Main Image

14 Sounds of Suzanne Ciani’s Future

In a 2011 article for GQ, John Jeremiah Sullivan opens with one of those long, self-referential ledes about the story he was assigned (the future of the human race), the story he ‘thought he had’ (a look into the Future of Humanity Institute at Oord University in England), and the story he ultimately found (a fundamental change in the nature animal aggression toward humans) –– the kind of delightful decoy lede that seems to take you away from the story but actually crystallizes its central theme. When Sullivan finally gets to his nugget –– the idea that takes him from ‘the future of the human race’ to animal attacks––– it seems simultaneously obvious and unbelievable: “no one knows what’s going to happen in the future.

A minute of reflection will prove this claim true. No one is a fortune teller. There may be the odd Michael Moore election prediction or Twitter account that knew about Beyonce’s twins seven months before the world did –– but those usually amount to chance or to psychopathically genius tweeting strategy. Most attempts to peek into the future seem silly when that future rolls around. Look no farther than shouting human eggplant Sean Spicer’s least favorite franchise: Dippin’ Dots. The theme park staple calls itself “The Ice Cream of the Future™” because it is frozen using liquid nitrogen instead of a conventional freezer. The Dippin’ Dots brand is built on a particular idea of futurity –– a future where cryogenic freezing (using liquid nitrogen to preserve the body for later resuscitation) is serious proposition and the robot that run our lives are pastel upgrades of C3PO-inspired droids (Dippin’ Dots calls its freezing mechanism the DotBot3000). Of course, Dippin’ Dots’ branding was tongue in cheek, but not enough to sustain the public’s interest. When Dippin’ Dots filed for bankruptcy in 2011, Business Insider wrote an article called “Why Dippin' Dots Were Not The Ice Cream Of The Future” which ultimately concluded that the company relies on novelty, and “it's hard to do that after 23 years.”

Nonetheless, some forward-thinking snapshots charm us even beyond the nostalgia of how backward they ultimately prove to be. Orwell’s 1984, Vannevar Bush’s Memex, –– their appeal isn’t predicated on the accuracy of their predictions. The same can be said for Suzanne Ciani, the lanky pioneer of the Buchla Analog Modular Synthesizer, who first appeared in mainstream music consciousness in 1974, when Helen Epstein profiled her in a The New York Times article called “The Cello Can’t Play These Chords.” Ciani later became one of the major names of the modular-synth and New Age avant-gardes, but she began her career with a small time sound design company called Ciani/Musica. Ciani/Musica partnered with major corporations like Merrill Lynch, AT&T, General Electric and, most famously, Coca-Cola to write the musical and sound effect scores for their commercials. Many of the companies had trouble recording real-life sounds that came alive on tape, Ciani helped them out with her synth. Her most successful sound was a space-age-y take on the ‘pop’ of a coke bottle and the sound of soda pouring into a glass.

The clips below are a handful of those sounds that launched Ciani’s career (and a few that didn’t), and they’re laden with the pseudo-futuristic bleeps and bloops that set off Letterman’s (see #2) loveable snark (some aren’t), but all are still charming even forty years into the future.

1. In 1977, Suzanne Ciani produced the sound effects for Meco’s album Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk, a disco album using the soundtrack from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, which had dropped earlier that year. The album went platinum. Watch the title theme here:

2. In 1980, Ciani was invited on the The David Letterman Show (that was his morning pre-cursor to Late Night) to show off an analog synthesizer called the “Prophet 5,” then the cutting edge of electronic sounds. Watch Letterman squirm with confusion as Ciani fools around with his voice.

3. Suzanne Ciani’s work on the Xenon Pinball Machine inspired in Omni Magazine precisely that Dippin’ Dots brand of misguided futurism. The video opens on the host seated next to a transparent orb, occasionally electrified by a purple lightning native to Halloween decor. Without addressing the orb, the host asks with deadpan nonsequitur, “Isn’t it amazing that electricity like this, could one day be used to re-grow entire limbs?” before coming around to introduce Ciani. Ciani explains how she designed the sound effects and music of the Xenon Pinball game.

4. Ciani/Musica produced commercials for dozens of Fortune 500 companies in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Some of her most successful includede this trailer for “wealth management” giant, Merrill Lynch:


5. And this trailer for Beck & Decker lawn cutters:

6. And this trailer for General Electric dishwashers:

7. Many major brands have “sound logos” –– familiar six or seven second jingles that trigger in listeners a kind of Proustian brand loyalty: the “restart” sound of Apple computers. The hum of THX productions. The ding of an iPhone text. Suzanne Ciani was responsible for some of the most culturally prominent of these sounds in the 1980’s and ‘90s. Here’s her take on the Columbia Pictures sound logo:


8. And* the infamous Coca-Cola Pop & Pour:

*The following are WAV files, they'll open a new window.

9 +10. And her two themes for Atari video games: (thats the video game branch) (that their corporate tag).

11. She also did AT&T’s sound:

12. Listen to a whole presentation reel of her work from 1985 here:

13. In 2000, Ciani was invited to play at “AppleVention 2000” a conference for users of the personal computers at the turn of the millennium. This footage is of Ciani welcoming the new computer overlords with a piece called “The Enchantress” accompanied by a “live visualizer” –– a software program which generated images according to audio input –– on an early Mac application called “G-Force.”

14. Fast-forward to 2010, Ciani gives us a vision of the real future –– a cat video she filmed with her 11-year-old niece. West Coast modular synthesizer pioneers are just like us! They like lolcatz too: