Curiosity put cats on synthesisers and digitised the orchestra – For the love of Wendy Carlos

There’s a record you’ll find in almost every used-record store on the planet. On its cover a confused rotund man, wearing baroque garb sits in front of a Moog Synthesiser in what looks like the poster for a vaudeville variety show. Even if you’ve never set foot in a record store, you would have seen this record, because every dad, hipster and self-effacing music nerd have and will own a copy of the record at some point in their lives. The album is called Switched-on Bach and in 1968 it brought classical music to the mainstream, introduced the synthesiser as a valid orchestral instrument, and redefined the sound of the future in an era when they were still getting to grips with the electric guitar. The composer was Wendy- or Walter Carlos, depending on which issue you have, and it was the first time somebody performed a piece of classical music on a synthesiser. The LP won three Grammys and has been installed in music lore as one of the precursors to modern electronic music, and yet it only scratches the surface of a career in music from probably the most innovative figure in modern music history.  

“For me as a composer, it was almost a disaster,” Wendy Carlos told Carol Wright during a rare interview in 2007. “I got identified with Bach like Nimoy was with Star-Trek’s Spock!” 

While Wendy Carlos’ Switched-on Bach is still nothing short of a milestone in electronic music it does the artist more of a disservice than anything else. It might have been the best-selling classical record for a long time (only to be surpassed by the Titanic soundtrack) and still lures fans of electronic music over to the classical canon in their droves, but to appreciate Carlos’ work on the basis of this single record, is skimming the surface of an immense and innovative career, that has played a definitive role in developing synthesiser technology; democratising music theory; innovating tunings and scales; pushing cinematic music beyond the reach of indifferent minimalists; contributing to the creation of ambient music; and probably most importantly, putting cats on synthesisers.

“I was lucky enough to be there when electronic music was still an infant,” she told Carol Wright, “and I was there to help it take some of the steps needed to mature into a real medium.” 

Carlos was born Walter and grew up in Rhode Island to working class suburbanite parents. “She began piano lessons at age six, and wrote her first composition, ‘A Trio for Clarinet, Accordion, and Piano’, at ten,” according to Wikipedia. She was aware of her gender dysphoria at an early age according to a very enlightening interview with Playboy from 1979 and her early development was plagued by bullies and misconceptions. During her formative years, she disappeared into music, and because she “had talents,” things weren’t always that terrible at school.” By the time she won a scholarship to Brown University however, the situation had only worsened and instead she poured herself completely into her work. 

“Those years devastated me as far as interpersonal relationships were concerned,” she told Playboy, “but they may have encouraged my work – my escape into the world of thought and music and science and technology.” By the time she turned 20 she had “polished” her work to a degree that few composers even manage to do through their lifetime. Encouraged by her professor, Vladimir Ussachevsky  – “a pioneer of American electronic music” – Carlos’ interest in electronic music in technology “took a real leap during that period.” It was at university where she would meet Robert Moog too, and start a burgeoning relationship which would introduce the synthesiser to the world, as Carlos took it from stuffy academic corridors to popular culture.

“In my entire lifetime I’d only seen a very few people who took so naturally to an instrument as he (sic) did to the synthesizer,” Moog told People magazine in 1985. “I didn’t decide. It chased me,” says Carlos of what was her latent obsessions with electronic music in that same article. “I loved all the musical, mechanical and dramatic things about the field.” A curious interest turned into a career when Ussachevsky suggested that she support herself by “working on the technical, engineering side of music.” That developed into creating sound effects for film and commercials, but it wasn’t until friend, confident and would-be producer, Rachel Elkind-Tourre (née Elkind) told her “that I should be doing more than fooling around with pop songs and commercials,” that Carlos would start composing her own music.

“The work with early synths proved to be a marvellous learning experience beyond my formal studies,” Wendy has been quoted. After graduating, and without the university’s facilities at her disposal, she “was left without any means of creating my musical projects, for exploring new sounds and media.” That’s where Elkind-Tourre played a pivotal role in facilitating the start of Carlos’ career, establishing a studio together, where Carlo’s would start exploring the depths and limitations of her very own small Moog synthesiser in 1966. While it would have most certainly  laid the foundations of what would become Switched-on Bach by 1968, it also played a fundamental role in developing the synthesiser alongside its founder, Robert Moog who had used Carlos as something as guinea pig and consultant for his new instrument throughout the early years of Moog Synthesisers.. 

Switched-on Bach not only introduced the synthesiser to the world, but it also preceded the idea of the studio-as-instrument, with Carlos employing multitrack and overdubbing techniques that made it possible to play all the parts of an orchestra from one synthesiser simultaneously; techniques that are commonplace and almost exclusively used today.  

Following her seminal work, was the Well Tempered Synthesiser, an album that continued to explore the music of the classical canon through synthesis, with specific focus on his well-tempered piano works of the time in what would become a career defining pursuit for Carlos in breaking free from the “straight jacket” of equal temperament… but more on that later. The album did well as it was nominated for two Grammys but just when you thought you could pigeonhole her music, it would be what Carlos did shortly after that confirmed Carlos’ status as a pioneer in her field. It would take the rest of the world another decade to arrive at the musical style, but by 1972, Carlos and Elkind-Tourre established ambient music with Sonic Seasonings, preceding Brian Eno’s Music for Airports by six years.

With Rachel Elkind-Tourre in the producer chair, Carlos composed four extensive pieces representing the four seasons in what was to be “deliberately minimal” compositions. Combining synthesis and field recordings, the pieces moved between composed and improvised passages, for an album that sought to stretch the fabric of time, like all ambient music does today. Carlos was completely isolated in her pursuits with only La Monte Young perhaps approaching music in that regard at that time, but coming from a completely different perspective.

It was during this time Wendy retreated from the public eye for the first time as she completed her transformation from Walter to Wendy and was fairly reticent in revealing her sex reassignment to her peers and public. She stopped performing, but her work only seemed to increase, as she made the acclaimed soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s seminal work A Clockwork Orange as well as continuing her explorations in Bach. 

Since the time of Switched-on Bach, Carlos had undergone hormone replacement treatments to eventually have sex reassignement surgery by 1972 and take the name Wendy, but not before releasing another two albums as Walter. Asked by Arthur Bell, writing for Playboy if the music would have changed if she remained Walter Carlos(?) she replied in an unusually short response; “absolutely.” In many ways the revealing Playboy interview comes as a watermark in the career of Carlos. There’s a before and after Walter with some of Carlos’ most unique music and progressive concepts arriving shortly after the 1970’s concluded her decade with Switched-on Brandenburgs invariably putting a pin in the Switched-on series and forging ahead in a new era of music predicated with the advancements in synthesiser and computer technology.   

This period in her work began with a specific synthesizer, “a machine that was state of the art in digital synthesis,” she told Keyboard Magazine in a 1982 cover story (also the first time she would pose with her cats and synthesisers in another first for electronic music). It would advance her research and her music beyond simply synthetic mimicry of acoustic instruments. She had been designing and refining the instrument throughout the 1970s  and had coined the term “digital synthesiser” in 1979, some four years before Yamaha’s DX7 would eventually claim to be the world’s first digital synthesiser. 

Working with a Crumar General Development (GDS) synthesiser and its offspring the Synergy, Carlos would be the first to use and research the possibilities of this new digital technology, and she remains one of the few artists that has comprehensively explored the unfathomable limits of the technology.

She would start experimenting with a more hybrid approach to making music, to bring this new technology to a world still largely dominated by valves and transistors rather than microchips. After reuniting with Stanley Kubrick on the Shining – a film score that saw Kubrick stifle her and Elken-Tourre’s progressive attitude  – she took on the score for Tron, where she would utilise digital synthesisers for the first time, featuring the modern instrument alongside an orchestra. “I approach all music as holistic,” she told Film Score Monthly in 1999. “I think all the barriers that have been erected… are B.S. I’ve always had the idea that I should make roads between these isolated worlds and prove that they’re all part of music.” While Carlos might have been quoted in the context of film on this occasion, it’s a sentiment that rings true throughout all her work. After Tron she transposed those ideas to her next LP, one that would make a stepping stone from her Switched-on series to the future of electronic music.

Digital Moonscapes sought to bridge the remnants of an analogue world with the promise of the digital future, combining her extensive knowledge of additive synthesises (synthesising sounds by combining sound waves) with the extensive possibilities of the digital Synergy synthesiser. “The Synergy looked like the only commercial instrument that would do the kinds of things that I wanted to do,” she told Connor Freff Cochran in 1999. Through painstaking research and the still fairly archaic interface of these bulky and unpredictable instruments, eventually Carlos  “pretty much tamed the instrument, and recorded Digital Moonscapes as a way station from the old analogue world into what the future promised.“ While the album was released without much fanfare and received little notice from the public, it was a work that featured some incredible developments in synthesiser- and music technology.

“But why do all this?” Carlos asked in rhetorical fashion at the time of Digital Moonscapes. “The goal ought to be providing the base on which to build new sounds with orchestral qualities that have not been heard before but are equally satisfying to the ear…look for the next steps using the experimental hybrid and imaginary sounds which have grown out of this work.” 

It seems that Carlos was only ever as good as her last work in her opinion and what she achieved in Digital Moonscapes was only for the sake of what she would do next with Beauty in the beast, arguably her most progressive work in the field of music.Taking what she had developed in her previous album, and combining it with elements of microtonal theory, field recordings and non-western musical traditions Beauty in the beast saw Carlos developing techniques, theory and music that somehow still appears ahead of contemporary thought and practise.

Much of the inspiration of the album came during a trip to Bali where Carlos was chasing solar eclipses. (Carlos is an accomplished photographer of solar eclipses, having been published in NASA amongst other esteemed star-gazing publications.) She “fell in love with the place” and its “ethnic tuning systems,” encouraging her to explore a dormant interest in alternative tuning systems to equal temperament. Yet again writhing her way out of the straitjacket of tradition and collective thought, Carlos “wrote a bunch of custom control software that made it possible to re-tune” her digital synthesiser to make it a perfect microtonal instrument.

“A digital instrument is a natural for microtonal tuning because you can be precise to any degree you need and also repeatable,” she told Cochran shortly before lambasting western tonal traditions; ”It’s idiotic that Western music has remained such a slave to a tempering system which evolved 300 years ago as a satisfactory compromise.” 

She would employ this to full effect on the composition Just Imaginings. Using a harmonic tuning system Just Imaginings cycles through the circle of fifths in just intonation, only to prove common consensus about just intonation wrong as she modulated through different keys on that piece. In the title track she fills in the blanks between the “satisfactory compromise” of equal temperament, merely as “a lark” while on the evocative Poem for Bali, she combines a western orchestra with a gamelan orchestra in another first in modern music history, something that remains impossible to pull off in real life.

“I’m not sure where to proceed with these tunings,” she told Keyboard magazine at the time. “If I would take the time to fully understand them, I won’t be finished with any music for the next 10 to 15 years.”  

Oddly it was almost that long before she would re-emerge with an album of new, original material. Besides the parody LP, Peter and the wolf with Weird al Yankovich, (yeah go figure) Beauty in the beast was Carlos’ last  work for 13 years before she released her last LP of new, original material in 1999. Tales of Heaven and Hell saw Carlos revisit her famous soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange with the seminal work providing the impetus for reworked and new material from the composer. “In fact, the seed of ideas was to try and do something which took as a point of departure the original music that I had done for Kubrick,” she told Film Score Magazine. Like most of her work since the 1980’s, this too would go largely unnoticed, but yet again Carlos was at the forefront of modern music, applying old synthesiser techniques to modern samplers, which she deemed finally “good enough to use.”

It seems that the rest of the world had caught up with her at that point, even though what she was doing with tuning in 1986, still would take a decade or so to enter common music practice, beyond just a theoretical thought. Wendy Carlos was ahead of her time in the 1980’s and that’s perhaps why that era of her music, the best in my opinion, is still so misunderstood and why she remains an elusive figure, when textbooks should be written about those works. She was and is in many respects a pioneer in her field.

In a very illuminating interview with Keyboard magazine in 1986 for instance, she talks about the computer studio, sequencing midi from a Macintosh II and already writing her own code for this incredibly new technology. At one point the journalist asked her, “Do you foresee a time when we can forsake tape” and in some eerie prophetic reply she says; “I hope so, I’m not talking about Midi Data. I mean storing real waveforms – 16 bit at 45 kilohertz.” She had predicted Pro Tools (recording and sequencing software) by half a decade.

It might have been the way people perceived her as an intellectual snob that played a role in downplaying her significance in music and music technology, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In interviews throughout her career she is constantly talking about the democratisation of music and electronic instruments as a means to achieve this. She even goes as far sometimes to call out manufacturers for not playing more of a part in assisting this development further as many modern keyboards are still being restrained in the “straightjacket” of equal temperament. 

By 2007 it must have reached a boiling point for Carlos as it seems she became completely disillusioned with her field. “We’ve become robots, and it’s tragic,” she complained to  Frank J. Oteri in one of her last interviews. She refers to drum machines as the “great tragedy,” and while she was already bemoaning Disco in the 1970s for its repetitive forms and the harm it did the synthesiser industry, it’s quite likely the popular use of the synthesiser by 2007 had completely exasperated her, as manufacturers started looking for a sale rather than progress. She completely retreated from the public eye around 2009, but it’s safe to assume that she would not like where the drum machine has taken electronic music today and where it has left the synthesiser. The rigid, rhythmical approach to modern electronic music is not very likely to appeal to a composer who very much believes in the Debussy dictum: “do whatever please the ear, and the rules be damned.”

Is this where she imagined Switched-on-to-Bach would be today, a ubiquitous curiosity gathering dust in record shops all over the world? What would she make of synthesisers, and especially the world of the eurorack? Is she still working on music and the development of the technology, and if so, how is she currently developing it? I can’t imagine that Wendy Carlos would ever resign herself to her back-catalogue and wherever she might be and whatever she might be doing, I’m sure she is already ten steps ahead of everybody else. 

“Before I die, I want to find out what lies beyond all these horizons,” she told Carol Wright. “And I’m doing it for the best reason in the world: I’m curious.”