Wendy Carlos: A Discography

By Logan K. Young on May 30, 2013 01:18 PM EDT

Wendy Carlos (born "Walter" in 1939) was a child prodigy. At just ten years old, she composed a trio for clarinet, accordion and piano. By 14, she had built a small computer of her own. A model student at Brown University--and later at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center--in 1966, she had the good fortune to work with Robert Moog on the construction of the first commercial synthesizer.

Meanwhile, Carlos continued her career as a composer of avant garde works: Dialogues (1963), Variations for flute and electronics (1964), Episodes for piano and tape ('64), Pomposities for narrator and tape (1965). She even wrote an opera, 1965's Noah. In 1968, though, she came up with the idea to use the synthesizer to electronically mimic famous pieces of classical music.

Armed with one of Moog's bulky instruments (the mini-Moog was primarily the domain of rock musicians), with the help of musicologist/producers Benjamin Folkman and Rachel Elkind, Carlos released a pair of discs full of faithful transcriptions of Bach and Beethoven. It was an (unexpected) victory. Switched-On Bach (CBS, 1968) remained on the Billboard charts for more than 300 weeks. It was soon followed by The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (Columbia, 1970), Switched-On Bach II (CBS, 1971), and the famous Beethoven's Ninth Symphony theme from her soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange (CBS, 1971; East Side Digital, 1999).

The merit of these records was not only that they popularized the sound of the synthesizer itself, but they also helped to demystify it--to illustrate how the instrument could be used by everyone.

In 1971, Carlos was back to "serious" work with the epic Timesteps. The following year she wrote, performed and recorded her greatest work. An psychoacoustic essay on using a computer and natural sounds--and eventually overlaying more than 48 tracks--the four parts of Sonic Seasonings (Columbia, 1972; East Side, 1999) are dedicated to a single season. Each suite is an example of the long, pre-ambient music of its time, perhaps approaching a type of cosmic music even. In fact, the music here is left floating, with minor variations only in the electronic stirs and, occasionally, the natural sounds themselves. They wear off slowly, as if nothing ever happened, but still leaving the impression that everything has indeed happened. The effect is hypnotic and spooky.

Carlos is masterful in building the collage of "Winter." With its clinking charms, the gusts of wind howl almost elegantly against the sluggish, serpentine electronics. A much more tense atmosphere reigns in "Summer." The crazy electronic rumbles flake and reform, grow then disappear, providing a foretaste of what will be the cosmic music once introduced to the sequencer.

The other two suites are more in line with the experiments of the time. "Spring" is nearly overwhelmed by the amounts of chirping and rain, while "Fall" has but three leitmotifs: a beginning dissonant sequence, a kind of "symphonic" interlude and the ocean waves that dominate from start to finish.

Meanwhile, Rocco Stilo writes:

"East Side Digital has recently remastered [Carlos'] legendary Sonic Seasonings...but with a few important updates. The reissue actually consists of two CDs. The first arrives 'enhanced' (data and hypertext referring to Wendy's website), and it's not simply another boring reissue. It's more like what we got from the re-release of John Fahey's America. The second CD contains additional tracks, all striking and remarkable, from the original Sonic Seasonings LP. Given the poor reproduction quality that Carlos' first recordings suffered, it leads me to wonder if some 'sonic seasonings' weren't added here themselves, as the contrast in quality doesn't even sound like Carlos at times. Added to the second CD, and following the tracks already known, are: 1.) a studio outtake 2.) an over five-minute 'rough draft' that was part of the initial 'Winter' track. Quite realistic, it's easy to imagine yourself warm on a winter evening, while a blizzard rages outside. You're rocking to sleep in a chair, the fire crackling, when suddenly the door creaks and in wanders a cat...However, there is also a certain tension between the sound of music and the noise of 'natural' sounds. 'It's a sin only when done again,' or so says the disc's accompanying liners. To wit, this one deserves a better fate. Also included is work entitled Land Of The Midnight Sun. It, too, consists of two parts, each of which is 'missing' about 20 seconds here. The two sections themselves are called 'Aurora Borealis' and 'Midnight Sun.' The first accentuates the anticipation of certain atmospheric musics, but with an impression all its own--as if offering a sense of continuous light not always found in arctic regions. The second recalls a happier-sounding sun. At first, there's an underlying darkness that threatens to linger, but it eventually melts away--as if to emphasize the wonder of those who witness this unusual spectacle. In conclusion, this attractive reissue is a greatly enriched product of a hard-to-find record and is worthy of adding to your collection."

Back in the '60s, "Walter" changed his name to Wendy and underwent sex-reassignment surgery, which she then talked at great length about to Playboy in 1979 (replete with photographs of her "before" and "after" transformation). She has continued to collaborate with inventors of various electronic instruments.

Natural sounds are the absolute protagonists on Digital Moonscapes (Columbia, 1984), which followed other minor Carlos works such as The Shining (Warner Bros, 1980) and Switched-On Brandenburgs (Columbia, 1981). For the soundtrack to Tron (CBS, 1982) Carlos also used a symphony orchestra. And Beauty In The Beast (Audion, 1986) is a journey through the cultures of the Third World. Meanwhile, Secrets Of Synthesis (Columbia, 1987) is a kind of treatise on electronic keyboards.

Tales Of Heaven And Hell (East Side, 1998) and Switched Bach-ed (East Side, 1999) are records that continue her study of orchestral timbres. Finally, Switched-On (East Side, 1999) is a four-CD anthology box set. The unreleased soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and some of her other film music finally surfaced on Rediscovering Lost Scores - Vol. I (East Side, 2006).

If most of her records are worth little artistically, and seem more and more like archaeological curiosities, Wendy Carlos remains one of the most important precursors of the electronic age.

Translated from the Italian, this entry first appeared in Piero Scaruffi's
Encyclopedia of New Music.

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