Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach Turns 50 This Month: Learn How the Classical Synth Record Introduced the World to the Moog

When the Moog syn­the­siz­er appeared in the late 60s, musi­cians didn’t know what it was for, so they found some very cre­ative uses for it, includ­ing mak­ing nov­el­ty tracks like “Pop Corn,” a huge hit for Ger­shom Kings­ley from the 1969 album Music to Moog By. But the Moog was more than a quirky new toy. It was a rev­e­la­tion for what syn­the­sized sound could do, of a tech­nol­o­gy that seemed like it might have unlim­it­ed pos­si­bil­i­ty if har­nessed by the right hands. The Moog showed up in 1967 on albums by the Doors, the Mon­kees, the Byrds—psychedelic bands who under­stood its futur­is­tic promise.

Yet it also entered the homes of mil­lions of lis­ten­ers through a clas­si­cal album. In 1968, the Moog fea­tured solo on the high­est-sell­ing clas­si­cal album of all time, Switched on Bachby elec­tron­ic com­pos­er and pianist Wendy Car­los, known for her work with Stan­ley Kubrick on the scores of films like Clock­work Orange and The Shin­ing. Car­los met Moog in 1964 at a con­fer­ence for the Audio Engi­neer­ing Soci­ety and had the chance to inves­ti­gate one of his ear­ly mod­u­lar synths. “It was a per­fect fit,” she says, “he was a cre­ative engi­neer who spoke music: I was a musi­cian who spoke sci­ence. It felt like a meet­ing of sim­pati­co minds.”

Car­los helped Moog devel­op his designs, he helped her find her voice, the fuzzy, buzzing, dron­ing, hum­ming sound of an ana­log synth, which some­how made a per­fect fit for selec­tions from Bach’s Well-Tem­pered Clavier and Two-Part Inven­tions. When Car­los released Switched on Bach, her first stu­dio album, it was “an imme­di­ate suc­cess,” as Moog him­self said. “We wit­nessed the birth of a new genre of music”—fully syn­the­sized key­board music, with­out any acoustic instru­ments involved what­so­ev­er. The Moog proved itself, and Car­los impressed both pop fans and the clas­si­cal com­mu­ni­ty, many of whom ful­ly embraced the phe­nom­e­non.

A record­ing of Switched on Bach pre­miered at Carnegie Hall, Leonard Bern­stein pre­sent­ed an arrange­ment of Bach’s “Lit­tle” Fugue in G minor arranged for Moog, organ, and orches­tra at one of his Young People’s Con­certs, and no less a Bach author­i­ty than Glenn Gould praised the album, not­ing that it had “made elec­tron­ic music main­stream” even as it intro­duced entire new audi­ences to Bach. Car­los has since pre­served her mys­tique through intense per­son­al pri­va­cy and strict con­trol of her copy­right. You’ll find pre­cious lit­tle of her music on the inter­net: a snip­pet here and there, but no Switched on Bach stream­ing online.

It is well worth pay­ing for the plea­sure (I’d rec­om­mend doing so by track­ing down an orig­i­nal vinyl press­ing.) Car­los released a fol­low-up the next year, The Well-Tem­pered Syn­the­siz­er, then anoth­er inter­pre­ta­tion of Switched on Bach for the album’s 25th anniver­sary. This year it turns 50. You can cel­e­brate not only by lis­ten­ing to the orig­i­nal, but check­ing out its equal­ly majes­tic fol­low-up albums, the Spe­cial Edi­tion Box Set, and a recent “spir­i­tu­al suc­ces­sor” to Car­los’ orig­i­nal, Craig Leon’s 2015 Bach to Moog, a re-inter­pre­ta­tion of Bach using the very same syn­the­siz­er Car­los did those many years ago. Almost.

The Sys­tem 55, the col­lec­tion of large, clunky banks of patch bays, oscil­la­tors, fil­ters, envelopes, etc. that Car­los used, was reis­sued three years ago. In the short doc­u­men­tary above, you can see pro­duc­er and com­pos­er Leon talk about Car­los’ con­tri­bu­tions to mod­ern, and clas­si­cal, music and his own hybrid use of the ear­ly syn­the­siz­er with midi and a string sec­tion. He demon­strates how rad­i­cal­ly the dis­tinc­tive Moog sound can be shaped by its wonky dials and switch­es, but also how it can sub­tly col­or the sound of oth­er instru­ments with­out impos­ing itself. Such a rev­o­lu­tion­ary instru­ment required a tru­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary album to announce it to the world.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Hear Sev­en Hours of Women Mak­ing Elec­tron­ic Music (1938- 2014)

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music in 476 Tracks (1937–2001)

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

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