this huge clearinghouse for all kinds of instruments: Yamahas, Rolands, whatever. After I lost the Buchla, I designed DX7 sounds and I worked for Roland. They would hire me to go out and inspire people to play the synth. The other thing that happened was that I gradually weaned myself off electronics. My first two albums were all electronic and as I went on more and more acoustic instruments came in until finally it was all acoustic. Now I play the piano, but I’m going back to the Buchla. You never know what’s going to happen.

[Donato picks up an ornate box.]

SC: What’s in there?

[Donato pulls out a jaw harp, places it between his teeth and begins to play.]

DD: It’s a jaw harp. This is a Russian variation called a khomus, which has a way longer sound than the average jaw harp. Somehow this strange little instrument has become like an extension of what I do in the studio with my machines. This is something that you can do without using a synthesizer, and the sound is so similar. My studio hasn’t been switched on for two months now. I play the jaw harp because I feel this is its moment for me. At some point you need to switch from what you usually do and extend it to other types of instruments. There are one or two instruments in particular that are going to call you and this has been mine. It’s inspiring to recreate machine sounds with non-electronic instruments and see what the difference is, the effect that it brings to my brain, my body. When you play the jaw harp, you feel all your bones vibrating because you put it between your teeth and then your whole head starts vibrating. It’s crazy. I want to be good at it.

SC: You could tour with the jaw harp.

DD: I would, but my mother is worried that I’d break a tooth.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. To read more from this issue, click here.