Film Review: A Life in Waves

Enlightening documentary featuring charismatic New Age composer Suzanne Ciani, who brought a revolutionary use of electronic music to the advertising industry.
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An artfully assembled documentary, A Life in Waves chronicles the amazing career of pioneering electronic-music composer Suzanne Ciani. Not a follower of New Age music—the genre under which Ciani’s 15 solo albums, including the Grammy-nominated Neverland are categorized—I was not surprised that I had never heard of this remarkable composer. But as I learned about her game-changing contributions to the advertising industry, I became downright embarrassed by my ignorance and extremely grateful to the filmmakers Brett Whitcomb and Bradford Thomason for introducing cinema audiences to Ciani. Their enlightening documentary is a must-see for anyone interested in the creative accomplishments of unsung women who, like Ciani, played revolutionary roles in male-dominated fields.

Though the film seamlessly incorporates lots of enchanting archival footage along the way, its spine is a series of nostalgic trips we make with the alluring Ciani as she visits key locales representing important chapters of her life. We go to Wellesley College, which granted her its 2015 Alumnae Achievement Award; the University of California at Berkeley, where as a graduate student in composition Ciani was not encouraged to pursue her interest in electronic music; a music technology trade show, where she chats with her mentor, modular synthesizer designer Don Buchla; an arcade that provides her the opportunity to play Xenon, the groundbreaking pinball machine for which she created the voice and sounds; and New York City, where, in the 1970s and 1980s, Ciani revolutionized commercial advertising.

After training with Buchla in California (where she said she always had to work harder than the men and was never considered “equal”), Ciani moved to New York to pursue a career as a recording artist. But she quickly learned that the music business was not yet receptive to what she was doing—making music out of electronic sounds composed and performed on a synthesizer. So, instead, she brought her innovative work to the advertising business and wound up re-imagining its concept of sound design. Rather than simply recording sound effects to accompany a visual image, as had previously been done, Ciani composed electronic sounds that she says “worked on a much higher level psychologically and musically.” Ciani was a pioneer in discovering that the real sounds always fell short. The sound of a real person biting into an actual potato chip could never sound as rich and delicious as the sounds of potato-chip-biting that she could compose electronically. Her talent was in using technology sensually to create sounds that would trigger the kinds of psychological reactions or imaginary fantasies the advertisers wanted their visual images to evoke.

Ciani built a multi-million-dollar career in advertising and the number of memorable commercials, films and videogames she composed for is mind-boggling. She created music for television soap operas, sounds for Atari games, and metaphoric electronic scoring for the spooky 1975 film The Stepford Wives, but her most widely known composition is surely the famous Coca-Cola “pop and pour” sound. The fortunes she made in advertising allowed Ciani to launch her work as a New Age recording artist, and while it lags during its exploration of this portion of Ciani’s career, the documentary ends deliciously. We learn that because of young people’s increased interest in the roots of the genre, some of Ciani’s early electronic music is now being released for the first time. And our journey is completed with a visit to Ciani’s current home—high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean—where she lives alone, peacefully, a contented female trailblazer who played the gender game her way and won.

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