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Sonic Catalyst: The Trailblazing World Of Wendy Carlos

Samantha Henman

There’s something about the work of Wendy Carlos that feels otherworldly—or perhaps more accurately, not of this time. There’s a reason her moody soundscapes were picked to soundtrack futuristic fare like Tron or to provide atmosphere to chilling films like A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Carlos was a woman ahead of her time in every sense of the word.

She might not be a household name, but based on those examples alone, it’s likely that most people have heard her work. Still, Carlos is much more than just her film scores. Not only did she aid in the development of the legendary Moog synthesizer, she was a pioneer in the worlds of electronic and ambient music. And on top of that all, she was one of the first openly trans public figures.


Electronic Pioneer

Wendy Carlos was born Walter Carlos in 1939 to a working-class family, albeit one with a penchant for music. Beginning pianos lessons at six, Carlos went on to complete her first composition at 10. Then, the child prodigy discovered computers—a convergence that would not only change her life, but alter the course of electronic music. From then on, for Carlos, music and computers were intertwined. She gave lessons on how to create electronic music while completing a degree in music and physics at Brown. She went on to get a master’s in music composition at Columbia University.

Carlos first began to make waves in the music world during her time at Columbia. She did everything from performing electronic music with the legendary composer Leonard Bernstein to collaborating with synth godfather Robert Moog. She helped Moog design and perfect the Moog synthesizer, the first commercial synthesizer. The instrument would eventually prove integral to the further proliferation of electronic music.

Switched-On Bach

It was on a Moog modular synthesizer that Carlos composed her 1968 magnum opus, Switched-On Bach—an album many critics say brought electronic music to the mainstream. The album consists of a number of Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions performed on the Moog. It was beyond laborious to record—at the time, the synthesizer could only play one note at a time. Imagine playing a piano and not being to hit the next key before releasing the first. As a result, Carlos estimated that it took over 1,000 hours to record.

Most electronic music from that era was more avant-garde—read, unlistenable. With Switched-On Bach, Carlos had created an album of electronic music that both synth freaks and mainstream audiences could enjoy. It sounded like nothing that had come before it. While there was backlash from both the electronic and classical music communities, Carlos would win three Grammys for it. Its influence on electronic artists is immeasurable—well, with the exception of one example: the legendary Italian composed Giorgio Moroder has said that Switched-On Bach was the album that introduced him to synthesizers, an essential component of his oeuvre.

Dark Scores

After Switched-On Bach, Carlos made an inadvertent career switch and began scoring films. This started a prolific collaboration with director Stanley Kubrick on (arguably) two of his best films. Their first collaboration was on 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, where Carlos once again experimented with rearranging classical compositions for synths. Her music provided an eerie and somewhat cold ambiance to the dystopian tale. It was a remarkable score, and Carlos began to attract more and more attention—but she would soon seem to disappear from sight.

In the time between the release of Switched-On Bach in 1968 and A Clockwork Orange in 1971, Carlos had been undergoing a number of gender reassignment surgeries. Very few knew of her collaborators or fans knew about it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly a great time to be trans. Violence seemed to come from all sides, including some feminist groups. A Clockwork Orange had brought a lot of attention onto Carlos, and she all but retreated from public life. Still, she continued to produce landmark work, including her foray into ambient music, Sonic Seasonings, as well as a follow up to Switched-On Bach titled, you guessed it, Switched-On Bach II.

Coming Out

After years away from the public eye, Carlos began to talk to a reporter named Arthur Bell in 1978. In an act of sheer bravery and grace, Carlos opened up about her gender reassignment surgery and life as a trans woman. Their groundbreaking interview would eventually appear in Playboy in May 1979. As much as she’d introduced a mainstream audience to electronic music, with this interview, Carlos introduced a mainstream audience to what it meant to be trans. She detailed not just the abuse and fear, but also the honesty and courage required to live in a way that is truthful to oneself.

With the exposure of the interview, Carlos opened herself up to all sorts of potential damage to her career. She suffered abuse from friends and strangers alike—but in her own words, her goal was to liberate herself. After all, in the years between Switch-On Bach and A Clockwork Orange, she had to perform the painful task of putting on a masculine persona and veneer whenever she played live, met Kubrick, or otherwise appeared in public as Walter Carlos.

Wendy Carlos, Her True Self

With the interview behind her, Carlos felt more comfortable appearing in public, releasing music, and working on high-profile collaborations. First came her contributions to Kubrick’s The Shining, then her score for Tron. Carlos continued releasing albums throughout the 80s and 90s, always up for experimentation and challenge in her work. Ahead of her time in every possible way, the word “influential” doesn’t quite cut it when it comes to describing the countless, unfathomable ways that Wendy Carlos shaped music and culture in the 20th century.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4


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