Orcas Island, where the musician Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith grew up, lies in the northwestern corner of Washington State, just across from Victoria, British Columbia. It resembles the shape of a bird’s wings mid-flap, and more bald eagles roost in the surrounding county than anywhere else in the continental United States. Few humans, though — barely a hundred people for every one of the island’s 57 square miles. Orcas attracts unusual people, including semi-retired artists, and when Smith returned home for a while after studying music at Berklee College, one of those neighbors lent her an old Buchla 100 synthesizer. She became fascinated by the intricacies of its mimicry. “My whole life I have spent a lot of time being still in nature and just listening,” she said. “When I first began teaching myself synthesis, I focused on listening to a sound outside and then trying to re-create it on the synthesizer.”
The best-known designer of analog synthesizers, Robert Moog, wanted musicians to find his devices straightforward and intuitive. But Don Buchla’s designs were distinctive — the first Buchlas had no keyboard or sequencer, with twin oscillators generating timbres against each other; he hoped people would use them to improvise unheard sounds, rather than translating some existing style. (The Buchla Music Easel, Smith’s current favorite, does have a keyboard, but it also brings to mind the altar of a primeval temple built here by wandering aliens.) The effect is uncanny: an environment native to nowhere on Earth, with saxophones rising like footfalls and voices manipulated into instruments. Every fluttering arpeggio seems to perpetuate the same central biorhythm — the noise of a “futuristic jungle,” as Smith once described her latest solo album, Ears. “I have learned so much about rhythm from listening to insects in nature,” she told me. “How important each individual sound is to make up the larger one.”
The Buchla Music Easel was rereleased several years ago, but Buchla’s other machines remain cult items, temperamental and prone to break down; musicians travel or apply for residencies just to use one. Those limitations can be fruitful; Smith prizes the Buchla’s sensitive tuning. She split Euclid (2015), her first record to get a widespread release, in two clear parts to display her instrument’s range: the first six songs, with names like “Careen,” “Stunts,” and “Escapade,” use her Buchla to build up an antic palette before calming the rhythms down to a gentler burbling. Ears follows on from there, but the compositions are sequenced to suggest a narrative, a series of images, especially now that Smith’s vocals are sometimes audible; they blur without dissolving. Like the work of Hayao Miyazaki, whom Smith admires, her music imagines something mythic or elemental colliding against modernity. Her studio is a garage filled with plants and homemade lights, synthesizers everywhere, canopies falling between them from above. “Vibe is really important to me,” she said.
A few years ago Smith met the electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani at a dinner party, where they bonded over their shared synth fascination; Ciani had been playing Buchla machines since back when those were still novel and clients like Coca-Cola hired her to reproduce the sound of a bottle pouring out using the synth. Last autumn the two artists collaborated on the album Sunergy, which pares down everything to Buchlas alone — a minimalism that illuminates the space around it. The tones loop back and forth like echolocation, searching across vast depths. Smith’s husband, Sean Hellfritsch, shot a documentary of the recording process. Smith and Ciani sit behind their respective consoles, occasionally twisting an oscillator or pruning the thicket of cables attached to each module: Making music with synths is minute yet intense activity. Hellfritsch keeps cutting away to long, still shots of the sun moving over the ocean, carving plateaus and valleys into the water. “I’ve never been diagnosed with this,” Smith said in a joint interview with the Quietus, “but for my whole life I’ve experienced a form of synesthesia, like a crossing of senses. So I have a very visual experience when I’m making music or hearing sounds.”
Sunergy lasts for 54 minutes over three lengthy movements, which travel through the cosmic sprawl familiar from early ambient music. One of the remarkable aspects of Ears is how Smith rephrases this language, which can be elusive or impenetrable, within pop-size structures; when the album culminates with the eleven-minute “Existence in the Unfurling,” it feels like catching sight of the sublime. The sonic explorations turn more and more urgent, and finally ecstatic. Smith composes with a focus on the macro/micro layering of sounds: Recording “Unfurling,” she recalled, “I worked in parts while keeping the whole composition in mind.” As gleaming melodies tumble over and around each other, a woodwind quintet takes to the air, and Smith’s processed voice hums: “Use your words, I like the sounds that come out when you do.” You would need liner notes to figure out that the flutelike effects are her murmur, too, reduced to its tiniest particles then remade anew.