Perfect Sound Forever

Everyone Knows It's Wendy (Carlos)

...Or you should unless you want your head bit off
By Julian George
(December 2022)

This is an exercise in nostalgia, that most dangerous of civilised emotions, a roseate walk down memory lane, early Seventies, when I first heard Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach in my parents' period 'den,' wall to wall shag carpeting, a redwood-sized redwood table, the latest 'home entertainment' system, the Fifties, Sixties LP's, Harry James (!?), Toscanini's Beethoven recordings for NBC, Rubinstein's Chopin, Carmen Dragon and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra playing an assortment of Beecham's lollipops, Capital Sinatra, Nat 'King' Cole, Julie London, Harry Belafonte, Westside Story, Johnny Mathis, Bobby Darin, a stack of Spanish/Latin records, zarzuelas, tangos ('I like Gardel'), mambos (Weehawken and Canarsie), rhumbas, cha-cha music for the cocktail hour. Sounds! Sights! Moods!

Oh yes, TV on. Was it Hammer Horror or Corman's buckets of blood, or maybe a Giallo film from the fevered mind of Dario Argento? Rest assured, there'll be a harpsichord playing somewhere, Lurch on his day off.

'Es liegt in der Luft.' The soundtrack of my Wonder Bread years ('It's a wonder'), and a hot topic of conversation, Switched-On, in suburban salons across the nation. Never mind 'authenticity' or 'original performance' -- were the 'Smart People' listening to Switched-On? Was it 'in' with 'The In-Crowd'? Was it chic, or was it crass? And if crass, whatever next, Bach on a Strat? A kazoo? QED, PDQ. 'Oh well, we'll catch up some other time.' Ah, but they'd say one thing and do another, the grown-ups, switching on Switched-On soon as they got home, they couldn't get enough of that Lutheran rag, so elegant, so intelligent.

Glenn Gould, everybody's favourite non-NHL Canadian, settled matters when he declared from his Toronto promontory Switched-On Bach to be the 'Record of the Decade,' a welcome sign of the times that had, save for Petula Clark and Barbara Streisand, left him unimpressed. For Gould, Switched-On Bach was his machine dream of perfectibility coming to pass, at the least 'an inkling of the future.' Gould always harped on how 'live music never was best'; the ideal was the studio, the performer in control, interpretation as exploration without the distraction of an expectant, ignorant, audience (those interlopers). Switched-On was 'one of the most startling achievements of the recording industry in this generation,' 'the three-octave, electric action, one-note-at-a-time keyboard of the Moog synthesiser'; not least for this romantic in classicist draping was its 'unflagging musicality.' This was no fluke; several years later, Gould called Carlos' interpretation of Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 4" on The Well-Tempered Synthesiser 'the finest performance of any of the Brandenburgs - live, canned or intuited - I've ever heard' (take that, Nicholas Kenyon).

Flash forward 1978/1979 and I'm working high school weekends at the box office and candy case of a shabby third run movie theatre (the late, lamented Bowie) in the old cobblestoned, bungalow part of town, dollar double-features and, in the dawn (for Podunk) of underground cinephilia, midnight movies. Alas, we couldn't book the ultimate midnight/cult movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, so the owner, a latter-day flapper with business nous, did the next best thing and secured such counterculture classics as Reefer Madness, Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda, Robert Altman's M*A*S*H (not cult but definitely counterculture, unlike the sanctimonious TV spinoff), Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (yes, I was compared to Harold, all the time) and, the dark star of this motley crew, Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. This was the dope (which, along with heavy petting, could be discreetly enjoyed in the balcony), with the old in-out and ultraviolence, the black bowler hats and white boiler suits, the Brutalist architecture, the Korova Milk Bar with Allen Jones fetish furniture, the droogie dialogue laden with inuendo and, codpiece thrust forward, sword stick in hand, a gangbusters Malcolm McDowell as the young sociopath, Alex. Dystopia was never cooler.

Key to Clockwork was the score, the first thing that hits you in the opening, Carlos' arresting transcription of Purcell's "Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary" for Moog synthesiser. Throw in the speeded-up William Tell Overture dollybird threesome, McDowell's over the top underpass rendition of "Singin' in the Rain" (my mental "Singin' in the Rain" will always be Alex's, Bovver boot in the belly and all) and the vocoder on the Beethovenian "March from Clockwork Orange," and you have Alex's 'lovely music' for a while -- and a taste of things to come, ambient music, synth-pop, the eerier fringes thereof (Carlos arrived at the outer limits before Eno did). It hasn't dated a bit.

These memories came flooding back with the publication in 2020 of Wendy Carlos: A Biography, an unauthorised biography by Amanda Sewell. Whither Carlos after the Seventies, besides gender transition? (Carlos, lest we forget, went all the way back then, opting for the op). The score for Kubrick's The Shining was a less happy affair, only three of her cues making the final edit. Then came the original soundtrack for cult SF film, Tron, in 1982 (rereleased on its 40th anniversary to great acclaim). But since then, the decidedly odd project followed by long silences.

'Unauthorised' has made writing this feel like an intrusion; which is Carlos' story in a roundabout way, keeping intruders at bay (imagine pretending not to be at home when Stevie Wonder comes calling), protecting her privacy, and with good reason. On the two occasions Carlos agreed to be interviewed by major publications (she herself wrote for any number of smaller, specialist publications), Playboy and The Village Voice, she felt misled (the evidence supports her).

Mind you, it speaks volumes for Carlos that she should be so naive as to think that Playboy wasn't going to dwell on sex, given the magazine's selling point, her history and the time (1979; 'gender reassignment surgery' - the term didn't exist then - was still a relatively new phenomenon). Or that Eros could be kept quiet in the Voice; her interviewer was Arthur Bell, of Bell Tells fame. Ivory tower?

This is a vicious circle. Carlos consented to these interviews in order to publicise her music if not herself; her private life, her past, was off limits. Because of a very real fear of getting bashed - she had been bullied, and worse, through childhood and adolescence - she had no choice but to live a double-life: in public passing as a modish young man, in private, to a trusted few, being herself. Problem is, the public is seldom content with content alone; they want the whole package. Consequently, her career suffered from lack of exposure - she needed to get out and about but was afraid to do so. Likewise, her many accomplishments as a tireless innovator of electronic music (analogue and digital) and pioneer of the Moog synthesiser (her friend and colleague, Robert Moog, said as much; she played a vital role in the instrument's development), have been overlooked or, worse, slighted. Barely mentioned in Sisters With Transistors? The butt of a joke on This American Life?!

Sewell is, however, an honest broker, neither grubby nor disingenuous. As music director of Interlochen Public Radio, she knows music and her way around a studio, and is sympathetic to her subject. Still, the impression conveyed, unintended surely, is that Carlos is her own worst enemy- a touchy, difficult person who'd rather sulk on the side lines than play the game. This notion is belied by how Carlos came to Kubrick's attention in the first place: she and her then musical collaborator, the equally unheralded Rachel Elkind, on a lark posted a copy of Switched-On Bach to Kubrick. He loved it. But of course.

(Kubrick, who could be a martinet, seems to have handled Carlos with kid gloves)

The upshot of all this was Carlos coming out of the ether to slate Sewell's 'Bogus Bio' (you can read what she has to say at Intriguingly, she didn't threaten litigation, a tactic employed in the past to protect her copyrights. Luckily for her, lockdown meant Sewell's book going under the radar, which brings to mind dark linings and silver clouds, an irony our rascally old acquaintance Alex would appreciate.

Also see our 2007 article about Wendy Carlos

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER