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Suzanne Ciani Turns Grace Cathedral Into an Otherworldly House of Worship

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Suzanne Ciani performs on her Buchla 200e at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Even before Suzanne Ciani played one note inside Grace Cathedral, her headlining show on Saturday night felt like an event. Outside, the full moon glistened behind the Top of the Mark, explosions of Lunar New Year fireworks reverberated from Chinatown below and a long line for her concert snaked down California Street on Nob Hill.

Ciani, the groundbreaking analog synth composer and Bay Area treasure, was here to celebrate the 40th anniversary of her debut studio album Seven Waves. As the sold-out crowd made of mostly 30- and 40-somethings filed into the cathedral — outfitted with quadraphonic speakers for the occasion — dozens took photos of the high ceilings, Ciani’s synthesizer and even the tech specs on the back of the speakers themselves.

Suzanne Ciani speaks prior to her performance of ‘Seven Waves’ at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Ciani, who lives in Bolinas, welcomed her many friends in attendance, and introduced her Buchla 200e as “this instrument I’ve been playing for the past millions of years.” Then the 77-year-old icon sat down, started sending Seven Waves’ distinct ocean wave sounds across the cathedral walls — bathed in light patterns — and took the audience on a journey.

Instead of performing a straight re-creation of the album, Ciani introduced an array of themes from Seven Waves’ original multitracks, and over them hatched spontaneous compositions. Released in 1984, Seven Waves is full of wondrous melodies, deep bass often in counterpoint and arpeggios typical of the New Age era. (I hesitate to say it, but in my brain, it’s filed next to Ray Lynch’s Deep Breakfast.) On Saturday night, however, her improvised deconstructions turned it into an entirely new, eerie, invigorating work for 2024.

A light projection show on the vaulted ceiling of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco as Suzanne Ciani performs on Feb. 24, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Immediately it became clear just how much Ciani is an influence on modern film composers like Atticus Ross and Cliff Martinez, as well as recent darkwave bands like Kavinsky or Com Truise. Even more in focus was Ciani’s command of dynamics. Soft passages stayed soft; no small feat considering Grace Cathedral’s famous seven-second delay, and she knew just when to drop a sharp bass stab to rattle the pews.

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After a while, the music worked its magic on the audience’s various mindstates (the announcer had acknowledged that “ushers are here to make sure you have the best trip possible”). A series of tones in 6/8 time evoked seagulls flying over the ocean; a syncopated, fuzzy bass provided the foundation for what sounded like disembodied human voices humorously trying to hold a conversation.

People file into Grace Cathedral in San Francisco to watch Suzanne Ciani perform Particles & Waves on Feb. 24, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

Finally, Ciani whittled her music down to pure percussive elements. Mixed with white noise, these transformed into near-gunshot sounds. As they fired out of successive speakers on either side of the nave, it felt for several minutes like being in the middle of a battlefield.

What came next? Peace, of course. Waves, waves and more waves, taking on new life with each audio ripple across the tall walls.

Fans make photos of Suzanne Ciani’s Buchla 200e at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

The cathedral is a haven for the spiritual. The synthesizer is a box for the mechanical. But with someone like Ciani in charge, mixing the two proved powerful, nearly human, as if the French Gothic building itself were speaking.

It even proved romantic. By the concert’s end, in the back, I counted five couples sitting with their arm around each other, head rested on the other’s shoulders, gazing into the sound and dreaming about forever.

Suzanne Ciani performed as part of the Noise Pop Festival, which continues through March 3; details here. Ambient synth composer Steve Roach revisits his 1984 album ‘Structures From Silence’ at Grace Cathedral on April 6; details here.

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