LeafInterview by Chris Twomey
in Exclaim, Dec '98/Jan '99


Wendy Carlos - Still Switched On
By Chris Twomey

Ninety-seven was a big year for electronica - 1897 that is, when Emile Berliner, eager to improve his Victorian age bachelor pad, developed the phonograph disc and the telephone transmitter. Electricity and music have actually been intertwined since 1761, when Abbe Delaborde invented an electric harpsichord: the Clavecin Electrique. Imagine, then, the uncalled-for future shock in 1968 when composer/ engineer Wendy Carlos's electronic realisations of music from the 1700s - Switched On Bach - became the biggest selling "classical" album ever.

Wendy Carlos certainly had a vision of the future potential of electronic music that was not shared by many, even within the university laboratory she studied in as a post-graduate in 1962. At the time, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center was the only one of its kind in the U.S.; her professors, Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening, were the first to present a Tape Music concert in the States in 1952.

Besides all her hard work as a composition student and a hobbyist in electronics - at age 14, she won a Westinghouse Science Fair scholarship for a home built computer - Carlos's pending success owed much to timing. Before Switched On Bach made Bob Moog a household name, Carlos had been working with the pioneering synthesiser inventor since the early '60s. Having mastered the early Moog enough to turn the monophonic (i.e., one sound texture at a time) modules into a performance instrument, where multiple sounds could be put together, Carlos knew the best demonstration of this would be to interpret the contrapuntal voices of Bach's music.

Her meticulous efforts, assisted by collaborator/ producer Rachel Elkind, not only caught the ear of Columbia Records, but it was championed by the reclusive expert in such music, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. More than anyone else at that time, Gould appreciated the kind of pointillist recording techniques it took to make the counterpoint music come alive with a different synthesised sound from phrase to phrase.

"I would like to be able to say it was just because I did such a great job," Carlos says from her New York studio, "but no, I think I came at a time when it was important for Glenn to be able to point out some examples of artists making fine music without [live performance], to show that his position on that issue was, if not logically valid, had some very notable examples for it. Having looked at the book of his letters, it was obvious that he had really been taken by my example of a new way to do a repertoire that he knew so much better than I ever will. He was a performer who did some composing, whereas I'm a composer who does some performing."

Switched On Bach performed very well, quickly becoming the biggest selling album on Columbia's Masterworks label. Their sequel, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (named after Bach's work "The Well Tempered Clavier," which introduced the concept of tempered tuning that is the basis for Western music) did the same for the Baroque music of Monteverdi, Scarlatti and Handel, becoming the second best seller in the Masterworks catalogue.

Just a year after the Switched On revolution had taken the abstract sounds of Pierre Henry and Edgar Varese into the mainstream, critics began to argue that electronic music was only suited for the classics.

"There were people who said only Bach, more Bach, that's the only thing that works. Yeah right, sure. Of course that's the only thing - Bach and electronic music were wired together by God! Didn't you know that? It was so silly. And then there were those who would only embrace the Baroque period, and they'd say only Baroque could be done, especially after The Well-Tempered Synthesizer showed that. You can see where this is going. They only like what they heard yesterday."

When Carlos and Elkind added electronically-processed voices to their plugged-in repertoire, in the form of the vocoder singing, on their magnificent version of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy," some thought they had gone too far. In response came their first original music recording on CBS, the electronic music landmark "Timesteps," which took Carlos on a path to her biggest encounter with serendipity yet.

"I had actually begun 'Timesteps' as a way of softening what was an extremely negative visceral reaction by quite a few people we knew to the use of a vocoder in our version of the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Now it was kind of weird that people who had been perfectly happy to hear the Bach instrumental music got very, very upset when they heard what to them was the synthesiser singing! I didn't understand it. Vocoders had been around since, geez, before I was born. Homer Dudley invented the first ones in the late '30s.

"Anyway, the problem had to be solved, so Rachel suggested that I write a piece of music that introduced the vocoder gently, slowly, until it became really clear that you were hearing that synthesiser singing! And then you could listen to the Beethoven and not flinch. It was a very modest, almost a pragmatic reason for writing it, although it became a very nice little miniature history of Western music. It embraced a lot of different types of music, including some swashes of colouristic, impressionistic, time travel kinds of things. So when a friend gave me Anthony Burgess's book, A Clockwork Orange, it felt really weird because I saw how much affinity this piece had for the novel. And very, very shortly after that, when I was nearly at the end of 'Timesteps,' someone told us that Stanley Kubrick was making the thing as a movie. It was like a triple coincidence: reading the novel, the making of 'Timesteps,' and the Kubrick film. It was an idea whose time had come."

Carlos's retro-electronica was perfect for Burgess's dystopian work about free will that chronicled a future hooligan made into a model citizen by extreme conditioning. The anti-hero of this controversial film was a big fan of the heavenly music of Ludwig Van and here was Carlos with Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" already recorded and ready to be sent for Kubrick's consideration. It was a marriage made in somebody's heaven and now Carlos's complete score (vastly superior to the excerpted film soundtrack) can be enjoyed on CD for the first time from East Side Digital, who have also reissued her 1972 double album Sonic Seasonings, and are compiling her classical recordings in the Switched On Boxed Set, due in Spring '99.

As well as expertly remastering her music for A Clockwork Orange, and including two pieces written for the movie that weren't used, Carlos has returned to several of the classical themes she interpreted for Kubrick in a dark new piece, "Clockwork Black," on her just-released CD Tales Of Heaven & Hell. Now sharing a label with the Residents, she includes a bit of their style of musical whimsy in her soundtrack-type work, distinguished by the theremin-like sounds of her invention, the Circom (a circular oscillator controller). As well, her current research into alternative tunings has produced the odd harmonies in the outstanding choral piece "Afterlife," which, much to her surprise, was performed live last year in New York at the American Federation of Microtonal Music's annual Microfest.

"For me it's just another flavour; it's like another type of food you can have. It's an axis of freedom. We could go still further in finally being able to achieve that goal that everyone talks about in electronic music: synthesising any possible timbre, in any possible tuning, with any possible timing. I call it the three T's. Essentially the whole world opens in front of you. In the ever-changing field of electronics we've gotten a lot closer, but we're still not there yet."

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