LeafWendy Carlos
Something Old, Something New:
The Definitive Switched-On

Interview by Carol Wright

From the November 1999 -- New Age Voice, <www.newagevoice.com>
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Electronic composer and technological pioneer Wendy Carlos is celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of her revolutionary Switched-On Bach (the best selling classical album of all time!) with the release of the Switched-On Boxed Set, a deluxe restoration of her four analog Bach albums: Switched-On Bach, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, Switched-On Bach II, and Switched-On Brandenburgs.

The albums, she explains, "have been remastered with 20-bit 'Hi-D' technology from the original session tapes, with no re-mixing of any kind. If you notice a few EQ differences, that's because the distortion needed to squash the recording onto the limitations of an LP have been removed." The set also includes intriguing enhanced CD sections and Carlos' meticulously written 200+ page illustrated booklets that share stories about her Moog synthesizers and how she and producer Rachel Elkind recorded the music.

After the first album, and as synth technology improved, Carlos tackled the synthesis of more complex orchestral instruments and vocal sounds. Coincidentally, she created a Moog plus vocoder version of the choral movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony right as director Stanley Kubrick began work on Clockwork Orange (1971, East Side Digital). Carlos also contributed the chilling electronic score for Kubrick's The Shining (1980); the futuristic music for Disney's Tron; and the score for Woundings, a 1998 British anti-war movie.

Her solo albums include Sonic Seasonings/Land of the Midnight Sun, an electronic tone poem that is often cited on "essential New Age recordings" lists (newly mastered from East Side Digital); a spoof of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (1988, CBS); Switched-On Bach 2000 (1992, Telarc) using MIDI; Digital Moonscapes (1983, CBS), which used her digital recreation of a symphony; Beauty in the Beast (1987, Audion), which casts off the limits of the equal tempered scale; and the dark and brooding Tales of Heaven in Hell (1998, ESD).

Carlos continues to push the envelope of every technological advance, and she constantly investigates the compositional possibilities of alternate tunings. An important, albeit tedious, part of Carlos' life was securing the rights to all her works back from CBS, Audion, and other labels, and restoring the master tapes. Eventually, these out-of-print albums will be available through East Side Digital.

Her website, www.wendycarlos.com is one of the most fascinating on the internet. A complete cyber tour of her album descriptions, technical notes, anecdotes (including remembrances of director Stanley Kubrick), eclipse photos, sketches, innovative globe projections, and kritter corner can take hours. So many interests. How does she do it all, and find brainspace for her legendary pun-a-thons?

"Before I die, I want to find out what lies beyond all these horizons," she says. "And I'm doing it for the best reason in the world: I'm curious."

NAV: Congratulations on putting the set to bed.

WENDY: It's done! This was such a big project for one that is not wholly new material. I'm pleased it came out so well.

NAV: I'm old enough to remember Pre-Switched. Electronic music was like some obnoxious mating of a catfight and a garbage compactor. Or electronic music meant the eerie Theremin, the wooo-oooo-woo sound they used on cheesy invader-from-Mars movies. Do you have a sense that you took electronic music to where it could be accepted?

WENDY: That's what people tell me. I was lucky enough to be at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening were teaching. I thought what ought to be done was obvious, to use the new technology for appealing music you could really listen to. Why wasn't it being used for anything but the academy approved "ugly" music? You know, the more avant-garde than thou-ers, atonal, or formally tedious serial, twelve-tone straitjacket. My beloved field was decimated, turned into something quite hateful. It's like we had to start all over again. C-major, C-major, C-major! Let's move on to D-major, already.
Anyway, it's nice to have demonstrated -- which was all it was -- that the medium was far more flexible and capable than one might have been aware. That's all Switched-On Bach was meant to be.

NAV: I was there with the rest in saying, "this electronic music gives me a headache." But the mainstream was also numb to the classics, so you brought them an appreciation of Bach as well.

WENDY: I was certainly not about any revival of Bach. It was just lovely music, eminently suited for this stage of the development of Bob Moog's new synthesizer.

NAV: A perfect match then?

WENDY: Now, we'd say so. But then, people laughed at us, saying that interest would soon peter out. Then they came back and said, "Ah, we got it! We always knew you could do it!"
Oh, oh! The gray cat's dry heaving a hairball. Just a minute. Subi's okay, but he's eighteen years old, so I have to watch him.

NAV: By the way, great job on your website. I've spent hours there and have just scratched the surface. It took an hour just to read about your fuzzy critters.

WENDY: I love animals -- I have three Siamese cats and a terrier -- and would love to have a horsey, but it wouldn't be happy in Manhattan.

NAV: Many modern composers starting creating post-MIDI. They were given their sounds on a silver platter. I'm not sure they all really appreciate where...

WENDY: None of us really know what giants' shoulders we stand on. Should we have a responsibility to know what and who came before us? It's not necessary to play or compose music, but then, I look back to Bob Moog and the others who came before me, and I'm grateful. I was lucky enough to be there when electronic music was still an infant, and I was there to help it take some of the steps needed to mature into a real medium.
There were so many stages necessary for the creation of electronic music: the Ondes Martinot and the Theremin -- many devices, actually, from over a hundred years ago. The original synthesizer was built by RCA, and the second of only two models was located at the Columbia lab. That's where Bob Moog got the name for his device. He combined many different modules in one cabinet, and this collection of tools is what Bob called the synthesizer.

NAV: Could you give an idea of what it took back then to create just one measure of Bach's music? No, to create a chord. No, a note. I guess you'd have to start with whether it was a violin sound or a harpsichord. Where did you start?

WENDY: With Bach. It's easy if you're doing someone else's music, so I went and bought a score. What a concept! And Bach composed his great works during a period that had just begun to be aware of the orchestral instruments, so the music wasn't tied closely to the orchestration. I wouldn't have wanted to go tampering with Mozart or Haydn. But Bach was a two-edged sword. I didn't have to work out any notes. BUT, for me as a composer, it was almost a disaster. I got identified with Bach like Nimoy was with Star-Trek's Spock!
Hardware-wise, we had to use multi-tracking recorded on one eight-track machine, fairly racy hardware for its day. And since I didn't have much money, I built my own unit.
Then I got the Moog and worked with Bob to make a prototype of a touch-sensitive keyboard. Can you believe, the standard keyboard was not touch-sensitive until the late 1970s!? So, now I had a keyboard that could make the notes come alive. So I worked with some friends trying jazz. We tried rock n' roll. And I tried my own compositions, which were not the ugly forms you referred to earlier. However, the music that seemed most likely to turn into a record was Bach. So Rachel Elkind, my producer, and I started with the two-part "Invention in F."

NAV: How did you make the individual sounds?

WENDY: There wasn't much to making the sounds itself. I studied physics and music and knew a lot about the basics of timbre and acoustics. The Moog wasn't all that elaborate. There were a couple of oscillators, and you adjusted them to track the octaves. You would pick a wave shape from the four available: sine, triangle, pulse wave, and sawtooth. There was a white noise source, and a filter to reduce the high end of the wave, to make it sound more mellow, to add resonance, or take out the bottom. Then there were envelopers that came from Ussachevsky's ideas: attack time, decay, sustain, and release. Set the thing to ramp up at some rate: slow for an organ or fast for a plucked string. Make it decay immediately for a harpsichord, or sustain for a piano. Have the final release time based on the need, short and dry, or longer for the vibrating body of a cello or drum. Easy.

NAV: Right. Piece-a-cake.

WENDY: It's not all schematic diagrams and such. You could hear the adjustments. You'd dial up something, listen to it, and keep hitting the note over and over, letting your inner ear guide you while adjusting with the dials. So we would work up a sound and then record it. You try this, try that.

NAV: So, you fiddled with dials until you got a violin. (Hey, I made a pun!) How different from today's MIDI samples. You want a Strad? or a Guarnari?

WENDY: Well, canned sound to a musician is like clip art is to the artist. The only way you can do anything of any value in art is by knowing how to do it yourself. Of course that's not the mentality right now. My opinion is very unpopular, and many people consider me an elitist. Is it so bad to keep standards up? We expect an Olympic athlete to be disciplined, to eat right, to work out daily, and to have a great coach so they can be as good as they can be. So why not have standards for artists?
With the modern keyboards, there's a democratization of music, just as in the past, every kid had to take piano lessons. This is wonderful in a way, but how many went on to play as a soloist? In the case of composers, have the technological advances increased the output of masterpieces? I don't think so. I don't claim to write masterpieces, but I don't stop until it's the best I can do.
The musicians working in the medium now have these advanced tools, but they should not be stuck using only MIDI and prerecorded sounds. If they want to learn how the medium ticks, they should open the hood, get inside, and get dirty. And they'll be grateful for every learning, for every discovery. It's wonderful, but damn, you have to have the motivation. And the curiosity!

NAV: So, you did create your own trumpet, organ, and violin . . . and then . . .

WENDY: Tempo. Rachel helped me nail the tempo by putting down a click track. If, when I put the notes down against it, it sounded too fast -- too bad! -- I did it over again. Then we'd want a ritardando. Who thinks of a ritard when you're making a click track? So we would adjust for that. And that keyboard? Amazingly clunky with all those touch-sensing mechanical gadgets in it. I had to clatter away slower than actual speed; you could never play faster than moderato. Sixteenth notes at a good clip? Forget it!
In the end, it was a lot of bookkeeping, and not as intuitive as a modern keyboard. I wish I had Digital Performer back then. But, nope. Wonder if I could work with it again? Maybe it's like a bicycle and you don't forget.

NAV: But, using today's technology, the Bach wouldn't have been as special.

WENDY: I suppose you're right. If you're a pioneer, you get to have the arrows in the ass, I guess.

NAV: How much could you record in one take?

WENDY: If the tonal quality didn't change much over the phrase, you could get down a measure or two. The Moog was very unstable and would go out of tune constantly. You would play a phrase, back up, and check. Retune and continue. To create a chord, you'd play the second line, then the third. With counter point, you'd play the melodies that wove together. Eventually, we got all the parts to make the piece.

NAV: Hearing Switched-On-Bach probably moved me as much as watching those very first television images of the moon landing. Hearing the didgeridoo for the first time also had a mindbending impact on me. Where are the new frontiers of sound?

WENDY: So, Carol, how many other moon landings, didgeridoos, or peak experiences does it take for you to be equally impressed? What about all the best life experiences in between? We always remember our first exposures, I guess that's only human. And it's easier to be impressed when we're young.
The field of electronic music is still able to move, but with less noticeable refinements. But there is plenty of room for improvements: We still don't have a general-purpose instrument. The closest I have is the Synergy and the GDS, on which I made Beauty in the Beast, and the Kurzweill K2000/2500, which is flexible and very clean sounding.
But I'm so impatient. As an insider, I feel like the developers have been smoking far too many joints. "Oh, wow, man. Look at that. There's a universe of sounds in there!" No, there is not! Wake up! Let's get going, already. At some point in your life, you fatigue out and realize it just may not happen. They aren't moving, and I can't make it happen all by myself. However, making music is not dependent on that, so I keep composing.

NAV: Do you think the re-release of this set will box you back to Bach? or will it give you fresh platform as a composer?

WENDY: I'm aware that the knife will be there with both edges. I am a composer, so I hope that the focus of this interview is not "Wendy Carlos, the performer of Bach on the synthesizer." This was my payment of dues (which unfortunately never stopped) to show that I had an ability with the new media to make real music. I thought I then would be allowed to perform and record my own music, but I got locked in with Bach. People hate to see any of us, once stereotyped into one egg-compartment, overflow into several other compartments. I guess you get only one cell per customer.
You were asking about new sounds; you probably haven't heard Tales of Heaven and Hell. (Note: Carol has since listened and written a thoughtful, enthusiastic review., and offered an example of a new art-form, with her jocular Poem-Review.) It's the scariest recording that's been created in a long time, and I'll bet it's quite different than anything you've ever heard. Are they "breakthrough sounds"? No. But they are different and they have refinements and they are very musically handled.
Why do we always search for something we've never heard before? If your pursuit is not to be as good as you can be, but an obsession to be new, then you've thrown away your art. Art has to be stable to some extent. The medium has matured and is capable of great depth and expression, more than the SOB technology could ever hope to be. Now that the technology has matured, people should try to make the great music, the meaty music, and not cave in to every commercial cliché.
But that's just me talking. For those who just consider music as just a career, this is probably bad advice. Forget I said it. But if you're doing it as an artist, then by all means, aim for the good.

NAV: Think you'll ever run out of ideas?

WENDY: Hardly. The whole palette of life is wonderful. I used to worry about running out of ideas, and now I worry I can touch only a tiny fraction of what I want to do. In music, alternative tunings are an option. It's like throwing away the straight jacket of the twelve-tone, equal tempered scale. But people can get stuck simply discovering the new scales, and then write no good music for it.
Now as I get older, I can look back. I realize that I was a young whippersnapper to think that I could be a performer when I hadn't paid the dues. It's embarrassing that my Bach records are placed alongside Glenn Gould and Horowitz. I don't think that I'm a particularly great performer even of my own music, but with the Digital Performer, I am able to refine things in a sensitive way, keep the spirit that I first had and still make it polished. I am quite satisfied with "Tales of Heaven and Hell;" it's probably the best performing I've done on an album. Every note and sound is "just so."
When listening to all the Bach pieces again, I was aware of the fluffs, wrong tempos, and the passages the Moog just couldn't quite negotiate. But I was surprised that most of them have such spirit. I marvel that I had such tenacity back then; the way we worked was so tedious, it should have removed all traces of spontaneity.
So, I'm perfectly happy to set my Bach beside my most recent works. Altogether, it's part of the fulcrum of how an artist's whole life should be seen. It's a little surreal seeing your own life as having periods -- early, middle, and late -- but there was an innocence back then. It really was, as you mentioned, the stuff of the first moon landing, of leaving those first footprints in the dust.

--Carol Wright

(Read the excellent review Carol wrote upon first hearing Tales of Heaven and Hell.)

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