A Life in Waves




A documentary to appeal to lovers of electronic music and to those who admire a strong woman.

Life in Waves, A


This ably made American documentary portrays the life and career of Suzanne Ciani. It's an adroit mix of new material and archive footage that refuses to be too indulgent over length (it comes in at 74 minutes). Rather recklessly it offers a pre-credit sequence dating from 1980: this shows Suzanne being interviewed on a TV show with the host inviting her to illustrate her recent work with synthesisers. The visual quality here is very poor but, thankfully, this is the exception. The film quickly moves on for brief comments from a range of people, musicians and others, who are able to confirm her pioneering role in electronic music, something made even more remarkable because she was a woman in a sphere dominated by men.


Thereafter, with Suzanne herself as our guide, A Life in Waves, sets out to give a chronological account of her life, albeit that it is first established that in 2015 she would be receiving an alumnae award from Wellesley College. We learn of her home background, her interest in the piano, her politicisation at Berkeley in 1968 and her switch to the sphere of electronic music when Don Buchla, the instrument designer responsible for the Buchla synthesiser, became her mentor.


As her story continues, the film reveals her key contributions to filmed advertisements (this brought her to prominence), her work in cinema (Bryan Forbes's The Stepford Wives) and her subsequent recording of albums of her own compositions which eventually commanded attention when, after a return to the use of a piano, her pieces came to fit the concept of New Age music. The wider interest in this film lies in the fact that it reveals a determined woman ready to apply herself with determination to finding her own independent path in life (something she sees as an essential in contrast to those who simply set out hoping for fame and fortune).


Nevertheless, the stress on music, especially of the electronic kind, inevitably means that to a degree responses to this film will depend on how appealing the viewer finds these sounds. In many ways Suzanne Ciani is a beguiling presence but, since the film doesn't limit itself to the career, one feels that it is less forthcoming than it should have been. A diagnosis of breast cancer is mentioned but then ignored save for her decision to leave New York for a calmer life. She would marry late on a man eighteen years younger, but little is said of what led to a divorce seven years later. It would seem that earlier she had largely sacrificed    romance to pursue her career, but more could have been made of how she feels about that on looking back. She describes herself as a romantic but her outlook in that respect prior to her marriage emerges as banal and surprisingly old-fashioned and some will be alienated by her readiness to be guided in her life by an astrologer. But these limitations will not be of any great concern to those who approach this film as admirers of Ciani or of electronic music generally.




Featuring  Suzanne Ciani, Peter Baumann, Don Buchla, Dorit Chrysler, Sara Davishi, Robert Wiki Aubrey Lowe, Leslie Mona Mathis.


Dir Brett Whitcomb, Pro Brett Whitcomb and Bradford Thomason, Ph Brett Whitcomb, Ed Bradford Thomason with Kyle McKinnon.


Window Pictures-DocHouse.
74 mins. USA. 2017. Rel: 28 July 2017. No Cert.