RVNG Intl.’s FRKWYS series is an ongoing set of collaborations between like-minded musicians from different generations. The results are always fascinating and often excellent (such as when Steve Gunn recorded with Mike Cooper or when Julianna Barwick and Ikue Mori created compositions together). The latest installment brings together Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani for Sunergy.
Smith and Ciani both build their music around synthesizers, but their connection is even more specific than that. Both players have a deep focus on the Buchla synthesizer, an instrument built by Don Buchla in the 1960s. It’s a unifying constraint for two musicians who create music capable of being borderless. Ciani’s 1982 debut, Seven Waves, is a benchmark in synthesizer and ambient music, while Smith is fresh off the release of EARS, perhaps her best record yet. Together, on Sunergy, the two manage to find a similar language while also pushing the limits of the Buchla and of their compositions at every turn.
The A-side track, “A New Day”, runs an expansive 23 minutes, but it is a fascinating listen all the way through. The song can rumble and skitter; it can whip up a fury or thin out into silence. Its movements can surprise and jar and yet, as the song reaches its conclusion, you can look back on the way it’s built and see the through lines. There’s something deeply intimate about the song. Sweet plinking notes butt up against white-noises washes of sound. Synthesizer layers glide along carefully only to get twisted up in bleating notes that sound like they could be treat animal sounds. Notes get isolated and echo out, then pile up on each other in the next moment. The song’s back and forth—from quiet to loud, from stillness to movement, from simple pleasures to complex tensions—also feels deeply personal between the two players. The way they collaborate on the track, with the use of Buchla instruments, there’s almost the feeling like you are eavesdropping on Smith and Ciani, as if they’re continuing a conversation they started long ago, long before you’re hearing the results. That should seem distancing, but it actually adds a thrill as you try to catch up to where they are going on the great “A New Day”.
The B-side, “Closed Circuit”, is almost half the time and plays things a bit more straightforwardly. There’s more room for notes and melodies to distinguish themselves and carve out their own space. Whereas the layers complicated each other on “A New Day”, here they seem to juxtapose each other, tumble-down runs of notes contrasting with tidal washes of sound, or sound seemingly underwater give way to bone-dry phrasings. There’s a sweetness to the back and forth of the track, and on the heels of “A New Day”, it plays like a more soothing composition. But it also feels in spots like it doesn’t quite work itself to the tension it’s looking for, and so while the track is solid, it doesn’t quite measure up to the excellent first composition here.
Still, Sunergy is a strong collaboration that does more than it should. It shines new light on Smith’s recent work and reminds us how vital Ciani is to any music made with synthesizers today. The intimacy with which they play with and to each other on this album is striking, and the best parts of the record pull you into that quiet conversation. Whether you know the language or not, you feel like its speaking to you too, letting you in on its secrets.