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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  • Miranda Lukeman says:

    While I enjoyed the info and the writer’s respect­ful tone, it’s unnec­es­sary and out­dat­ed to include the birth name (“born as”) of a tran per­son in an arti­cle. Most style­books express­ly have updat­ed to this kind of usage.

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