How Transgender Composer Wendy Carlos Changed Music Forever

By Stephen Raskauskas |

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Whether or not you know composer Wendy Carlos by name, you’ve likely heard her work. At the very least, you’ve benefited from her work to mainstream electronic music. Carlos has received many honors for her contributions to modern music, including three Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States. Carlos has rarely appeared in public, though she has helped to lead a musical revolution from inside the recording studio. Take a look at some of the most important moments in Carlos’s career below.

1964 – Wendy Meets Robert Moog

Wendy Carlos with a Moog synthesizer int he late 1960s (Source: horrorpedia)

Wendy Carlos with a Moog synthesizer int he late 1960s (Source: horrorpedia)

After Carlos completed her undergraduate degrees in physics and music at Brown University, she moved to New York to begin graduate studies at Columbia University. During her time there, she met someone who would change her life: Robert Moog.

One of Carlos’s professors encouraged her to attend the annual conference of the Audio Engineering Society, where Moog happened to have a booth. As she recounts on her website:

“There were mikes and consoles and tape machines of all sorts, all pretty impressive. Then I spotted a small booth that had something called ‘Moog Synthesizer Modules.’ And sunuvvagun, there they were: voltage-controlled oscillators, filters, envelopers, controllers — things the still primitive world of electroacoustic music long needed! I must have made noises, for suddenly I saw a figure stir and rise up to greet me.

“Bob looked tired but friendly, and we chatted briefly, traded phone numbers and addresses. It didn’t take long to establish a budding friendship. It was a perfect fit: he was a creative engineer who spoke music: I was a musician who spoke science. It felt like a meeting of simpatico minds, like he were my older brother, perhaps.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Carlos began using Moog’s instruments and also helped him perfect his designs, and the two remained friends for over four decades until his death in 2005.

1968 – Switched-On Bach Makes Electronic Music Mainstream

 

bach_2For her first studio album, Carlos recorded works by J.S. Bach, including pieces from The Well-Tempered Clavier and Two-Part Inventions. But she recorded them in a way no one had before: using Moog modular synthesizers.

Moog said the album was “an immediate success. It was acclaimed as real music by musicians and the listening public alike. As a result, the Moog Synthesizer was suddenly accepted with open arms by the music business community. We witnessed the birth of a new genre of music–classical music, realized with impeccable musicianship on synthesizer and tape recorder.”

Switched-On Bach was on the US Billboard 200 for a total of 59 weeks, and reached No. 10 at the height of its popularity. It was No. 1 on the Billboard Classical Albums chart from 1969-1972, and ultimately went platinum. In 1970, the album won three Grammy Awards including: Best Classical Album; Best Classical Performance, Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (With or Without Orchestra); and Best Engineered Classical Recording.

By performing the music of Bach on Moog synthesizers, Carlos encouraged classical music listeners to reexamine preconceived notions about electronic music, as well as the nature of Bach’s music itself. Did Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos have to be performed by a chamber orchestra to be considered beautiful? According to Carlos, maybe not. Below, listen to an excerpt from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 arranged by Carlos and decide for yourself.

1968 – Carnegie Hall Gets “Switched-On”

Following the success of Switched-On Bach, Carlos’s work premiered at Carnegie Hall. A nyphilyoungpeopleprogram in the Carnegie Hall Archives shows that music from the album opened “An Eclectic Christmas: A Musical Inter-Weave” on December 26 and 30, 1968 at the Fillmore East. However, Carlos did not perform any music live. Instead, a recording was played.

Several months following the Carnegie Hall premiere of Switched-In Bach, Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski presented a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert featuring Bach’s “Little” Fugue in G minor arranged for Moog synthesizer, organ, and orchestra. Hear Carlos’s version of the “Little” Fugue below.

Though Carlos did not perform on either occasion at Carnegie Hall, she helped usher classical music into a new era. Because of Carlos, some of the most eminent conductors of the time were performing music for Moog on one of the world’s most prestigious stages. And, these musicians thought electronic music could be accessible enough to present on a concert for young audiences, signaling that electronic music was no longer just for audiophiles and academics.

1970 – Carlos Nearly Cancels on the St. Louis Symphony

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Source: Flickr

Following the continued success of Switched-On Bach in 1968, Carlos released The Well-Tempered Synthesizer the following year. In 1970, she accepted an invitation to perform excerpts from her new album with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin. But when she arrived in St. Louis, she almost didn’t go on stage.

For several years, Carlos had been receiving hormone replacement therapy to facilitate her gender transition. She said in an interview with Playboy that she experienced gender dysphoria at an early age. “I was about five or six… I remember being convinced I was a little girl, much preferring long hair and girls’ clothes, and not knowing why my parents didn’t see it clearly.”

Because treatments had begun to alter her appearance, Wendy was anxious to perform live before audiences. She cried in her hotel room, and ultimately decided that she would go on stage, but only if she presented herself as a man. She wore false sideburns, a man’s wig, and make up simulating subtle on her chin. Two years later in 1972, she underwent sex reassignment surgery.

1972 – Carlos Collaborates with Kubrick for her First Film Soundtrack

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One of director and producer Stanley Kubrick’s most acclaimed films is A Clockwork Orange, for which Carlos composed music and arranged existing works by Purcell, Rossini, and Beethoven. The most famous original piece Carlos composed for the film is “Timesteps,” which you can hear below.

Kubrick only used an excerpt of “Timesteps” in the film, and in fact, did not use most of the material Carlos provided for him. Instead, Carlos released some of the material she created for the film on an album separate from the film’s original soundtrack, first as Walter Carlos’ Clockwork Orange and later as A Clockwork Orange: Wendy Carlos’s Complete Original Score.

Carlos and Kubrick collaborated again on The Shining, which was released in 1980. Later, she composed her third and final film score for Disney’s Tron in 1982.

1986 – Wendy Uses the 35-Note Octave for the First Time

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For her album Beauty and the Beast, Carlos was not content to use the standard 12-note, well-tempered scale many musicians today use. On the album, she also uses just intonation and Balinese scales. But she didn’t stop there. She devised her own scales for the album too, which she calls Harmonic, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. Beauty and the Beast also has the first recorded use of a 35-note octave. In the liner notes to the album, Wendy tells us:

“To begin with, this has been the most exciting musical project in my life. The year and a half to compose and record this music … have produced results far beyond my ideals when I set out to avoid the usual constraints imposed by conventions of scale, and tuning, not to mention instrumentation.

“It makes sense: if you put aside the traditional equally tempered scale, and also standard acoustic and electronic sounds and timbres, and assemble a composition and performance instrument based on anything else, that alone guarantees unique results. If you are really lucky you will find yourself located at the right time and place to have an instrument capable of producing (to say it simply) whatever the human ear and brain like best. All theoretical concerns remain secondary to that pragmatic, humanly rewarding goal.

“You now hold in your hands an album of calculated guesses as to the music of the perhaps not too distant future, an encomium to all past and present earthly made (but no longer earthly bound) music. A music which at once terrifies with its beastly strangeness, while it seduces with a never-before-heard beauty. Enjoy!”

1988 – Wendy and “Weird Al” Team Up for Peter and the Wolf

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Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf has been performed by many famous orchestras in collaboration with acclaimed conductors and actors. No telling of this classical musical tale is as unique as the one by Wendy Carlos and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Commissioned by CBS records, their version parodies Prokofiev’s original, though still was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Album for Children in 1989. In the liner notes, Carlos said:

“Al and I have perhaps risked going a bit overboard in our ‘hip’ performance of it here. Yet is the zest we experienced while doing it so far off the mark? In that spirit, I had fun inserting innumerable additions and sly parodies of well-known themes and ideas, from Bach to the age of TV, all woven insidiously into the Prokofiev orchestration, as though they really belonged there. You may enjoy listening for them, to add to the musical glee we hope you experience upon hearing our Russian ‘Flying Circus.’”

  • Cheeky2

    Thank you so much for including her gender identity in the headline of the story. The fact that she is transgender is absolutely critical to understanding and appreciating her technical and tonal innovations. She would probably have felt insulted and marginalized if you had simply referred to her as a mere composer.

  • Cheeky2

    Thank you so much for including her gender identity in the headline of the story. The fact that she is transgender is absolutely critical to understanding and appreciating her technical and tonal innovations. She would probably have felt insulted and marginalized if you had simply referred to her as a mere composer.

  • Mo86

    There is no “she” here. This is a biological male who has a deep mental illness and thinks he is a female. These are deeply confused people. They need help to accept reality and biology. They do not need acceptance and promotion of their delusions.

    • Deanna Deville

      What is the matter with you? Why do you care?

      And what makes you smarter than 99% of the medical community, by the way? Why is it more important to attack her ad hominem than respect her accomplishments and contributions?

  • Alice

    This is fascinating and makes me want to go off and hear more of Wendy Carlos’s music, especially perhaps the Peter and the Wolf version since I’m very fond of that piece. It also makes me wonder – not in a wanting-to-start-a-fight way, in a genuinely questioning way – about the role of gender in this story and of ‘transgender’ in your headline. How much of that initial encouragement would Wendy have got from her professors if she had already been a woman at that time (especially given the date)? How easily would she have made the connection with Bob Moog? But again, how relevant is her gender to the music she actually made (not very, would be my instinctive answer)? And to what extent is the eye-catching detail of the gender transition a distraction from thinking seriously about Carlos as an artist, given what a hot topic transgender issues currently are? Art never happens in isolation from people’s personal stories, of course.

    • Morbeau

      I was wondering about the role of gender too. I remember the confusion about Walter/Wendy when I was younger, but didn’t pay much attention. I like this quote from the Wikipedia article:

      “The public turned out to be amazingly tolerant or, if you wish,
      indifferent … There had never been any need of this charade to have
      taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendy_Carlos#Personal_life)

      That’s also the sense I get from this article – that it needs to be mentioned because it’s topical, but it’s a side-issue for the real story. I’ve been talking to my teenage son about how some people just don’t feel right with their birth gender, and Wendy Carlos is a great example of someone who was allowed to adapt in her own way. I doubt it was easy, but at least she was able to make the remark above.

  • Mo86

    Not even on a classical music station/site can we get away from the insanity of “transgender” being shoved down our throats.

    DNA determines whether you are male or female. This person is a male. He was born a male. He will die a male. 100 years from now if DNA testing is done on his remains, it would once against demonstrate this was a male.

    And no amount of feeling, wishing, identifying, changing pronouns, or mutilation of the body through surgery/hormones can change that biological fact.

    Wasn’t there recently a March for Science? Yet when it comes to this issue, science is thrown out the proverbial window. Why is that?

    • John

      What? You have got to be kidding! Unclassically, I quote the Beatles…”All You Need Is Love”.

    • George Bernard

      Because gender is more than just DNA. If you got your head out of your ass and read up on some psychology you might become less of a strident dick.

    • DJM

      Please, educate me. Which part of the DNA determines baldness, the SRY gene? If so, what about all the people who have a copy but develop female features, not to mention countless other variation? I have been studying the developmental biology of anatomy professionally for almost 25 years, and you are barking up the wrong tree using DNA to solve the complex issues of sex and gender. Your comment flaunts an extreme lack of understanding of basic biology.

      • DJM

        Maleness, not baldness. See, autocorrect can’t even handle this discussion. 🙂

  • Joe Shuster

    Curious that no one previously noticed that the excerpt labeled “Brandenburg Concerto No. 4” is actually from Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.