LeafWendy's World
Wendy Carlos in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
"The Concise Edition (Selected Highlights)"

Edited transcript -- New Music Box Cover Story, April 2007
Selected Highlights (if you don't have very much time, this is the version for you!)
Taped: January 18, 2007 from 8:00 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
(Note:  ===  indicates where cuts have been made.)

1- Switching Bach On
Outside the Musical Establishment
New Ways to Listen
From MIDI to Reinventing the Romantic Orchestra
Changing Times
The Compositional Process
Exploring Microtonality
The Meaning of Music
Taking It into the Present

LeafSwitching Bach On

Frank J. Oteri: Where to begin? There are so many places to begin. I think you changed the course of the history of music at least three times.

Wendy Carlos: Oh, no no no.

FJO: I think there are more, but there are three things that really caught the world at large.

WC: Or the world at small. I'll grant you the world at small (grins).

FJO: The first, obviously, is Switched on Bach. Not only because it was the first platinum-selling classical record--which is a very big deal--but also because that record sent the message to everybody that a synthesizer is a musical instrument. And it helped make the synthesizer mainstream, rather than just some thing in a laboratory that professors were doodling around with to make these weird, electronic pieces. You suddenly brought it down to earth.

WC: What I was aware of before I started the album was that electronic music was a medium and it was not a style of music. It was just a tool. Piano music can also be anything: commercial rock/pop, real jazz, early through late classical repertoire, even the most challenging of serious music. But isn't any medium like that?

FJO: Until you did that, it wasn't.

WC: Let's just say it hadn't been done yet, but certainly it would have been done eventually. I just happened to be there at the right time in history, which is a matter of luck. That's how our lives get determined largely. You can't predict everything in advance.


FJO: The thing that I found so ironic and fascinating about that album being such a big deal is that you are a composer, but your first major project, and we're talking a major major thing, was not your own music but transcriptions of another composer's music.

WC: To be candid, it was irritating to me. It felt like a detour, and it still does, when I think back at it. It represented so little of my strengths, and so much what I could only "sort of do", and I'm still a bit embarrassed by that, being considered a classical performer first. There are so many people who write me and tell me how they got involved with classical music through S-OB, which drives me slightly nuts! Because that's something you would really hope they'd have learned about from the great performers of the time. With fine recordings now available from many decades, you can pick and choose some excellent people--and that's not me. So I got a little upset because the spotlight was aimed at things that I didn't do only competently.


FJO: I think Switched-On Bach allowed for a new understanding of what Bach's music could be. Even though it's using the opposite of period instruments--it's using what was the most up-to-date thing at that time--the way it was recorded, one line at a time, is analogous to Josh Rifkin in the '70s doing Bach's B Minor Mass and having one person on a part. In both approaches, each line is its own thing and stands out.

WC: You gain a particular clarity, an expressiveness that is usually hidden. There's a difference between a solo violin and an orchestra's violin section where you hear an average, as with much of music expressiveness through 19th century Romanticism. Human beings are naturally expressive, so to turn that into an average. You're in a group; it tends towards "group-think" instead of a unified point of view, although a firm-handed conductor can impose a single personality over all the instrumentalists. Same with choir, or chorus, large chorus. But I don't know, I'm torn between the two approaches, aren't you? Music is always a compromise. I love it big, and I love it small, so let's have it big-and-small, or small-and-big, whichever you prefer, an oxymoron!

FJO: There's also another part to this process. What you did was an interpretation of another composer. It makes me want to turn the tables on you.

WC: How?

FJO: Your music is largely created in the studio and it is your own interpretation. It's not being performed by other interpreters. So how would you feel to be in the position you put Bach in, if someone were to switch on you?

WC: I think I would rather like it, why not? I've always felt that somebody who was that intelligent--and it takes great intellect to compose great Bachian music--somebody like that would likely be quite curious, and would have felt our synth approach to be a hoot. Don't you think? I can't imagine that Bach would have been really put off, especially if he were alive and we had approached him, I mean, if we'd shown him the respect to say: "Here's what we propose to do." I can't see that Johann Sebastian would have been as uptight as the people you mentioned before, who perhaps felt threatened by it, which is okay. They were a minority, I'd say, but they sure were a vocal minority.

FJO: They always are.

WC: Yeah, you're right. Is it the reactionaries in any particular field? I don't know, don't get me started. But there is a human trait which I don't much care for that's restrictive, constipating, and more interested in saying "No" than saying "Yes." That's sad. It runs all through humanity, y'know. Forget music--but certainly in culture and art and life--you do need conservation to balance innovation. You can't just head off wildly scattering nuts in May, because you know what you get from that: undisciplined scatter. It's balance we need, a nice yin-yang balance, which can't come out of saying "No!" "No" doesn't progress, create the new, and it may hide a hidden agenda, some dogma. I'm becoming convinced that dogma, and regression without progression to balance it, are seriously unhelpful, if not generally damaging to society and the individuals within it.

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LeafOutside the Musical Establishment

Frank J. Oteri: So in terms of the interpretation of your music, there have been pieces that have been done by ensembles over the years. I have not heard any of these things, and I would love to hear them. I was reading somewhere one of the booklet notes of one of the CDs mentioned that Kronos did a piece of yours at some point, and the Boston Symphony did a piece.

Wendy Carlos: Yeah, unfortunately, life's a funny business. It sure doesn't follow the path you ask. I'm still frozen out of most of the serious classical music world, which I would have loved to have been more involved with. I'm told it's a pretty closed system, which wouldn't be a surprise--but what do I know? After many attempts to connect failed, I've stepped back. So I've not had much interaction with good live performances, you know, to balance all the studio work. But Kronos was very open to new ideas, so I composed a piece for them which became a concerto for string quartet and orchestra, which is a little odd already. There are only a few--Thea Musgrave has a good one. It seemed like a rather interesting challenge, to create a string quartet concerto. There wasn't much lead time so it had to be fairly short. It was planned for New Year's Day (the concert then got delayed a week). So I composed some sly variations on "Auld Lang Syne," and called it "Variations on a Yearly Theme." It came out rather well, and proved to be a most enjoyable experience, meeting with Kent Nagano, especially. He conducted the Berkeley Symphony with Kronos--a talented, bright musician. I like him, and we worked together again two years later.

The British, I think, are rather more open-minded on humor in music. I'm thinking of Malcolm Arnold, who died recently, and was open to a more jocular side of his nature within his music, and often betrayed a sharp wit. I really love a bit of that! Think of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony's military march tenor solo section, with the: "Boop. Ta-dah. Boop. Ta-dah." Those bass-line "farts" from the contrabassoon. That's a comical moment, though we don't know to what extent he intended it to be. Can't read much into it. Still, there was a free spirit, un-stereotypic impulse behind that and other such spots. It made me smile when I first heard it, and still does. I believe I caught some of it in my synthesizer realization of it as well. Malcolm Arnold was splendidly tongue in cheek in the pieces he wrote for the Hoffnung Music Festival. He would have understood what we're talking about, your bringing up my string quartet with full orchestra accompaniment--that kind of challenging stunt.

But I suggest all virtuoso pieces display a stunt quality, when the instrumentalist--say, the violin--is sawing away there and it's really kind of scary. Will they make it or fail? Or pianists, when they cadenza up and down, will they miss a note? There is that quality which Glenn Gould disliked, and it's a part of the live performance experience. One unspoken reason many people to go to the opera is to hear if the singers will hit all of their high notes. There's also a competition with yourself, or with other performers, that enters into the equation. It's not musical, but it's something that you can't remove when live, but is largely missing in studio recordings, as most of mine have been, and which Glenn Gould eventually made his sole medium.

FJO: This is where new music always suffers, because if you're hearing a brand new piece, you don't know how it's going to go. You can't sit there and know if the performer is going to make a mistake because you don't know where it's going. So if someone does Beethoven and they go 'da-dah, da-dah, da-dah' and they play a wrong note, you go "Aha! I know how this goes! That guy goofed!" But you can't do that with a new piece.

WC: Especially if the piece is what we used to call "wrong-note" music. I mean, how are you going to know if everything is minor ninths and major sevenths and clusters? It's very hard to tell, isn't it? Which is one of the trade-offs that I hope those composers consider carefully. Otherwise it seems to me they're taking on rather more trade-offs than they bargained for.

FJO: Well, when you started entering the world of composition, that was a big part of what the world of composition was.

WC: That was one of the darkest periods for serious music. A lot of composers with good instincts were crushed for a long time under what was effectively, if not deliberately, a repressive time. Now it seems hard to believe conditions were that constrained when I was a student, but they were--before you got into it, Frank. You witnessed the transition, a start of a new enlightenment.

FJO: I was there at the very end of it.

WC: Then you experienced a more interesting, hopeful period. For me it was simply bleak, a waste of time and talent. I'm still angry to think about it today. Here's what it felt like. Everyone I'd encounter seemed to champion ugly music, the uglier the better. The more you could confound the audience, the more seriously you'd be taken. To their shame, many academic leaders, respected composers and music journals, encouraged making music which refused to acknowledge our musical heritage, except in a negative sense. There used to be melody. "Ah, don't do that anymore." There used to be counterpoint. "Oh, that's part of melody--find a way around it." There used to be harmony. "Good grief, toss that out at once!"

Then how do you feel about rhythm? "Well, as long as you keep changing it, never hint at a pattern, a beat, that might be okay, fine." And how about meter? "Same comments as rhythm." So they turned their backs on an awfully lot of the best parts of music and taught us to purge them from our music, too. First sign of a lapse, they sneered--polite, informal sneers. It wasn't a conspiracy, nothing that sinister, planned or organized. But the effect was the same. It's not unlike how prejudice operates, racism, sexism: with an obliviousness and perpetual denial that anything "unreasonable" is in effect; "who, me?"! It's seldom conscious--but subtle, over time, signaled by exclusion and casual presumptuous. Am I overreacting here? Well I am becoming more a curmudgeon as I grow older, and begin to notice the repeating patterns of life, having gone around the block a few times too many, perhaps...(grins)!

So we had to learn to be self-policing, on guard against our instincts. I recoiled strongly, and I spoke with other students, the peers around me, and they felt it, also. I just heard Steve Reich comment similarly about it, how repressive and destructive the period felt to him, too. In the past 10 or 20 years many of those people have insisted: "We never meant to forbid you, didn't tell you that you couldn't write tunes or harmony." Yes, you did. You implied it. You may as well have said: "DECREE. Here ye, be it known and resolved in our noble kingdom: there shall be no more C major, no more D minor, and no more triads, neither major nor minor shall there be, and neither chords of the diminished nor dominant seventh!" I'm obviously being sarcastic. People who wouldn't kowtow were left out. Would you force a cook to remove all the delicious parts of food? Take out every enjoyable flavor, and leave only some protein, carbs, amino acids, and so on, a subsistence diet with the taste of burnt wood? Anyway, I warned you that I'm still angry, but it felt good to say all this, thanks!

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LeafNew Ways to Listen

Frank J. Oteri: The whole scenario you just described started breaking down in the '70s, which brings me to what I think is your second big contribution to music: Sonic Seasonings.

Wendy Carlos: It was a small step along the way, I guess.

FJO: But here's why it might have bigger impact than you think. Everyone credits the rise of ambient music with Brian Eno and Discreet Music in 1974.

WC: His came a little later, didn't it?

FJO: Yeah, yours is '72.

WC: Actually, I remember late '70 was when we first started it.

FJO: But it was released in '72 and therefore it was the first record put on the market that was designed for a new kind of listening paradigm. But maybe I'm assuming things about what you were aiming for with this recording.

WC: Maybe you're right. For us, the idea was to find a music that didn't require lengthy concentrated listening. We thought that if you enlarged each gesture and slowed the pace, you could stand back and still have the same perspective. It wouldn't hold to the scrutiny of looking close-up, and wasn't intended to. But it wasn't trivial, either. It was more than ambient noises in the other room, surf near a beach house when you're trying to sleep. Something in-between attentive composition and a flow of atmosphere. It was a mode not well explored back then, and seemed healthy because so much 20th century music had been focusing ever tighter, high-powered microscopes peering at short, fiercely intricate pieces. I wanted to get some air and stand back a bit, see where that might lead.

As with any continuum, the way you find the limit is by going past it, then backing up. For me you can easily go too far in diluting your ideas, spread w-a-y out thin, more repetitive and redundant than I can stand. But at the same time, fairly static music can serve its function very well in the cinema, an effective film score mood. If the film is very busy with a lot of dialogue, you cannot write busy music or you will fight with the scene. You must be a good team player; it's why there's a special art to composing fine film scores, an under-appreciated art-form.


FJO: To bring this issue back directly to Sonic Seasonings, you mentioned film scoring. Would you say that Sonic Seasonings was a direct result of your having worked on film soundtracks? Did that experience lead to your being able to conceive of music that could be perceived differently?

WC: Oh, that's so lovely and pat, I wish it were so. If I said so, somebody sharp will pick up that Sonic Seasonings was really created starting in 1970 and most of it was finished by mid-1971. The album was sent to Kubrick as we began working on A Clockwork Orange. Then the Clockwork Orange score came out first on Warner Brothers' version which is incomplete from my point of view, containing only the excerpts that made the final cut--so our full score came out later on CBS. And what did CBS release at the same time? Sonic Seasonings. But it was "in the can" before C.O. was begun, so I can't see how even--well, a time machine might have permitted it--if we had gone into the future, we might have analyzed the experience of working on Clockwork Orange, and let that affect Sonic.


Since I'm like you, an eclectic person, I also don't understand the arbitrary barrier between notated and improvisational music: jazz versus classical. Those used to be part of a whole. Papa Bach didn't observe, "Oh, I'm going to create some jazz improvisations, to add to my classical new Sunday cantata." Not how it was done! The egg compartments were added later. And they don't belong there. Because what we really ought be asking is not "what style is this?" or "what medium is this?" Forget orchestra or synthesizer, forget jazz quartet or big band.

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LeafFrom MIDI to Reinventing the Romantic Orchestra

Frank J. Oteri: Now we get to the '80s, and the third influential idea I wanted to talk to you about: digital synthesis, MIDI, the possibility of a digital orchestra. When Digital Moonscapes came out, these weren't concepts that people thought about. But now they're tools that most composers use.

Wendy Carlos: But it's done now more like a collage of audio clip art. Actually there are some new performable sampled instruments we can talk about in a minute. But with the earliest MIDI implementation, any sample based collection was so literal-minded that if you repeated any note, it would sound exactly the same "voop-voop-voop-voop." There was no expression at all, being basically canned, like using a rubber stamp, "Hey, that's the same stamp, is that all you've got?" Maybe you rotated it a bit. Or you missed the ink on the lower left-hand corner on this one. That didn't work for me at all; there wasn't much musicality, so few performance values, expression. It's why I made a detour through synthesis, building replicas of all the orchestral instruments. It's also a great education to the musical ear. You soon begin to pick out many more details: "Oh, the bassoon doesn't have much fundamental," and: "Oh, that clarinet has not only odd harmonics, but I can hear a few softer even partials as well." If your passion is orchestration, this teaches you some pretty useful skills.


Or consider my Circon (circular controller) with its large calibrated semi-circular dial and wand. It's not as hard as the theremin, but still a serious instrument to learn. Once you become reasonably good at it, it's very expressive.

FJO: That's the instrument you have on Heaven and Hell?

WC: Yup, bingo!

FJO: We're not there yet.

WC: Okay, okay. But the sounds, now we've gotten to a stage where you can combine some of the photographic reality of samples done properly in a non-trivial synth model with an engine that is doing all the things that the best synthesizer is capable of doing. And you tie those into a sufficient number of control devices so that a decent musician can practice--there's that word again, no cheap shortcuts. Practice. Don't blame me; that's the way we learn as humans. That's how become adept at anything, how you learn to speak, to walk on two legs without toppling over.

If you're blind from birth and have eyesight restored later as an adult, at first you can make nothing of all the sense images. Why? You have to learn to organize it in your brain, and that's what expressing musical ideas similarly requires. You gradually learn how to turn what you're feeling inside into the nuances of sound to reflect the inner process. That's what's happening now in some parts of electroacoustic music making, and we're getting pretty good at it. It's becoming a fairly exciting time to create new music once again. Even if these steps are not revolutionary, but evolutionary, it's fun to be a part of it. The improvements are great enough that what was once a compromise medium, with a surprisingly limited palette, is getting to be a pretty mature, versatile alternative to the traditional instrumental media. For me it feels like a bit of "if you can't joint 'em, beat 'em," perhaps... Anyway, bless the innovators and developers most responsible for keeping the flame alight, even brighter than before!


FJO: Now, in terms of its harmonic language, Moonscapes sounds to me like a harbinger of a lot of the orchestral music that's happened since. It's O.K. to have a big Romantic symphony again, and to have music that's modulating and developing tonally.

WC: It also has quite a few jazz and pop-inspired elements, too.

FJO: And that sort of eclecticism, I'm thinking of the kind of music that a whole bunch of composers are writing now. Everybody from--he was writing then, too, but--John Corigliano, Joan Tower, John Harbison, Christopher Rouse. All the composers whose names you see now getting the big performances by the symphony orchestras, all the ingredients of that music are the same ingredients that are in Moonscapes, to my ears at least.

WC: No one's ever said anything like that to me before, Frank; it's rather nice to hear. We all face the same current quandary, the old "Quo Vadis?"--where do we go from here? I don't know. You work on these as steps along whatever path you happen to be taking, and I seldom look back. Do most composers listen to their own music? If it weren't for the fact that I had to re-master most of the important albums recently, over several years, I probably wouldn't have listened to any of it. It turned out to be rather a nice experience, though. When you sweat over every detail and nuance, put a good deal of yourself into it, take your time, make the effort--how bad can it be? So it was an agreeable experience to hear the collection, and for the time being I won't need to hear them again. Already know them so well, I can hear them in my head anytime. You mentioned Digital Moonscapes. I haven't actually listened to it since I re-mastered it.

My leisure listening tends to be, well, unsurprising: a lot of 20th century music, of course, and the masterworks from before then, too. But from about the late 50s on, and even right now, I find most of what I've heard too tied to the extremes: either ugly music or stingy music, and neither of those turns me on very much. So I don't bother with it very often. I'm certain I'm overlooking some promising exceptions, but I've been waiting all my life to witness an upturn, and have rather lost patience.

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LeafChanging Times

Frank J. Oteri: Do you listen to much pop music?

Wendy Carlos: I used to a lot in my youth, and loved the best of it, when it covered such a broad range of styles and media. I listen to Danny Stiles, who plays some fine popular music and jazz from the '20s through the '60s on WNYC each week, and am amazed by the variety and quality. It's depressing that today's young people are given such limited options. Worse, it's not even as "hip" as what their grandparents heard: Peggy Lee, Sauter and Finegan (talk about your "hip"), Miles, Ella, Bill Evans...so many. While I trained as a classical musician and composer, and am no expert on popular music, what's not to like about such lively examples of music making?

We all know the story of what happened when pop music glugged away too long at the mass market well, and sold out in the late '70s. If you always need to reach the lowest common denominator, pull in the biggest profits, well, there's not much room for art left, is there? The classic songs, ballads, Broadway showtunes, great jazz, big bands, blues, swing, folk, up through the British rock explosion (who doesn't like the Beatles?), all of which prospered in the 20th century, still stand tall, and are worth investigating if you're a bit too young to remember them. Anything with art and artistry behind it is worth investigating. But I don't hear that much any more. Pop music has even forgotten how to swing, alas, and has misappropriated the tools people like me pioneered to make unique kinds of music. Am I just being an old curmudgeon here, or is this where it all ends up: tools to crank out cheap clones, formulas which happened to sell once or twice? The same thing has happened to most films, and books, nearly all of television. Is that all there is? Thankfully, we still have all those great recordings, when you can find them. And the pendulum may be starting to swing back already. One must never give up hope.


FJO: Of course the thing that I find so potentially disturbing about everything moving to downloadable files is how easy it is to delete the files, how easy it is to turn it off, to stop listening, because it's so easy to flick that 'off' switch. We've made it progressively easier not to pay attention. With the record, you had to drop the needle, you had to sit there very carefully, and you didn't want to raise the needle in the middle of it because you might hurt the record, so you let it play out, and you listened to it in the order that the person who made the record wanted you to hear it in.

WC: You're right; it's changed our listening habits, to have first the random access on a CD, which is quite good, and then on an MP3 where it becomes immediate jump-anywhere-you-want. I like that, though, although your comment shows the downside of a new ability, used to negative ends. But random access itself is great. I love having DVDs--and Laserdiscs before--since I'm a film buff, too. I probably would have had a lot of fun living out in Filmdom, although I don't care for L.A. But I do enjoy films, it's in my blood. (Heck, my parents first met while working in the same movie theater!) And there's art behind the medium, another reason I respect many of the people who write music for films. The art behind really classic films is something you can finally really study in detail via media like DVD, and of course the new hi-def versions of those will be the next major boon.

There's a confluence of technological breakthroughs that are making it possible to go back and revisit some very important art pieces that were taken for granted during previous times. We can at last treat them with diligence, introspection and respect. And I hope music, my music, can be treated the same way. It's the upside of random access and easy control, scan, pause, search. I want to find a practical and relatively painless way to put my music out on Surround, like DVD-As, SACDs something like that, because many of the albums, not all of them, many of them were mastered to surround you in the room.

I found that while it wasn't quite as big a step as going from mono to stereo, moving from stereo to quad or five or more channels was extremely helpful for clarity, nearly as big an improvement. You heard everything better, even if your individual monitor speakers and amplifiers weren't quite first-rate, as each would share the tasks of reproducing each instrument, distributing lines in different directions, and a varied ambience all around them. It's so frustrating that, up until now, there has been no convenient, affordable way for me to put out my own music in Surround Sound. And as I sit here with you now, it looks like Surround has not caught on, or things would have gotten better. I'm still waiting for something to come along that I can use on my Macintosh computers that would allow me at least to produce a limited run, if only a sampler disc or two. I'd love to do that much.


In '68 CBS was trying to find examples for a new slogan--what was it--"Bach to Rock"? That was their advertising slogan they started out with, a catchy phrase, and they had several projects they were trying to put together, but they had nothing to represent the Bach side. Our timing by pure coincidence couldn't have been much better. Elements of luck strongly affect our lives, like it or no.

In the same way Glenn Gould was pleased to discover Switched on Bach existed, that there be an album like this, that he could point to and say "See! What I'm saying about studio performances being better than on stage recitals is not a bad idea; here's someone else doing the same thing." Anyway, Switched on Bach fit the CBS's new notion of "crossover", breaking the bounds of conventional classical music albums. So they wanted to work with us, and we signed a contract. Actually, at first, they actually signed the synthesizer! We could next have said: "Bye, now, nice to meet you. If you need anything else, speak to the synthesizer!" Kind of silly and presumptuous of them. But then, on the first album, there was no credit at all on the cover for many months. The first two pressings only credit the Moog Synthesizer! For them it was just the synthesizer. Maybe it's the old science-fiction movie image, blinking lights, a robot, or Hal. We had a sequencer that could blink its lights. We filled that cliche admirably for them. But it was also kind of insulting, applauding the tool, not the person who used it. But many people did that for years, credit the instrument first.


Recently I blessed that good fortune, when it came time to remaster all the albums. We were among the first people to use Dolby. Fortunately, we met the Dolby people early on through a fine, savvy recording engineer, Marc Aubort. So we met Ray and Dagmar Dolby, Ioan Allen and all the people at Dolby Labs, who've been close friends for years. Anyway, at that time, few studios wanted to use Dolby. But we went ahead, thank goodness, and now those early tapes--most of them--are in beautiful condition. That's part of the reason my new remastered CDs sound wonderful.

Initially I didn't realize they would sound that much better than the early LPs cassettes, or reel-to-reels, and even the early CBS/Sony CDs. But those were all taken off of the same duplicating masters. Those represent the compromise step used to master LPs. You had to make special equalized, compressed limited dubs to tweak the limitations of cutting grooves in plastic. But CBS used those dubs to make their early CDs, so the CDs were similarly compromised.

We frequently had guests come to the city, and we'd show them the studio, and at that time, nobody had a home studio. They always seemed dazed, and thanked us for such an unusual visit. A few would write: "Hey! You know, the best part of our trip to New York was seeing the studios!" That won't happen anymore. Home studios have become common, as they should be. It's a very democratic idea. And I love that it's spreading now, like an idea whose time has indeed come. And so even if it's video, people are working now with video, with the newest computers, everybody can get iMovie or FinalCut Pro, a decent camcorder like we're using right now. You can learn this stuff at home. The technology is no longer an arbitrary wall or impediment. We have tools to allow most anyone to put together "brave new world" forms of artistic creativeness!

FJO: Well, the very thing we're doing now that you reference, in a thing like NewMusicBox. This couldn't have existed when you first started.

WC: No. There wouldn't have been an Internet to put it on. What are you going to do? Bind a little Evatone soundsheet into your magazine, so people can listen? That's the best you once could do. Keyboard magazine did it with me a couple of times. You could print pictures, some stills, so you'd have color pictures and an Evatone soundsheet, ten minutes a sheet. That would have been it.

FJO: So, the internet: a force for good, then?

WC: It's a tool. I hand you a hammer. Do you want to build a house or hit somebody with it? I don't know, and you don't tell me. Obviously, I hope you won't hurt anyone with it. Seriously, the net is a good sharp tool. The connections we've got right now can be used for great good. The media can be used for propaganda, too. You can convince some naive people of anything, spin human fundamentals and values, pervert a country, as we've proven recently. A tool: no more, no less. There's no morality tied to it. It's what we, as human beings, use it for, good or bad.

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LeafThe Compositional Process

Frank J. Oteri: So then, the limits to technology. I can't help but snoop around your studio and see handwritten manuscripts everywhere, which I think is wonderful. But nowadays, we talk about technology and everybody's notating everything on computers.

Wendy Carlos: I do, too. A lot of these scores lying around here are done on computers. I'm a Finale user. I've been using since it first came out in--what was it, '87? Something like that. Great tool!

FJO: That was back when it could hardly do anything. It was really hard to manipulate.

WC: It's a nice program now. It's gotten very friendly, and powerful.

FJO: But there are still a lot of composers who insist on writing everything out by hand.

WC: It's a habit anyway, a useful one. With a bit of practice one's music handwriting can become rather fast but still legible. One of my "favorite things" is a book containing the original hand notation of many great composers. One volume has an analysis, and the other volume contains the score photocopies. When you had to write in ink with a quill pin, scratching changes out, it wasn't so easy. Seeing later sketches by people who had a temper, like Beethoven, is often painful. It's terrifying to consider growing deaf as a composer, how did he manage to create anything, not to say, masterpieces, under such conditions? Then others, like Ravel and Stravinsky, their handwriting is so systematic, clean and precise. I try to copy that approach for my own. But although I can read my own notation, using Finale it's almost more fun to produce scores that are a visual pleasure to read. You can hand one to any musician and say, "Hey, can you play this?" and they can look at it and say, "Oh yeah, this is fine," and they can go at it.


FJO: But of course now, with recorded sound, you could do that with a recording. You could throw out stuff. You don't need notation.

WC: That's true; certainly there are more recent alternatives, like note and track displays in a mature, powerful sequencer, like my favorite, Digital Performer. But for composing the new alternatives are still clumsier, bulkier and less convenient, say: to spot check, jump around many pages, compare, edit. A beginner may enjoy the ease, but an experienced composer is only slowed down by the literality of it all: to have to keep playing back over and over, what you hear in your head just fine. If you want to notate nearly anything, I'd suggest Finale. With practice you'll soon be directly composing and printing out professional scores even faster than using pencil and paper for a rough manuscript.

Most composers begin with some form of improvisation, which is the essential heart of music. But if you have only the heart, without, say, the lungs, you're going to have a hard time taking air in, to keep going over a longer work. Jotting the notes down in some visual form has so many benefits. You can study how they stand up to the scrutiny of "a week from now," or even just tomorrow, a wonderful "moment of truth." You can do it over on the sofa, or in the subway, you don't need your equipment powered on and booted, so it's nicely informal. It helps greatly to look, study something you've done, when you no longer have your ego tied up in it, as you do when you first create it. You can be far more objective. Often you'll find a slightly nicer way to make a point. Do it again later, until you reach the point where there's no need to touch it anymore, it only becomes different, not better. That's a good time to stop! (Smiles)

FJO: But can't you do that with just your ears?

WC: Of course you do, and best of all with your inner, silent ears. Why limit yourself to only one method, like audible playback? Consider the poor poet or novelist who can't write or type, but has to use a cassette recorder only: it's a hard way to write. The objectivity of the printed notes, even when imprecise, is a filter that lets you pick out more sides of a piece's structure. It's like using parallax to judge placement and depth of objects in space. It's a second point of view, not just one: not just listening to a MIDI output. There's a reason notation has lasted so long, and has been perfected.


Anyway, there are no rules here, only anecdotal suggestions and tips from other creative people. Try them out for yourself. I've only tried to emulate the methods used in creating the music which has most influenced me over my life-span. That turns out to be a merging of several skills: the written and the played, the felt, the performed, the heard in ear and/or head. I've found it all comes together, so that you not only see a note on the page, you hear it in your ear and you feel it under your fingers as you perform each note. Those work together as a sort of naturally interrelated trinity. I don't know how to explain it better, I'm sorry.

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LeafExploring Microtonality

Frank J. Oteri: The distance between the notes on the page and hearing them sound is probably a good place to begin a conversation about microtonality. I'm curious about what you're hearing in your head versus what you're feeling when you're playing around with the various scales that you've programmed. At this point, you've been playing around with microtonal tunings for 20 years.

Wendy Carlos: Over 20 years formally, but informally much longer than that. The work that went into Beauty in the Beast was started in '83. That's when Stoney Stockell, who co-built the Synergy, devised a way to help me alter the tunings in my Synergy synthesizers, which directly led into Beauty in the Beast. I had fooled around with alternative tunings since I was 16 or 17 years old. I had tried building little instruments, a wannabe Harry Partch. I later bought his book fairly early, when I was a freshman in college, I guess. But I had already read Helmholtz's On the Sensations of Tone, which really got me going. Before then, my parents had bought me a tuning hammer and rubber wedges to learn how to tune a piano. So I tried other non-standard tunings on it. They let me keep it that way for several weeks in a row; then I'd have to put it back to equal temperament again. Tuning to equal temperament is at first kind of hard. But it certainly trains your musician's ear, too!

Early on working with the Moog synthesizer, I asked Bob if he could supply some kind of polyphonic module for me, to play basic chords on, for example. And he did it. You have to look at the back of my modular to see it, a long rectangular box, with one front panel of controls. It's more like an electronic organ that can feed through the synthesizer. While it can't make nearly as many sounds as the rest of the monophonic instrument, it was fine for simpler things. I used it on a few of my later Moog albums, for Baroque continuo parts especially. And it allowed easy tuning of all of the notes, so I experimented with several novel tunings. Later we had a vintage Novachord in the studio, and that was a very nice instrument for working with alternative tunings; besides, it sounded good. I'd describe it as an early analog synthesizer, from the late '30s. I remember experimenting with it a great deal. I was really waiting for an opportunity to try alternative scales on an album of my own music. That plan ended up waiting until Beauty in the Beast, alas, nearly ten years later. Later on Switched-On Bach 2000, I performed everything with Bach's favorite tunings, an accurate representation of how he would have tuned his organ, harpsichords and clavichords. It's not radically different from the equally-tempered scale, but the differences do increase the harmoniousness noticeably. Very nice, it's too bad you seldom encounter such euphonious scales any more, a trade-off for convenience over sound.


FJO: Ethnomusicology and microtonality are totally intertwined. And what we haven't gotten into yet is that Beauty in the Beast is not only a fascinating exploration of various tunings; it is also a remarkable response to musical traditions from around the world. In away, it's something of a "world music" album.

WC: I didn't intend for it to be. I think I approached world music, the ethnic parts, because of the tunings. But it falls into place the moment you start looking back to models to inspire you. You can't look too far in western music because it was so blinded by the equal-tempered scale, acknowledging the good parts, too. As a sometime microtonalist, I'm not one of those who feel that [12-tone] equal-temperament is loathsome; it's a very useful scale. For certain kinds of jazz harmonies and progressions, I can't think of many scales that have that much democratic neutrality. So the alternative models had to come from other countries which didn't adopt the 12-tone scale: East Indian music and its whole rich subcontinent, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolian music. Even Chinese and Japanese music, although they slipped into the blander pentatonic scales which work pretty well in equal temperament. Then there's also the whole archipelago of Indonesia, Bali and Java. And Africa, who could ignore African music? Several rich traditions there. And go back to our roots before western music developed in Europe, the enharmonic modes of Greek music. There's a lot out there. A lot of it has been lost, but enough remains to archaeo-musicology, so we can deduce with modest guesswork. There are many alternatives that ought be quite fruitful for carrying on microtonal experiments in the 21st century.


FJO: There's another potential cost as well though. The loaded question that none of us can answer: what about the audience? Can the people whom we're all apparently creating this music for tell the difference between 15-tone equal temperament--which you've used in one piece--and scales like the Alpha and Beta scales that you invented?

WC: That's a very good question. If I demonstrated Alpha for you and then switched to 15-tone equal temperament, which it's very close to, you'd hear immediately that Alpha locks in almost like Just Intonation. The sounds are suddenly smooth. If you go back to 15-equal, instead it trembles. The trembling is not awful; it's what we hear in [12-tone] equal temperament. Doesn't matter so much what instrument we hear it on, usually they're played with some vibrato. Vibrato (and also the "choral-tone" of massed strings or voices), hides a lot of sins. It's very expressive, a natural way to play, but it also masks many of the beautiful intervals you may be going for. If you play without much vibrato you can hear an immediate, audible difference between a lot of these tunings. If you play it the traditional way, with a big fat orchestra, many instruments on each line, sawing away with a lot of vibrato, yeah, it is hard to hear. I'll be very honest; in those cases I have trouble hearing it.

FJO: What about somebody who has no musical background at all?

WC: They will probably miss the subtle stuff completely, but they may be more open to hearing the interesting tunings that are quite different from ours without saying, "Oh, geeee, oooh, aahh--that's so out of tune, stop!" I've had a lot of musician friends emphatically insist they hate some of the non-equal temp stuff I've done, especially when it's quite different from the western traditions, and includes harmonic motions in exotic scales that are foreign to what we do. Many well trained musicians invariably hate it in the beginning. They hate it, hate it, hate it! Surprise, give them some time, and I've had them come back to me to say, "Wendy, at first I couldn't stand Beauty in the Beast, but, you know, that's a really hip album!" Something rigid finally let go. They let it come to them. They did the same thing I did, because I had trouble with many of these scales the first time, too. Finally they're open to it, and can hear that there's something worthwhile there. That's lovely!

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LeafThe Meaning of Music

Frank J. Oteri: This takes us to Heaven and Hell. In your notes you talked about creating scary music.

Wendy Carlos: It was meant as melodrama, a sort of filmscore type of music without a specific film. It was having my cake and eating it, too. So I didn't have to worry about a director changing edits on me at the last minute: "We're gonna switch to this other scene, cut out X, and insert Y." But that ruins the music! You do it of course, you try to adapt. In this case, I could use some of the gestures that can make film music a lot of fun to write and to hear, and included quite a few edgy, scary things, too, without having to worry about other restrictions, or having to collaborate. I do love some of film's interplay--and I enjoy collaborating--but there's something to be said for a solo effort, too. Why not?

FJO: Part of what's scary about this music is the unfamiliar intervals.

WC: Yes, some of it's that, but there are also some creepy sounds. There are several timbres that are almost like nails on a blackboard.


FJO: You know what I thought was scary the first time I heard it? "Winter" from Sonic Seasonings.

WC: It's kind of barren and desolate.

FJO: It conjures up a really cold day, which can be really scary. But that strikes me as something somewhat different from macabre horror. Walking down the street tonight, I've been noticing all these ads for some awful horror film. And they made me think to myself when I kept seeing them: "Why do we want our society to partake in this? What is it in a society that wants to experience this?" There's a particularly nasty poster for a movie with a bunch of skulls and a caption underneath it says it's about the worst serial killer of all time. Why would anyone want to go see that? What possible appeal can there be in watching someone kill tons of people?

WC: I suppose that some of our human nature has a need to let off steam. As a civilization, we have to be somewhat inhibited. Without those inhibitions, we'd wreak havoc upon each other. There have to be laws, police, all that. One understands all that sort of passively. Obviously we all would like to really be free but it's hard to know how to be free. It's also easier to talk about being free than actually going out and try to do something constructive that's ad hoc brand new. I can ask you as a composer to go out now and write something that's completely different. Ha, I dare you! That's gonna be pretty challenging. You're going to have to think past all the things you have ever done, if you really want to be different, because inadvertently you'd probably lapse into a few of them.

Freedom is the same way. Echoes and ghosts of frustrations from the past linger within us. So now and then we feel the need to exorcise these gremlins which we've repressed. Some people may go out and watch big tough guys batter each other on the football field and feel a release. It's not my cup of tea, but you can see where that could serve such a function. Perhaps it helps to watch a competition, and root for your side to win. Seeing a horror movie can serve a similar cathartic function, I suspect.


FJO: So this brings us back to the audience. What do you want the audience to get from your music?

WC: I want people to respond. Don't just sit there passively. Listen, feel. Hopefully respond sufficiently to take something away with you, maybe you'll even want to re-experience that response again. That's sufficient. A few might like the main melody and find themselves humming it. That's good news, but it's not the only element. "Music is a singing, dancing thing," is a remark a composer I knew used to tell me. So let's add dance, the rhythmic element. We've already noted the singing element, as most of us have something within us that enjoys expressing ourselves: we sing and hum.

And an essential part of music is to connect with our shared inner feelings, to recognize the connections, and know that you're not alone. We're born alone; we die alone. In between we have music, and a great gift it is, too. It's in there with our social structures: families and friends and loved ones, a shared humanity. I like to think of it as the old metaphor of two ships at sea. We flash our signal lights as we pass one another. It makes life less lonely. It's wired into us. If music were taken away from us, I do believe we would invent it again. In a few generations, we would develop it all over again.


FJO: But we're at a crossroad right now. Attention spans are shorter than ever, and music education is almost non-existent for most people.

WC: That's the tragedy of our time. With the media as powerful as they are, they're used for less and less actual content. There's an apt saying, the law of strawberry jam: "The wider a culture is spread, the thinner it gets." That's us, alright, spread super wide and super thin. It's such an empty-minded use of all the media. Let me show my years and think back on '50s television, how innovative and exciting some of early programming was. Some of those classics have become available on DVD collections. The early TV days shouted innovation. It was a new medium that covered only a few densely populated areas at that time. They didn't worry about filling each hour with the maximum number of commercials, while making sure people would stay tuned to your station. Most cities had only one station anyway, so the producers felt freer to be experimental, not pander to the lowest common denominator. Television soon became a wasteland, most of it, driven by ratings. We all realize that; it's the big cliche of our time. It's hard to think of carrying programs today like Sid Caesar, Edward R. Murrow, Robert Montgomery. It would be inconceivable for such fare to attract a sufficiently mass audience today.

FJO: At least not a wide audience. Everything is so fragmented now: the media with its thousand cable channels, as well as the internet. We've got all these resources now, so we actually could access almost anything with them. Everyone talks about the death of the mainstream. It's great that there's no longer a mainstream, because when there was a mainstream it was utter banality. In its place are these tiny, little pockets. The people over there who like gangsta rap, the people further down who like some subgenre of heavy metal, and then the people over here who are into 53-tone Just Intonation. Okay, cool, let's go hang out in their room. But it's all these rooms and sometimes it feels like nobody's really talking to anyone outside of their room.

WC: Except for the commercial people who are essentially selling the same three songs over and over and over again, and unfortunately programming the newer generations to lose their curiosity and to be easily satisfied. 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. Maybe we're heading into cultural upheaval, a paradigm shift that's revolutionary. Maybe the lifespans of these claustrophobic strands have been spent and now we face a new revolution. A beneficent revolution that adds more than it takes away. I hate to dwell on big topics like this because I'm but one artist, and most artists have to remain detached and focused on what they create, at least while doing it. Composing can be a bit insular.

Talk about your iPod community, it's what creating is about, even when you work with other artists. You're basically all sharing one small project together, for the duration. You tune out the rest of the world. So I have no bird's eye view. You need to be like an eagle to fly up high like that. I don't know. I can tell you about only what I see. I'm looking at the forest, but my eyes are really seeing only trees. Take everything I've said with a grain of salt.

Being put in the position of talking about my art and music, makes me sound solipsistic: talking about me, me, me, and I'm uncomfortable in that position. It's kind of arrogant when you can study the world's great masterpieces, music and art. Anyone can head into a library or store or go online, order from places like Amazon, to learn all of the best of any field. And when you truly grasp it, it's overwhelming, rather intimidating. I'm just chipping away here, tinkering about. Sometimes maybe we hit the mark, but more often, well that one didn't work. You just continue moving on. It's part of the experience of being alive. I hope each new curiosity and adventure will lead to interesting results but I don't know it will. Your thoughtful, generous questions, taking the time to speak with me this evening, make it sound like there's much more importance and significance than there really is.

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LeafTaking It into the Present

Frank J. Oteri: Well, we've talked about three things that you did which had a major impact on the history of music and a fourth thing--microtonality--that I wish had more of an impact than it's had so far.

Wendy Carlos: That didn't have much impact. You're right, it should have. Oh, well.

FJO: But it probably will, at some point. And certainly there are lots of other people who've explored microtonality. But I think what's wonderful about what you've done with it is that you've forged a path that is not dogmatic. You've shown that you can get interesting music from mining all different approaches to tuning.

WC: You obviously know Johnny Reinhard. I've known Johnny for over twenty years. Johnny is very open and democratic, very egalitarian. I'm also an omnivore. One may temporarily try to be insulated while in the middle of an intense creative project, but basically since we live in a society which is surrounded by everything, how could you not be an omnivore? How could you not eventually sample a little of all kinds of foods, music, dance, culture, art and the rest? It's all out there, and human nature starts out being very, very curious. Please, don't be afraid. You don't have to like all of it. There will be novel experiences which will surprise you favorably. It's the best way to expand our world-view, not sit in a worn-out, safe rut. Artists particularly need to explore new horizons. Composers will grow creatively by investigating novel styles, rhythmic patterns, and what you bring up, different scales and tunings.

It's gotten much easier to discover ideas that are new to us. I may live in a loft in lower Manhattan, but I don't go out all that much. Yet through the web and through magazines, books, the media it's not hard to stay informed. You can be anywhere in the world right now and still learn about pretty much everywhere else in the world. Sorry to lecture like this, but as adults we can too easily forget to remain curious. And that may explain why so far topics like different tuning approaches remains largely ignored, by public and both amateur and professional musicians.

FJO: In terms of your own history as a composer: there have been those four steps. You talked about the great composers of the past, but I listen to your history as a composer and I'm in awe of it.

WC: Ah, to see ourselves as others see us, Robert Burns's immortal line. Thank you for the too gracious complement. Anyway, I'm not. One of the most damaging things any of us can do is believe our own PR. Artists are scarcely immune to that. If you absorb all the "best-foot-forward" advertising used to promote what you create, without a wink or a nudge, you're a fool. It's almost as corrupting as reading your own reviews, both good ones and bad. Reviewers don't have absolute knowledge, either, and we sure don't. Undeservedly nasty reviews can really hurt, although undeserved praise is probably more damaging long-term. Well, it's best to maintain a skeptical eye in either case.

FJO: So, what have you been doing recently.

WC: Oops, that question can't be answered quickly, but let me try. It's funny how unexpected events can steer us. One of the last things my parents gave me included a K-2600. They gave me an envelope and said: "Honey, get something practical with this that will help you in your work." I had the two K-2000s and thought an upgrade was overdue. I started fooling around with it. First of all I discovered that it contained one of the best sounding replica piano timbres I'd tried up to then. And I began practicing a lot of old pieces, and getting my chops back. Online I discovered there were many other new libraries of sounds available for the Kurzweil line, more than when I'd last looked. One that caught my eye was pipe organ sounds. I bought that modestly priced set just for fun, and started playing with it. I quickly realized that there was something here I had overlooked.

Pipe organs are an ideal instrument to replicate via samples. Why? There's no performed expression. A pipe goes on and goes off with the air pressure. That's it: "hello, goodbye." If it's in a chamber with expression shutters, okay, you can open the shutters, you can close the shutters, crescendo diminuendo. This is separate from the pipe sounding, which can be done within the synth's flexible VAST modulation tools. There's not much alteration past that. It's the perfect paradigm to address with a sampler. It's better even than a percussion instrument which you can hit hard or soft, or in different places to get different sounds. So I started fooling around with their pipe samples. They were okay, not bad, not great, like a tempting appetizer.


FJO: After everything else you've done, this seems like a weird time to be learning the minutiae of how to play the organ.

WC: I guess it IS odd, and sure suprised me. Yet the timing couldn't be better right now. I've become really nutted out by the way things have been going here and abroad, more aware of current news than I ever was before. A scary time to live through, isn't it? And sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is to step aside and try to learn something new, something physical, and cathartic--or at least LOUD. When you last interviewed me twenty years ago, I was mainly a composer and synthesist. I worked in a studio, long and hard and slowly to get every note right, no instant gratification at all. Only after hours or days of tedium, could finally sit back and listen to the results, several seconds, up to half a minute, all at once.

It's also the way film animation works, and CGI. Most art, actually--how quickly can someone sculpt a statue? And that's how I worked for decades. But now I can also sit here and play, perform, and get instant feedback, with a big, rich ensemble, an exciting sound. So I'm back to the roots of music making, which years of synth work had detoured around. I'm enjoying the experience immensely, getting back to my roots.


It's a fascinating time to work in this field. Instead of having it continue to wind down, as it had been doing, suddenly there are these rather exciting branches to explore. I don't know where I'm going with any of it. I'm not a very disciplined person about steering a musical path, only in putting it together as well as possible. There's probably an album or two lurking here, but I honestly don't know what it will be exactly. Please don't ask me that, "what's next?" However, it's still exciting, engrossing, challenging, to say nothing of fun just exploring. There you are. This is as honest as I know how.

FJO: I didn't even know you were going to take it there. For the first time in your entire career, you're making solo instrumental music. But you've turned that notion upside down, by bringing in all these orchestral timbres, you're creating this weird 21st century one-person band. So it's a new kind of solo music that is only possible now.

WC: For a long time, really most of my life, I've felt deprived about not being able to work with other musicians. When we put together the Bach at the Beacon concert, it was great fun to work with other musicians. I'd love to do that more. It took "only" thirty years to translate the Switched-On experience to a definitive eight live synthesizers on stage. There have been a few plans to collaborate with other synthesists, but they've not worked out, alas. We were just on different wavelengths, running off in opposite directions instead of coming together. It would be wonderful to work again with other musicians, because solo music is only one kind of music. And I continue to cherish a few straight ahead serious orchestral compositions still in me (something I'm actually pretty good at), a bit of the old "hope springeth eternal."

All that said, having gotten this big hybrid instrument together, I'm becoming more aware of a quality to music played alone--like organ or piano repertoire and improvisation. It will be great to mix these extemporaneous qualities with enough notes and details going on, that it yields a rich ensemble steered simultaneously by one mind, allowing no more than one or two overdubs, perhaps. It would encourage a wiry rubato that would difficult to match with other minds simultaneously. An ensemble would change things: it would become an average of what you all felt. I'd not stopped to think about it before, the two approaches to performance, ensemble versus solo. We spoke about it briefly earlier. All those years creating studio albums made me lose sight of this lovely complementary dichotomy.

Recently I've been creating some transcriptions of traditional orchestral works, and playing those alone you find the elasticity of the way you move the rhythm is so different from a drum machine. It has a breathing, living quality that arises intuitively as you do it. And that spontaneity can now be saved within a sequencer, then you go and fix any wrong notes. I first did that on the Bach 2000 album: kept the baby and the bath water, both. So in my old age I'm approaching several hybrids together: of ensemble plus solo, timbre plus tuning, live ad lib plus written out studio precision and flexibility. It's not so bad. I'm satisfied with the way my career has progressed. It's not what I originally wanted, so there are disappointments. But I'm pleased that technology has come in, in the nick of time each time to bail me out of what would have been a cul de sac. It's a heady time to be around, and I hope I have many more years to continue doing this.

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