In a four-decade-long music career filled with many achievements and much acclaim, Wendy Carlos played a significant role in getting popular music instrumentation to catch up to the radical ideas of the late 20th century’s most revolutionary artists. Carlos primarily achieved this with her most well-known release, 1968’s Switched-On Bach, an album that boldly reimagined classic musical and brought the sounds of esoteric electronic instruments (in this case, the Moog synthesizer) to mainstream listeners.
“By any sensible definition I’m a New Yorker, not a New Englander.” So says Carlos on her web site. And since she had to deal with far more complex issues of identity and sexuality, who are we to say otherwise? But it’s worth mentioning here that during a childhood spent in Pawtucket, R.I. (where she was born in 1939 as Walter), Carlos composed a “Trio for Clarinet, Accordion and Piano” at age 10 and at 14, won a Westinghouse Science Fair scholarship for building a personal computer in 1953!
After graduating from Brown University with a dual major in music and physics, Carlos earned a master’s degree in composition at Columbia University’s celebrated Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. She then landed a job as a recording engineer at New York City’s Gotham Recording. There, she befriended Dr. Robert Moog, who was in the process of designing the analog synthesizer that later bore his name. Their relationship was responsible for Switched-On Bach, which Carlos labored on with Moog and producer Rachel Elkind. Believed to be the first classical album certified Platinum, Switched-On Bach cracked Billboard’s Top 40 and won three Grammy Awards.
Nearly 50 years after its release, Switched-On Bach still sounds groundbreaking. By performing Bach’s compositions on the Moog, Carlos gave new life to old forms. She maintained the music’s sense of clarity and purpose while injecting a spirit of playfulness and unpredictability—like someone reproducing a Rembrandt with finger paints. This was Carlos advancing the fledgling genre of electronic music and doing so in a way that gleefully tweaked the seemingly untouchable classics. It was eye-openingly bold, to say the least.
Carlos’ follow-up to Switched-On Bach was 1969’s The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (the title was a play on Bach’s influential music collection The Well-Tempered Clavier). The peculiar yet elegant album featured Carlos expanding the scope beyond Bach and doing Moog renditions of classical music written by other renowned Baroque composers.
Carlos’ success with these albums is credited with giving her the financial means to undergo sex reassignment surgery in 1972. In an interview she did with Playboy in ’79, Carlos—who recorded as Walter Carlos on the artist’s first six releases—said she first became aware of her gender identity issue when she was just a child.
The same year of her surgery, Carlos issued Sonic Seasonings, a double LP that combined field recordings of retreating tides, screeching birds, and bellowing thunder with electronic synthesizers. Regarded as one of ambient music’s landmark releases, Sonic Seasonings was equal parts spectral and soothing. The album was an extraordinary statement on the power of our natural world; it articulates the idea that human expression, no matter how inventive or anarchic, is no match for the savage and delicate expressions of nature.
The run of imaginative electronic music continued with a pair of film soundtracks. Carlos released a collection of songs composed or performed for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Then came the soundtrack to 1982’s Tron, which combined symphonic orchestra with digital and analog synthesizers. While strikingly different in content and tone, the music for both movies is trademark Carlos: illusory yet honest, spastic yet static, urgent yet emotive.
Ever the visionary, Carlos collaborated with Larry Fast in the 1990s to develop Digi-Surround Stereo Sound, a digital process for soundtrack restoration and surround stereo conversion. There was also a rather unexpected collaboration with “Weird” Al Yankovic: a spoof of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”
Carlos then spent five years digitally remastering her entire catalog. Her most recent release was 2005’s two-volume Rediscovering Lost Scores, which featured previously out-of-print material and unreleased tracks.
(by Ryan Foley)