This summer, an 80-year-old synthesiser pioneer suddenly appeared online. She had been silent for 11 years, but now something had appeared that she just wouldn’t tolerate. “Please be aware there’s a purported ‘biography’ on me just released,” wrote Wendy Carlos on the homepage of her 16-bit-friendly website, a Siamese cat and a synthesiser behind her portrait. “No one ever interviewed me [for it], nor anyone I know,” she went on. “Aren’t there new, more interesting targets?”
Given that Carlos is arguably the most important living figure in the history of electronic music, it’s remarkable that Amanda Sewell’s Wendy Carlos: A Biography is the first book about her. This is the musician who pushed Robert Moog to perfect his first analogue synthesiser, from which pop, prog, electronica and film music flourished. Her smash-hit 1968 album Switched-On Bach made the Moog internationally famous and became the second classical album ever to go platinum in the US. Then came her extraordinary soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Tron. She made an ambient album five years before Brian Eno did, and jumped from analogue machines to do leading work in digital synthesis, but worried that her status as one of the first visible transgender artists in the US would overshadow it.
Carlos did not respond to “repeat requests” to be interviewed, says Sewell. Dozens who worked with Carlos also declined; some said Sewell shouldn’t write it at all. She spent five years digging up details about Carlos in obscure electronic and computer music magazines, “meticulously documenting everything and citing sources very heavily, as I knew Wendy was litigious”. (Carlos’s company, Serendip LLC, has taken out several lawsuits over the years, most recently in 2016 against YouTube user Lewis Bond for using her music in a Clockwork Orange spoof video). Carlos’s spiky, funny website was a great resource too, full of affectionate encounters. “Stanley [Kubrick] told me I was the most outspoken, candid person he had worked with,” Carlos wrote in 1999, not long after his death. “This merely means in my case that I had a big mouth, and sometimes still say too much, perhaps even here.”
Carlos’s high standards and industrious work ethic began in her childhood. Born in 1939 into a working-class Rhode Island family, her music-loving parents couldn’t afford a piano: her father drew a keyboard on paper so she could practise between lessons. She built a hi-fi system for her parents by cutting wood and soldering wire and won a science contest at 14 by inventing a computer. She then made her first tape machine for music-making, after falling in love with the early electronic music of Pierre Henry and Bebe Barron.
By the time she found Robert Moog napping on a banquette at a New York audio conference in 1964, she was a music and physics graduate of Brown and Columbia. Moog soaked up her suggestions for sound filter banks and pitch-sliding controls, which became original features of his synthesiser; Carlos also wanted a touch-sensitive keyboard, not standard on the instrument until the late 1970s.
Then came Switched-On Bach, thanks to another influential friend, Rachel Elkind, secretary to Columbia Records’ boss Goddard Lieberson: Columbia was running an album sales campaign called Bach to Rock, and Elkind thought her friend could make a record that fitted the brief. Columbia wasn’t keen on Carlos’s ambitious collection of Moog reimaginings of the classical composer’s works, and in expectation of poor sales, offered her a low advance and a high royalty deal. Switched-On Bach topped the US classical charts for the next three years.
Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory first heard the album on Radio 3 as a child around the time of its release; he regularly performs Carlos’s work in his Will Gregory Moog Ensemble. “Nothing for me lived up to that record,” he says. “It brought the synthesiser into the mainstream as an expressive instrument, not just a sci-fi effects machine.” Carlos’s compositional skills were key, he explains: she created radically different sounds to help delineate Bach’s intricate melodies and expanded the 20-second Adagio movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 to nearly three minutes. “The original’s just based on a cadence, but Wendy set up these otherworldly sounds in the first movement, then in the second, the gloves just come off! She made the music jump into 3D.”
Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon, composers of the Stranger Things soundtrack, discovered Switched-On Bach in the early 2000s. It connected with their world, Dixon says. Radiohead’s Kid A and Warp Records compilations were popularising experimental electronica and file-sharing services such as Napster encouraged the trading of unusual albums. “Then I started reading about Wendy, and finding out all these tricks, like five was the magic number of oscillators,” Stein adds. “She taught me to dig deeply into the instrument. She was a magician like that.”
Dixon prefers 1972’s Sonic Seasonings, which follows the seasons of the year through field recordings and ambient sounds. It taught him “how quietness and space can add atmosphere”, he says. “It was the first ambient album, essentially. It came before Tangerine Dream’s [1972 album] Zeit and Brian Eno’s Discreet Music [released in 1975].”
Like much of Carlos’s music, it’s hard to find; only two tracks that she wrote for The Shining are on Spotify (another accompanies the original teaser trailer featuring a lift cascading blood). Film brought her to a wider audience, however. Carlos’s work on A Clockwork Orange is particularly brilliant. Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary becomes a shivery, menacing march of portent; Beethoven’s Ode to Joy sounds gleeful before manic terror infects it. Steven Lisberger got Carlos to soundtrack his film Tron eight years later because of that soundtrack. “Wendy’s music provides an emotion not anticipated,” he says, “an eerie resonance that feels right. Kubrick goes for that sensation too. They rip the cover off everything.”
Lisberger never worked directly alongside Carlos – he trusted her to write the music without his interventions – and he admits he was “a little scared” when he heard the juddering, digital soundscape she’d created. “But she was right about doing something different to the Wagnerian, John Williams Star Wars stuff that was around at the time. She took the film into another dimension.”
By 1981, Carlos was known everywhere as Wendy: she had completed her gender confirmation surgery in 1972, and talked about it for the first time in a 1979 Playboy interview. Only two columns were devoted to her music in the piece, which she saw as a betrayal. Nevertheless, she revealed just how much “forced secrecy” had affected her career. Switched-On Bach’s popularity had made things hard for her, she said. She had “lost an entire decade” avoiding live performances and connections with other artists because she didn’t yet feel ready to disclose her gender transition publicly. Once, Stevie Wonder came to check out her synthesiser set-up, and Carlos hid as he knocked. Sewell writes in her book how Carlos still faces prejudice from record companies today: Warner Music has not still corrected her name on the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange.
Lorelei Kretsinger, of Missouri-based queer and trans music collective Un/Tuck, co-hosted a one-off Wendy Carlos tribute night before the pandemic, where artists including Octo Octa played synthesiser music inspired by her. Kretsinger holds up Carlos as a role model, but understands her discomfort with conversations about gender. “Whatever I make as a musician – say a piece of music about love – there’s the worry that someone will super-read into it as a trans piece. I can understand how Wendy feels about where the discussion is.”
Nevertheless, Kretsinger feels there is an interesting tie between electronic music and trans and non-binary identities: she records herself as Floraviolet. “I’m not speaking for every trans person, but for me, it can be a lot more nerve-racking to go outside and perform, so I spend time at home honing my production skills. It’s also liberating to be able to express yourself online, to create your own world.”
Like Sewell, I tried to contact many Carlos collaborators, without reply, including Weird Al Yankovic, with whom Carlos reconfigured Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals in 1988. Only Laurie Spiegel, a fellow synthesiser pioneer and close friend, replied. She salutes Carlos’s “high standards, strong opinions and no fear of expressing them … and [she’s] a good laugh”, adding how much she adores music and animals. One time Carlos called her at 3am when her cat was having kittens: “We stayed on the phone three or four hours until everything was OK.”
Carlos has continued to encourage electronic musical developments, Spiegel adds: she knows Wendy has given “boundless amounts of very detailed feedback” to developers of Apple music software. She doesn’t know when they will meet next, because of the pandemic. “I hope, and I assume, that Wendy is still composing,” Spiegel says. “But these are stressful, complicated times. Time to check in with her.”
I emailed Carlos following these interviews, and was astonished to receive a reply, albeit from someone who signed off “sd”: “Wendy Carlos is fully occupied with an important project, and it is both impossible and inappropriate for her to respond to your piece at this time.” It then pointed out a missing hyphen on Switched-On Bach on Will Gregory’s Moog Ensemble website, revealing a support network around Carlos still honing in on the details.
Her world after 2009 largely remains a mystery: it’s telling that this tech pioneer resists the digital age’s expectation that everyone should yield their right to privacy. Equally telling is her use of the word “target” in response to Sewell’s book – perhaps assuming a hatchet job, but also bristling against the idea of becoming a fixed point, a legacy artist done innovating. Carlos evidently wants to be the arrow, still defiantly tracing new trajectories and flying free.
• Wendy Carlos: A Biography by Amanda Sewell is published by Oxford University Press.