Wendy Carlos' ‘Switched-On Bach’ Inspires Five Decades of Electronic Musicians

By Philip Trapp on Mar 31, 2016 12:09 AM EDT

In 1968, composer Wendy Carlos (né Walter Carlos) made electronic music history with her LP Switched-On Bach, a collection of Bach's works performed on an early Moog synthesizer. Today, that album and Carlos' soundtrack work is still informing the music of pioneering electronic composers.

Switched-On Bach was an anomaly at the time of its release. In the early days of electronic music synthesis, it was rare to find high-caliber artists using the technology. As Carlos told Playboy in 1979, there was hesitation even describing the instrument for music fans:

"To my knowledge, there were only three practitioners of the Moog synthesizer when I began. People couldn't even pronounce the word -- synthesizer. I remember when we were putting together my Switched-On Bach album, some of the producers didn't want us to use the word."

The album jump-started Carlos' music career, leading to numerous collections of original material, a sequel (Switched-On Bach II) and multiple notable soundtrack contributions. Thanks to her groundbreaking synth work, Carlos was tapped to compose the scores for Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) and the original Tron (1982).

Since its release, Switched-On Bach has helped inspire generations of electronic music artists. Carlos' performances have been cited as a major influence by such disparate artists as indie Moog revivalists Joy Electric and mainstream electro-funk duo Daft Punk. In an interview with Ocean Drive magazine, Dutch trance DJ Armin van Buuren name-checked the release as the catalyst of his music career:

"I remember an LP called Switched-On Bach by Walter Carlos, and that's considered to be one of the very first electronic records ever made. I think it was made in 1968 or something. My father actually gave me that copy of Walter Carlos because it's not available online anywhere -- you can't get it anywhere legally. [...] That's sort of where it all started, that's where my interest in electronic music began. He made digital works of Bach and he played it on a [Moog] synthesizer, which is a very interesting thing, I think."

Both classical and electronic music fans would do well to seek out Switched-On Bach -- if you can find it. Below, listen to some of Carlos' work from the Tron score.

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TagsSwitched-On Bach, Wendy Carlos, Joy Electric, Armin van Buuren

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