"A Life in Waves" is a documentary exploring the world of synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani, and her rise to fame in multi-media including advertising. The documentary begins with her being honored at Wellesley and retraces her steps to Berkeley, New York and ultimately returning to California. The documentary protrays her as being a creative spirit, fiercely independent who thrives in not one but two male-dominated professions at the time: music and advertising.
One moment that sticks out is when at Berkeley, she is hired by Don Buchla (inventor of the synth modulator) only to be fired the next day for a soldering mistake she did not do. Unperturbed, she showed up for work the next day anyway. In an interview, she says of the times words to the effect that if a guy could do something really great then woman would have to do it better in order to "earn their way into visibility."
She moved to New York, paying her dues by create synth scores for x-rated movies, and more mainstream works such as The Stepford Wives. Ad geeks will really perk up at this point because it is here in the mid 70's that she walks into McCann Erickson to meet with none other than Billy Davis, head of music production. If you don't know his name, you certainly know the song he wrote for the same client: I'd like to buy the world a Coke," for their iconic "Hilltop" spot. The story of their meeting is remarkable, once again proving Ciani is as tenacious as she is talented.
From here the world of advertising opens its doors. Ciani basically owns the rest of the 70's and 80's, scoring spots for high profile brands like Noxzema to Public Broadcasting, ITT, Lincoln Mercury, Skittles, Black & Decker, Sunkist, AT&T, even the bull in the china shop for Merrill Lynch, Atari and perhaps her most famous work (which won a ton of awards including a Clio) involving a beeping dishwasher forGE.
The financial success allows Ciani to open her own studio, and release solo albums including her most famous work Velocity of Love. This too is recounted as being a struggle. Her search for a record label led her first to Europe after America passed, and then Japan until she found receptive ears. This proved once again how the world had to catch up to her talents; for better or for worse she was lumped into the genre known as New Age, which was just taking off at the time.
Included in this documentary are Ciani's other forays into movie soundtracks, pinball games, getting a slot on David Letterman as well as 3-2-1 Contact which I remember seeing reruns of when I was a kid.
As meteoric as her success was, it didn't come without a price. At one point an old clip shows her saying "I woke up with dark circles in my eyes and I thought these circles are brought to you by Pepsi.” The pressure to create in a fast paced environment like advertising was hectic. She ultimately believed it took a toll on her health. After being treated for breast cancer, Ciani left New York and moved back to find some relative tranquility and work on cultivating a personal life, too. Her music took a turn for the acoustic. Until finally, a decade plus into the millennium, a release of some old works of hers find a brand new and more receptive audience. One could argue that her artistic work is now being given the same amount of respect as her commercial work did before it.
In addition to the positive feminist message, another take away from "A Life In Waves" is how the most artistic people are usually out of step with the rest of the world and have to wait for the world to catch up. Consider being at Berkeley during the height of the hippy movement and not having people "get," you. Just goes to show how closed-minded Berkeley has really always been.
Still, Suzanne Ciani is with us, and I hope able to bask int he glow of people who appreciate her work on her own terms now.
"A Life in Waves" was directed by Brett Whitcomb, and edited by Bradford Thomason. It is available on iTunes as well as Google Play. It is also playing at select theaters.