Overview: The career of electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani is unpacked in this engaging documentary. Gunpowder & Sky; 2017; Not Rated; 76 minutes.
The Limits Of Sound: A Life In Waves begins with Suzanne Ciani’s appearance on David Letterman in 1980, and it’s the perfect introduction to her strange, otherworldly sounds. Her career spans from classical piano, to experimental electronic music, to commercial sound design, to a deep dive in New Age music. Ciani, in testimony and archival footage, often speaks about how sound functions and how it’s created. She discusses the mood attached to manmade sounds, and how those sounds then build the personality of the objects to which they were attached. Some of her examples include the discussion of the modular synth sounds used in The Stepford Wives, to the painstakingly precise emotion of the beeps in General Electric’s award-winning advertisement, “We Bring Good Things To Life.” Always hungry to continue pushing the boundary, Ciani’s natural curiosity serves as a battering ram to preconceived limitations about the depth and complexity of sound, as well as the objects used to make music.
The Future Is Now: Suzanne Ciani is, in a word, revolutionary. Watching her story unfold, I found myself amazed at the timelessness of her struggles as a female electronic producer; as many women working in electronic music know, they have to be at least twice as good as men to get the credibility and respect they deserve. That sentiment was expressed fearlessly and without inhibition or reserve by Ciani over two decades ago – a shocking statement coming from the prolific musician, who has some of the biggest sound design and composing credits of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to her name. Ciani’s trailblazing mentality is established early on in the film; bucking the norms of gender roles at the time, Ciani chose a music career over the path of matrimony that her fellow Wellesley graduates chose to follow. During her music Masters program at University of California Berkeley, she discovered electronic music – and more specifically, the Buchla analog synthesizer. After being stood up for a meeting in New York, Ciani marched into the studio of Billy Davis (former Head of Music at McCann Erickson), which launched her career as a sound design artist for Coca-Cola, Merrill Lynch, Atari, and more. Throughout her life, Ciani has balanced boldness with ingenuity, meshing her raw passion and talent in music with an insatiable desire for creative exploration. Her tenacity, and more importantly her vision, serve as an inspiration for other women in the music industry. Ciani started her own music house that was the “number one company for sound design and high technology in New York” at the time; recorded sound and music effects for Meco’s disco version of the Star Wars soundtrack, and received the Wellesley Alumnae Achievement Award in 2015.
All these things make it so that her life, in and of itself, would make for an interesting film story. But framed by Director Brett Whitcomb’s cultural curiosity and the soundtrack of Ciani’s own sometimes tranquil, sometimes mesmerizing, always affecting work, it becomes something even more special.
Overall: A Life in Waves‘ telling of Ciani’s story is so effective that the best way to summarize it is to echo the message of Ciani’s words and life: Guys – anything you can do, female producers can do better.
Featured Image: Gunpowder & Sky
A Life In Waves is available today on VOD outlets. See the trailer below: