A Life in Waves (2017) Movie Review

By: Larry Crane (A Toast) –

This documentary, directed by Brett Whitcomb, follows the extraordinary life of electronic composer Suzanne Ciani.

A Toast

After opening with an amusing spot featuring Suzanne on Late Night with David Letterman, we follow her youth and, with the support of her mother, her as she studies classical music training at Wellesley College, eventually getting a Masters in composition at UC Berkeley in 1970. In the Bay Area she meets pioneering synthesizer builder Don Buchla, and becomes enthralled with the concept of composing with/for electronics – the “sounds that nobody had ever heard before.” After her traditional composition teachers scoff at her work, she hangs out with Buchla at the San Francisco Tape Music Center at Mills College.

On a visit to New York City she is enthralled with its vibrancy and decides to relocate. After looking for a record contract, she ends up creating the electronic score for The Stepford Wives (1975) and begins working on television/radio ads. Her sounds for the Coca-Cola ad (a bottle opening and pouring) quickly became iconic and more work followed. Based on this success, she opens a recording studio in her apartment and works tirelessly on film and advertising scoring as Ciani/Musica. She reflects on her ad scores: “It heightens the reality; the real sound always fell short. Electronics added thousands of colors.” She even contributes sounds, score, and synth-processed vocals to Bally’s Xenon pinball machine! All of this is in a quest for “technology to be sensual.”

Photo courtesy of Ms. Ciani’s publicist.

After this success, she looks back to her initial goal of a record contract, and begins the next phase of her career as a solo artist. Her Seven Waves LP comes out in 1982 and is well-received, and the follow up, The Velocity of Love, does very well in Japan. She starts moving back into more piano-orientated performances, while also constantly working on jingles and scores. “I was going full blast,” she recalls, when breast cancer sent her an “alarm that makes you shift gears.”

Photo courtesy of Ms. Ciani’s publicist.

Leaving the hustle of New York after treatment, she settles in Bolinas, California; a small, beautiful, isolated town on the coast north of San Francisco. A failed marriage also makes her rethink notions of romantic love, as well as romantic music, and eventually she returns to electronic music and composition. “My romanticism is with life itself,” she says, and this new chapter sends her around the world to talk about synthesis and composition for “this generation [that] is aware they missed something.”


This film is a must-see for anyone interested in how synthesizers and electronic music morphed from colleges and avant-garde composition into the mainstream media culture. But more so, it is a compelling study of a woman in a field dominated by men; one who boldly decided that, “I want to do what only I can do.” Her drive was derived from her experience that “if a guy would do something, the woman had to do it better.” And she did. Suzanne Ciani was an undeniable trailblazer;  she changed the landscape of sound, and she did it in her own special way.

A Life in Waves (2017) Drinking Game


Take a Drink: every time a cable gets patched in on a synthesizer.

Take a Drink: whenever you hear a sound that you’ve never heard before.

Do a Shot: whenever Suzanne stops to absorb something in wonderment.

Last Call:

No extra scenes, but Ciani’s music plays to the end and is definitely worth a listen.

About Jenna Zine

Jenna Zine is a writer, unashamed Bachelor franchise recapper & live-tweeter (@JennaZine1), drummer, and occasional standup comic. She's probably somewhere complaining about her bangs. Find more at www.jennazine.com

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