The Scores That Electronic Music Pioneer Wendy Carlos Composed for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining

Back in September, we featured Every Frame a Painting’s video essay on how bland and unoriginal so much film music has become. As the essay makes clear—and as the Coen brothers and Carter Burwell revealed in a recent roundtable—part of the problem is the ubiquity of “temp music”—the music directors and editors use as temporary scores in rough cuts. Some kind of inertia has trapped Hollywood composers into copying classical works, and each other, in ways that often verge on plagiarism.

In contrast to this tendency, some directors simply find that their temp music is so compelling that they are compelled to keep it. In perhaps the best example of this, Stanley Kubrick tossed out Alex North’s score for the final cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey and kept the music of Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss, of Ligeti, Khachaturian, and others. North famously didn’t find out until the film’s premiere. Comparing North’s mild score with, for example, Thus Spake Zarathustra, we can hardly fault the director’s choice, but he could have communicated it better.

This episode might have deterred another Kubrick composer, Wendy Carlos, who ended up providing music for two of his best-known later films. Fans of both Kubrick and Carlos will be grateful that it didn’t, though the experience became a frustrating one for Carlos, who often found her music nudged out as well. Nonetheless, her contributions to A Clockwork Orange and The Shining are indispensable in creating the dread and horror that carry through these cinematic masterpieces. As you can hear in the opening title music for both films, at the top and below, Carlos’ synth scores set up the near-unbearable tensions in Kubrick’s worlds.

In fact, Carlos came to prominence by doing what many a film composer does, interpreting the work of classical composers. But her reworkings of Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart are unique, made on early Moog synthesizers, which she had a hand in designing while a student at Columbia University’s Electronic Music Center in the sixties. Her album Switched on Bach, released the same year as 2001, won the composer three Grammy Awards, put Baroque music on the pop charts, garnered the highest praise from no less a keyboard authority than Glenn Gould, and “made electronic music mainstream.”

The album also put Carlos on Kubrick’s radar and he hired her and producer Rachel Elkind to compose the score for 1972’s A Clockwork Orange. Much of the music Carlos wrote or interpreted for the film wound up being cut, but what remained—the haunting arrangement of Henry Purcell in the film’s opening title, for example—has become inseparable from the classical and futuristic elements commingled in Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess. Carlos’ complete original score has since been released as a CD, which you can purchase. The first track, “Timesteps,” as the album’s liner notes inform us, was both the only original composition that made it into the film and the first recording Carlos sent to Kubrick.

As Carlos herself writes on her website, she found the abridgement of her music “frustrating… as these were among the best things we’d done for the project.” Eight years later, during her work on The Shining, she would almost suffer the same fate as Alex North when she and Elkind wrote a complete score for the film and Kubrick—writes site The Overlook Hotel—“ended up using only two of their complete tracks, ‘The Shining’ (Main Title), and ‘Rocky Mountains.’” As with 2001, the perfectionistic director instead decided on several classical compositions—from Ligeti, Penderecki, Bartok and others.

And who can fault his choice? As The Cinemologists observe, his use of music has ended up informing horror film scores ever since, as Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score had twenty years earlier. But Carlos was soured on the relationship and vowed never again to work with Kubrick on another project. Yet again, we can be grateful for the collaboration. Her music for the title sequence (with Elkind’s distorted voice)—so weirdly, dissonantly ominous—provides the perfect accompaniment to one of the most complex opening sequences in film history.

In this case also, we can hear what Carlos intended, with the release of two volumes of Carlos’ “lost scores” that include her Shining compositions along with those from A Clockwork Orange and Tron. You can purchase those compilations here and here and read liner notes here and here. Carlos has worked hard to safeguard her privacy, and you’ll find little of her music online. Yet her strangely compelling soundtracks are well worth tracking down in any form you can find them.

Related Content:

The Classical Music in Stanley Kubrick’s Films: Listen to a Free, 4 Hour Playlist

Watch “The Corridor,” a Tribute to the Music Video Stanley Kubrick Planned to Make Near the End of His Life

Watch a Shot-by-Shot Remake of Kubrick’s The Shining, a 48-Minute Music Video Accompanying the New Album by Aesop Rock

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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