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A Life in Waves (2017) Review

Documentary about the life of a successful electronic musical pioneer.

A Life in Waves is a 2017 documentary that explores the life and innovations of a composer and electronic music pioneer.

‘You know her work but not her name’ could be the start of any number of great documentaries of course, yet there is something stirring in just reading the words, as if there is a kind of wonder coming in the sheer exploratory nature of the idea. With A Life In Waves, the axiom is undoubtedly true, the story about a woman of considerable contribution who took a new art form and transformed it into great success through personal and professional triumphs.

Her name is Suzanne Ciani, a gifted musician by trade but also a powerful figure for women and creativity. The film begins in the present as she returns to Wellesley to receive an alumnae achievement award, taking us through a stroll of the campus and her early memories in the late 1960s as the world around her erupted with social change. Discovering electronic music and finding it had no place at Wellesley, she finished her degree and left for Berkeley where she fell in love with the Buchla, a modular electronic music system, getting a job at the factory where they were created. This was music made without a keyboard; sound created through digitized sound waves and manipulated by controls, knobs and wires … sort of like an old fashioned telephone operator. It was unconventional, personal, and energizing, but it was not commercial. That is until Ciani found a way to make it so.

Shifting the movement from spacey concerts to the halls of Madison Avenue, she brought the techno sounds to advertizing, and it’s here where you have heard her work in a surprising number of places, from the ‘pop’ and pour sound of a Coke drink to the beep and bips in a pinball game, her sounds swept through marketing campaigns, encouraging her to create her own company that catered to sound design for a huge array of corporations in need of making their products sound modern, such a Atari, Glidden, Merrill Lynch and dozens more. It eventually bled into movies, including The Stepford Wives and The Incredible Shrinking Woman.

A Life in Waves
A Life in Waves, 2017 © Window Pictures

The film explores the progression of her work and the innovative approach she brought to the technology in a time when personal computing was also just spawning. It reflects on the male-dominated markets she was invading and how she trail blazed her way through it earning great financial success, allowing her to do what she truly wanted, which was to produce records, making compositions with machines. Here again, she redefined music, realizing that traditional genres had no room for her, until New Age came around, helping to give her music larger exposure.

We spend the entire film with Ciani as she travels in and around her history, viewing and commenting on archival footage and images, discovering her earthy, lived in personality and openness to the influences of the world around her. From the pressures of deadlines to a frightening bout of cancer–an event that shifted everything, including where she lives–there is a rawness to the experience, a powerful examination of life in art, not only a pathfinder but a participant in the ebb and flow of a musical movement she helped establish.

A Life in Waves releases on VOD August 4th from Gunpowder and Sky.

A Life in Waves (2017) Review

Movie description: A Life in Waves is a 2017 documentary that explores the life and innovations of a composer and electronic music pioneer.

Director(s): Brett Whitcomb

Actor(s): Peter Baumann, Don Buchla, Dorit Chrysler

Genre: Documentary

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