The unique innovations of Suzanne Ciani provided the impetus for a electronic music revolution in the 1970s and 1980s. As this documentary explores, the impressive woman behind the movement is as enigmatic as her sensual, synthesised sound. 

Suzanne Ciani is one of those rare musicians who you might not have heard of, but you undoubtedly will have heard. Her creations have provided the musical accompaniment to some of the world’s most famous advertised brands from the likes of Coca Cola and Skittles to Atari. So why has this five time Grammy nominated composer remained such a mystery?

“Women earned their way to visibility,” she tells us, explaining why she was fired from her job working with sound synthesiser Don Buchla after just one day for a soldering joint mishap that was no fault of her own (she returned the next day refusing her dismissal). Ciani met the pioneer during her time at Berkeley University just as the 1968 student protests in the USA bubbled into full blown riots. “It was a hippy time, it was a drug time,” she explains, which perhaps goes some way to explaining the type of electronic sound that she came out with.

The documentary, scored by Ciani herself, comes from the duo behind the documentary that inspired Netflix’s latest hit GLOW i.e. The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, Brett Whitcomb and Bradford Thomason. It tells the untold story of the composer whose work did so much to popularise electronic music. Ciani, the first solo female composer of a major Hollywood film for ‘The Incredible Shrinking Woman’ released her first album ‘Seven Waves’ in 1982 in Japan, after struggling to find an audience in the USA.

Now 71, Ciani was staggeringly beautiful when she first delved into the world of electronic music, fresh-faced from her early years as a Chopin enthusiast and self-trained classical pianist. Her time as a young woman in California undoubtedly shaped her identity as a conceptual artist and self-professed creator of instruments, but it was New York that made her the go-to authority on electronic sound in the largely male-dominated world of music production and advertising.

As a documentary, the insight into the work and life of this impressive, singular female opens up a part of the history of music that has until now remained largely invisible. ‘New Age’, the category into which her work was placed, is often discredited and derided by collective musical memory. This film goes some way to uncovering the realities behind the creation of the sound which was very much of its time.

A Life in Waves is a little directionless at times, with no clear narrative it dips in and out of Ciani’s history, and it never quite reaches into her personal life as much as the unfamiliar viewer might like. The innovator’s personal influences are left largely untreated as she nostalgically reminisces about her past, albeit in her dreamy, pillow-soft, ASMR-inducing voice.

But through a soul focus on the music created by Ciani, the full weight of the revolution she played no small part in creating is brought to the fore. Her conceptual take on creating sounds for 1975 classic film The Stepford Wives, as well as pinball machines and the ‘friendly beep’ of the latest washing machine proves her worth as an innovator and pioneer of the electrical style that is so commonplace today.

That her work is now being rediscovered and celebrated by a new group of bearded outsiders, not New-Agers but Hipsters, attests to the experience of music craved by young people seeking experimental forms of expression. “It’s not a sound, it’s a movement,” Ciani explains, and having worked with the likes of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, and with modern electronica worshippers such as Daft Punk, Moby and Jean-Michel Jarre firmly lodged in public music consciousness, it’s this inspiring and unparalleled musical tour de force they have to thank.

A Life in Waves will be showing at Bertha DocHouse from Friday 28th July. 

★★★★☆