A Life in Waves Review
Brett Whitcomb’s A Life in Waves details the life and career of electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani. Although not a name that is instantly recognisable, her innovative work helped to shape the electronic musical landscape of the 80s and beyond, going on to receive five Grammy Award nominations. Much of her work was centred on TV advertisements, video games, and feature film soundtracks, creating classic sound effects and motifs for the likes of Coca Cola, Atari, The Stepford Wives (1975) and becoming the first solo female composer of a major Hollywood film. The timing now feels right to expand on a catalogue of work that has largely remained unreferenced, in an age where the 80s provides such a strong source of artistic inspiration.
The film opens with her appearance on The Letterman Show, confusing the life out of the host with her digital dials and sounds. Ciani is present to guide us through her career from start to finish, taking us back from her musical education, entering into the advertising world and revolutionising numerous campaigns, before heading onto a reasonably successful recording career, establishing herself in the new-age scene. Whitcomb’s presentation is very much cut and dry, moving from one moment to the next without much additional insight and this is what makes the documentary feel so largely uninspiring.
What Ciani achieved not only as a composer, but as a woman stepping into the male dominated world of electronica, was truly groundbreaking. Yet aside from a few recollections provided by Ciani herself and brief nods from one or two others, little time is spent looking at how, who or what she may have influenced sonically or professionally. Her achievements are made to feel isolated because of the matter-of-fact way they are presented, rather than attempting to expand on how she evolved advertising soundscapes, offered inspiration to female musicians who followed her path, or played a key part in the integration of electronic sounds into the mainstream consciousness.
This makes sense only if you are aware of Ciani and the work she has done but the whole point of the documentary is to introduce her to a wider audience. Even the methodology of how she worked with her treasured Buchla modular synthesizer are sparsely represented and while the film does its job in pin-pointing her success, what they have meant to music world is nowhere to be seen. Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe is referred to along with Tangerine Dream’s Peter Baumann on a couple of occasions for their thoughts but mostly we see it all from Ciani’s perspective. A Life in Waves is something of a missed opportunity and blows its chance to shine a bright enough light on its subject.
A Life in Waves is showing for 7 days at the Bertha DocHouse in London.