B-Sides: Grandmothers of electronic music, Part 2 – Wendy Carlos

Welcome to Grandmothers of electronic music, Part 2: Wendy Carlos

Last week I brought you Delia Derbyshire, sonic experimenter and BBC soundtrack writer supreme. Today, we'll take a look at the work of American, Wendy Carlos (née Walter Carlos).

Wendy, like Delia, has a distinguished educational background (Brown and Columbia) combining—surprise—music AND science (physics in Carlos' case). After school, Carlos worked as a recording engineer where she befriended famed synthesizer-maker, Robert Moog—she became one of his first customers in fact and offered critical feedback for him to improve his instruments.

Wendy's breakout recording, made in collaboration with her longtime producer, Rachel Elkind, came in 1968—with Switched on Bach. Taking classic Bach pieces, Carlos reworked them with her Moogs and produced, perhaps, one of the most unique classical albums ever released. The album served as a sort of introduction to synthesized music for the masses and earned 3 Grammy Awards. It was also one of the first classical albums to go platinum. An entry in Wikipedia about Switched on Bach says:

Switched-On Bach, or "S-OB" as Carlos referred to it, was recorded on a custom-built 8 track recorder (constructed by Carlos from superseded Ampex components), using numerous takes and overdubs. This was long before the days of MIDI sequencers or polyphonic keyboards. Recording the album was a tedious and time-consuming process — each of the pieces had to be assembled one part at a time, and Carlos, Elkind and Folkman devoted many hours to experimenting with suitable synthetic sounds for each voice and part.


From there, Carlos composed the music for A Clockwork Orange, Tron and The Shining, as well as non-film projects like Digital Moonscapes, Beauty in the Beast and even a Weird Al Yankovic collaboration for Peter and the Wolf.

Carlos continues to push herself creatively and intellectually. In addition to remastering her own classics, giving papers on audio engineering, and releasing further Switched on... titles she is currently working on refining her techniques for a custom hybrid musical assembly, the four manual WurliTzer II. Says her website:

This combines the finest of pipe organ technology with the latest digital synths in one convenient package, allowing the spontaneity of a live instrument. She has been continuing to develop the skills to play the instrument, as it evolves and is expanded continually, while at the same time composing new music for it.
It is likely to appear on her next album project, in one way or another.

Keep up the exploring Wendy, and we'll keep listening!

To find all things Wendy, head over to her website.

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4 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Way to go Wendy!

I am a S–OB fan, but I didn't know the half of Karlos's musical achievements! Hooray!

Also, there is a really funny episode of This American Life where Sarah Vowell talks about how much she loved Karlos and other electronic music as a kid: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1271. Check it out if you're looking for more!

Kelsey Wallace, contributor

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Actually, Vowell uses

Actually, Vowell uses Carlos' trans history as a punchline. Not what I (or Ms. Carlos) think of as funny. I'm seriously disappointed. I'm usually quite fond of Sarah Vowell.

Wendy Carlos and Sarah Vowell

I heard Sarah Vowell's brief reference to Wendy Carlos on This American Life years ago, so I may be recalling it incorrectly. But as I recall it, she described being a nerdy, bookish high school kid in Oklahoma back in the late 70's or early 80's who lugged around a cello or a clarinet or some such instrument. She was having a conversation with her high school music teacher. The subject of Wendy Carlos as a composer and musician came up, and, incidentally, her gender reassignment (described in other words, since that term surely did not exist then). Her teacher struggled to explain Wendy's reassignment and transsexualism to Sarah. Having never heard of either before, Sarah kept misinterpreting what he said, much as any young child might. I think the recollection might have been 20 or 30 seconds long, tops.

Transgender was not the generally open subject then that it is today, and sex reassignment surgery was extremely unusual. Wendy was the first person I had ever heard of who had a sex change but who I knew about for something OTHER than her sex change. She was something of a pioneer, courageously honest about it, but hardly forthcoming on the subject. She didn't advertise it or make an issue of it, and she didn't use her celebrity to try to raise an ignorant public's conscience or awareness about it.

I thought the recollection (there was no real punchline) was not about Wendy at all, but about Sarah's own youthful ignorance, naivete and curiosity, and about the sexual uptightness in our culture that made the conversation awkward to her teacher, and her over-logical misunderstandings of what he said ironic and funny... and it was possibly about how far we've come in the last quarter century or so too.

I like Sarah Vowell, but I am really more of a Wendy Carlow fan. I have practically everything she ever released on my ipod, so I listened closely when Sarah brought her up on TAL. Personally, I was amused by Sarah's little story. If you are correct that Wendy Carlos would have been "disappointed" or offended by it, that would make me sad for her, and a little bit perplexed. I wonder in what way it was offensive or disappointing?

Wendy Carlos and Sarah Vowell

Doing some research on Wendy Carlos, I ran across the page on her website, where she calls out people that have shown incredible cruelty to her by way of insensitivity to her situation. I was indeed shocked to see Ira Glass and Sarah Vowell being called out as particularly cruel, being a huge This American Life fan. So I looked up the transcript of that particular episode. And i gotta say, the story she told was so close to MY experience growing up and discovering Carlos. I was introduced to her in a film strip in Junior High Glee - or rather to "Walter" Carlos -in the 80's, in fairly conservative Salt Lake City, because my teacher correctly felt that she played a really important part of music history, detailing her work with Moog, the film scores like "Clockwork Orange" that she'd worked on, etc. But the film strip failed to mention (it was probably made in the mid-to-late seventies) that Walter was no longer Walter. I fell in love with "Switched On Bach" and wanted to know more about "his" other work, but it wasn't until I got a job with Disney and was talking to an animator who had worked on Tron, that I found out - I was asking about Wendy Carlos, the composer, because I really dug the score, assuming that she was Walter's daughter, never having heard any different, and the animator corrected my information in a slightly less embarrassed way than Vowell's teacher did - which left a naive 20-something guy like myself speechless! Not just because I didn't personally know anyone that had gone through sexual reassignment surgery (I'm not sure if I even knew if it was possible at that point), but because I felt really stupid having absolutely no clue that Wendy and Walter were the same person. It was mind-blowing! And not necessarily in an "Ewww!" kind of way, just,"Wow- I had no idea!"
Obviously our experiences hinge on (at the time) knowing NOTHING about Wendy Carlos' personal life (which, of course, was and still is the way I think she wants it) - I certainly wouldn't have touched the Playboy magazine in which she came out of the closet, so to speak, when I was a Mormon tot - and certainly having no idea about what a hard road she'd travelled. I suspect that, for a lot of kids interested in electronic music, who grew up in certain isolated parts of the country at a certain time, making the connection between Walter and Wendy Carlos is kind of a rite of passage, of discovering a much bigger, surprising world out there (and hopefully becoming more aware and sensitive to it). I certainly can't blame Wendy for not wanting her life to be boiled down to a joke, even if she wasn't the accomplished prodigy and pioneer that she is. I'm sure she would wish that nobody would ever bring up the issue again when discussing her or her work. But I honestly don't think Ira Glass or Sarah Vowell meant to demean her or trivialize her pain - I just think Sarah was telling a story about her life that involved music and Carlos and a sort of loss of innocence that was honest, that said more about her, her age, her situation and upbringing, than about Carlos, and was, from that perspective, rather funny. I'm really sorry Wendy doesn't see it that way, even though I have tremendous respect for her life, her work, and her personal courage.