Wendy Carlos, by Amanda Sewell. Oxford University Press. Review by Dale Boyer
Note - a version of this review appeared formerly in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
As an adolescent in the early 1970s, I remember saving up my allowance to buy a vinyl LP (the standard format in those days) of movie music, one of which was the main title theme from the movie, A Clockwork Orange. The movie was rated “R,” so I hadn’t seen it, but it evoked the sense of something totally new and forbidden. The cut on the LP -- a synthesized version of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary -- was unlike anything I had ever heard before. To ensuing generations, for which synthesizer sounds are unremarkable, it’s difficult to convey how strange and futuristic these sounds were. Similarly, when I was in college and heard that the composer of that music, Walter Carlos, had undergone gender confirmation surgery and was now living life as a woman named Wendy, it was a similar kind of shock: things like that were simply unheard of at the time.
Before creating the music for Kubrick’s film, Carlos had released an album called Switched-On Bach, which featured a number of Bach’s works “electrified” via synthesizer. To this day, it is still the best-selling classical album of all time. The synthesizer was the invention of an engineer named Robert Moog (whose name, being Dutch, rhymes with “vogue”). Moog personally delivered one of his earliest modules to Carlos; then, spent the entire weekend helping her set it up. It would change both their lives forever. Together, they would develop and enhance the cutting-edge technology that would have such an impact on the world of music.
The Moog Synthesizer could only produce one note at a time. To create the “switched-on” versions, Carlos painstakingly created each note, sequenced them into lines, and then stacked them on top of each other, sometimes splicing together as many as six individual lines to create Bach’s counterpoints and harmonies. Yet, this description of the technical achievements does not take into account the performance aspect Carlos brought to her recorded versions of the work. No less a fan than Glenn Gould called Switched-On Bach the record of the decade, singled out its “unfailing musicality,” and claimed it was one of the greatest feats ever achieved in the history of keyboard performance. The album won three Grammy awards in 1969, including Best Classical performance, and Classical Album of the Year. Gould would also claim a subsequent album, featuring Carlos’s version of the Brandenburg Concerto no. 4, was “the finest performance of any of the Brandenburgs – live, canned, or intuited – I’ve ever heard.”
For many years, the creator of all this wonderment was a mystery. Even as the music was gaining success and critical acclaim, “Walter” Carlos was transitioning into life as Wendy, and the new person – fearful of backlash, career suicide, and physical violence – felt increasingly depressed by the notion of continuing life as a man. Indeed, such were the pressures of the time that Sewell writes: “Daily, [Carlos] considered committing suicide by cutting her wrists with the same razor blade that she used to splice magnetic tape in the studio.” The louder the public clamored to find out more about and hear more from her, the less she seemed willing to share.
Carlos was an innovator from the start. She began piano lessons at the age of six, but because the family had no money, her father drew a keyboard on a piece of paper for her to practice. At the age of 14, Carlos won a Westinghouse Science competition by creating her own computer. Intrigued early on by tape composers like Pierre Henry, she started experimenting on her own. She also became fascinated with the tunings for various keys and, after the family finally was able to purchase an instrument, would often retune it in experimental intervals of her own. In college, she and her colleagues created a library of nearly 100 different pitches, all of which fell within the same octave.
This was exactly the territory Bach had explored centuries before in The Well-Tempered Clavier, determining his own tunings, then creating a work for each key. Later, Carlos would release an album of her own called The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, continuing to experiment and improve on the capabilities of the technology available to her. She expected other musicians would follow her lead in this new, electronic landscape. She even argued that, if Bach were alive today, he’d likely have utilized synthesizers, as they would have allowed him to overcome the “limitations” of equal temperament. That this did not occur was a source of endless frustration to her. That, as well as the fact that so many interviewers chose to focus less on her music and technical innovations and more on her personal transformation, when to her, this was the least interesting thing about her.
It should be noted that Carlos herself did not participate in this biography, nor did anyone close to her – a fact the author is very up front about. Indeed, since the book’s publication, Carlos has written on her website that this biography “belongs on the fiction shelf...Don’t recognize myself anywhere in there.” Throughout, her life, Carlos has long fought to be treated simply as a musician, without reference to her personal history. Yet, Sewell’s book seems about as respectful a treatment as one could want, and makes a good case for her to be regarded as one of the most important musical figures of the Twentieth Century.
If Carlos’s musicianship is easy to appreciate, it is more difficult to assess her status as a composer, simply due to the fact that much of her output is difficult to find in any format other than used CDs. She has continued to compose film scores, and released other original music. Between 1998 and 2004, she released remastered versions of much of her work on CD. In 2005, Carlos issued Rediscovering Lost Scores, which contained 61 tracks of film music that had never been released before, including music Kubrick hadn’t used in The Shining. However, Carlos has never embraced MP3 downloads, considering the sound “thrown away” because of the compressed format. Hence, much of her work has disappeared from view. A recording of Carlos’s complete, original score for A Clockwork Orange, which I was able to obtain, still strikes me as being as brilliant and otherworldly as it did back in the early 70s.
If nothing else, then, one hopes this book will help restore Carlos’s music squarely to the foreground, where it can perhaps finally be assessed on its own merits. And, until we have Carlos’s own autobiography, Sewell’s book seems a good place to start.