Music for Denali
[engl] Finders Keepers Records’ continued and unwaning commitment to preserving the archives of composer Suzanne Ciani pays off in an avalanche of dividends with this latest master tape discovery, placing further markers in the historical development of electronic music and cinematic composition. Developed at a lesser-documented axis combining Ciani’s key disciplines as a revolutionary synthesist and an accomplished pianist, these early works from 1973 capture a rare glimpse of one of the world’s most important electronic music figures embarking on the early throes of a fruitful career as a film composer and sound designer with this rare and previously unheard documentary music illustrating the first-ever skiers’ decent from the peak of the tallest mountain in Alaska. Capturing innocence and optimism in its composition, but never less than masterful in its realisation, Denali takes what would later become the yin and yang in Ciani’s versatile musical personality and provides unrivalled vistas from both side of the mountain, scaling a treacherous and fine creative line.
Within the context of Suzanne Ciani’s achievements the words “maverick” and “pioneer” have regularly shared sentences amongst a list of “firsts” when documenting her expansive CV as a Grammy nominated, million-selling recording artist, and genuine revolutionary in the progression of future music in all its early capacities. But it is with this important release of uncovered recordings from early 1973 that Ciani’s “exploratory” compositions from her formative years find kinship alongside the exploits of other radical and historic trailblazers, as the music for the film known only as Denali finally achieves a wider vantage point. Commissioned in the early years of Suzanne’s “professional” life, in a period that bridged her activities with art installations, experimental theatre and her rising reputation as a film composer and sound designer, the Denali tape reels preceed Suzanne’s film work such as Lloyd Michael Williams Rainbow’s Children (1975) and Bryan Forbe’s The Stepford Wives (1975) by just 18 months, and capture Suzanne at her wide-eyed best two years after scoring her first-ever paid work providing synthesiser loops for aquariums in Middle America shopping malls (Fish Music, FKSP011). It was in 1972, whilst occupying a studio space in San Francisco, as one of a small group of prophets then celebrating the interpolation of Don Buchla’s electronic instruments, that Suzanne was approached by a French speaking ski enthusiast and short film producer called Patrick Derouin to create “forward-thinking” and “otherworldly” themes and sound design for some amazing unseen footage of the first-ever people to ski down the death-defying face of Mount Mckinley in Alaska. Recognised as one of the tallest mountains in the world, this footage would mark a significant historic feat previously inconceivable outside the hat stand notions of a small group of French speaking European explorers and would also coincide with cultural pressure within the Alaska state legislature to lobby for the United States Board On Geographic Names to reinstate the mountain’s traditional name Denali (a decision widely supported by The Koyukon Athabaskans who inhabit the area around the mountain for centuries). Given what is now widely recognised about Suzanne Ciani as a composer, it is plain to see that Derouin came to the correct place and as you will hear, for the first time, within the grooves of this record the collective aura of challenge and enlightenment is almost breathtaking in its precise narrative ability; striking similarities with Eno, Kraftwerk and Neu! at their melodic best but from a very different vantage point, with polar opposite means of execution, whilst operating on Ciani’s unique and all-important feminine “wave” length.
The music on this record was also commissioned two years before Suzanne’s first Buchla concerts in 1974 and 1975, which were accompanied by her seminal National Endowment Paper, and would reveal Suzanne’s proud commitment to the developed Buchla instrument and her confidence in its place in modern music, thus proving the likes of Denali to be an earlier showcase of the instrument in it’s advanced infancy although still robust enough to carry the emotive and ambitious songwriting skills of the classically trained Ciani. After hearing this record it will come as little surprise that the track known as Ski Song would later be reappropriated (and rerecorded) on Ciani’s globally critically acclaimed debut album Seven Waves (as the Fourth Wave), which was initially released exclusively in Japan before Turkish-born electronic music pioneer _lhan Mimaro_lu signed the record to his Finnidar imprint at Atlantic records, thus making musical history for Suzanne as a widely celebrated American-Italian female composer. It stands as testimony to the composer’s determination and inventive nature that this single track, which would later make its way on to every future music best-seller list in the country, was originally composed on just piano and the modular synth model which she had helped to assemble on Buchla’s production line ten years before her Tokyo debut. “Denali was composed using just Buchla and piano,” explains Suzanne in 2020. “It was recorded at Rainbow Recording, which is the studio I found and shared with recording engineer Richard Beggs, who then sold it to Francis Ford Coppola after I fell in love and quickly moved to LA,” she laments. “If I had stuck around I would have probably ended up doing sound for Coppola,” she jokes. Instead, Suzanne would in a short time find her filmic feet in Hollywood (providing sound design for Michael Small’s aforementioned The Stepford Wives soundtrack) which would later lead to her winning the accolade of first female film composer to single-handedly record a major motion picture with The Incredible Shrinking Woman in 1982. But it was ten years earlier with Denali that the ball had started rolling alongside the film reel sprockets at Rainbow Recordings. “I have very fond memories of first meeting Patrick and his thick French accent,” Suzanne explained. “He was a rugged looking young man who literally looked like he had just stepped down from the mountain himself.” The basic brief around Suzanne’s musical journey was to be “The story of the arduous ascent and joyous descent of the mountain,” which, with one of her most melodic and dynamic projects from her early years, she successfully illustrated with utmost aplomb. Although Suzanne would only see the short film a handful of times, mostly during intense late night recording sessions (“I used to dress like a sailor so I wouldn’t get street hassle on the way home”), and never meet to actual cast of the film, she can still remember mind-blowing shots of the skier cascading down the mountains, images that have remained with her throughout the subsequent five decades as a composer.
As mountaineering history denotes the first-ever skier to descend from the tip of Denali was indeed in 1972, in dates that correlate directly to Suzanne’s meticulously kept tape library and studio diaries. The explorer’s name was French speaking Swiss skier Sylvain Saudan, a celebrated household name amongst enthusiasts to this day. Like Suzanne, like Saudan, neither artist have diverted from their path, turned their back on a challenge, nor lost their footing in the face of adversity.