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. 3 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


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


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


For her album Beauty in 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 in 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


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.’”