Meet Wendy Carlos: The Trans Godmother of Electronic Music
In 1968, Wendy Carlos brought electronic sounds into the mainstream.
In 1968, Wendy Carlos took a Moog synthesizer, an unknown instrument at the time, and electronically reconstructed Johann Sebastian Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3," among other pieces, into the world's first-ever platinum-selling classical album, "Switched on Bach." The record became the most influential "electronic" classical recording of all time, smashing the borders between classical and synthesized music. It won her three Grammys and sent a message to the world that a synthesizer was a musical instrument, rather than just an obscure machine used by professors in labs to make weird robot sounds.
" The early electronic instrumentation was not of a kind that allowed you do the literal-minded sampling of every instrumental note to try to assemble later. That became too much like pasted clip art. You ' d have to take a sample, say, of every way that a head can face, and all the expressions, the hand motions, and then try to create real art from pieces." Carlos muses about her earlier creative processes in a 2007 interview with Frank J. Oteri.
Carlos was born in a working-class family in Pawtucket, R.I., and started piano lessons at age six. She went on to study music and physics at Brown University and music composition with pioneers Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, the first electronic music center in the U.S.A. She started working as a tape editor at Gotham Recording and struck up a friendship with Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer, consequently becoming one of his first clients.
Throughout the years, Carlos influenced Moog and helped him refine his synthesizers, ultimately convincing him to add touch sensitivity to the synth keyboard for better dynamics and musicality. "Wendy has built up lyrical sounds nobody ever heard coming out of a digital synthesizer before," Moog said in a 1985 interview with People Magazine. "Nobody is in her league."
In 1971, Carlos famously composed and recorded music for the soundtrack of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, which included her reinterpretation of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique used during the opening scene. She went on to score and perform soundtracks for The Shining, and the original Tron, which incorporated orchestra, chorus, organ, and both analog and digital synthesizers.
Carlos was also born a biological man (né Walter Carlos), and started transitioning in 1968, but continued to publicly perform and present as a man for more than a decade. She finally came out as a transgender woman in a 1979 Playboy interview, picking Playboy because, "the magazine has always been concerned with liberation, and I'm anxious to liberate myself."
"The public turned out to be amazingly tolerant or, if you wish, indifferent," she later observed. Indeed, no one seemed to give two fucks, and from there, her career kept skyrocketing. "There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life," she once said about her time living as a man.
A few years later, she released Digital Moonscapes, perhaps one of her most influential works, where she explored the possibility of a digital orchestra for the first time. Carlos switched to analog (a trademark of her earlier albums) to digital synthesizers, sampled The Royal Albert Hall Organ, and threw in some unused material from Tron. The album, inspired by the major moons of the solar system, sails on an arcane and esoteric plain best suited for an acid trip in a planetarium.
Carlos has been notorious for her dislike of the spotlight throughout her career, and her interviews are far and few between. Today, the 75-year-old artist lives a quiet life in New York. In her last known interview, a 2007 sit-down with Frank J. Oteri, Carlos commented on the state of music today.
"I find it a great tragedy that the drum machine has replaced real drummers, become so omnipresent to many listeners that they accept the notion of a completely rigid, fascist beat--something that's like hearing a pile driver or factory equipment. Someone recently closed his jazz club in Berlin after being successful for a lot of years, but he said he's leaving it now because the current jazz/pop music doesn't swing. And it doesn't: quantized rhythm is rigid and mechanical. We've become robots, and it's tragic."
Check out Wendy's badass retro HTML website for more info about her work and pictures of solar eclipses and her cats.
Natasha is on Twitter.
Correction 02/12/18: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Switched-On Bach reconstructed all six Brandenburg concertos. Switch-On Bach solely included Brandenburg No. 3, although a subsequent Carlos album, Switched-On Brandenburgs from 1979, featured all six.