Electronic Magic – A Review of ‘A Life in Waves’

“Play the one where it sounds like the whole studio is going to explode.”

Suzanne Ciani is a woman of great talent who found success in every area of interest she sought to explore. A pioneer of electronic music, her mastery of the modular synthesizer–a instrument in infancy when she discovered it–propelled her to much success in the fields of music and advertising. Her life and career(s) are brought to vivid life in Brett Whitcomb‘s documentary, A Life in Waves.

Despite the struggle of thriving in male-driven industries, Suzanne Ciani makes all her achievements seem so easy. With incredible drive and the talent to back it up, it’s clear there’s no doubt she can succeed in whatever she chooses. Her genius  is presented here through archival footage and interviews.

Ciani views the world differently than others, and somehow has a deeper understanding over it. She was able to hear music in electronic beeps when few others did. She understood how to create the sound effect of a Coca-Cola bottle being opened and poured; artificially created the sound was more real than an actual recording. How exactly she does these things is closely guarded, locked away in that great imaginative mind of hers, but though the film we get to witness that mind at work. It’s astonishing to watch. The film covers each step of her journey, from her beginnings with a Steinway piano, to scoring work on the film, The Stepford Wives and doing the sound design for a pinball machine to becoming a bonafide New Age recording star. The variety of achievements leaves the impression that tomorrow Ciani could create a sound that would cure all diseases if she wanted. Anything is within her magical reach.

Perhaps the film’s only shortcoming is that it leaves you wanting to know everything about her. Though it thoroughly tracks Ciani’s career and achievements, not a lot is given about her personal life. The film makes the point fairly clearly that there was little separating Ciana’s work from her life, but we’re kept at a distance when it comes to relationships. Early in the film, we hear from Ciani’s sisters, but they focused on what she was like as a child as opposed to the woman she became. Nothing is said about her relationship with her parents once she’s an adult. And even her marriage seems to begin and end in a single sentence. While her privacy should be respected, a little more insight into this part of her would have helped create a fuller picture of who she is.

We should all strive to achieve as much as Ciani has, but she set the bar high with her genius. With her many talents comes a warmth and enthusiasm without peer. Director Whitcomb has captured these traits in a truly heartwarming and inspirational film. A Life in Waves should be watched and celebrated.

It is currently streaming on VOD platforms.