Hear Glenn Gould Celebrate the Moog Synthesizer & Wendy Carlos’ Pioneering Album Switched-On Bach (1968)

Glenn Gould made his name as a pianist with his stark, idio­syn­crat­ic inter­pre­ta­tions of the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and espe­cial­ly Bach. He left behind not just a high­ly respect­ed body of work in the form of record­ed per­for­mances, but also a host of strong opin­ions about music itself and all that cul­tur­al­ly and com­mer­cial­ly sur­round­ed it. His enthu­si­asms weren’t always pre­dictable: in 1967 he went on CBC radio to lav­ish praise on the pop singer Petu­la Clark, and the next year he returned to the air­waves to make a hearty endorse­ment of a record for which not every­one in the clas­si­cal music world would admit to an appre­ci­a­tion: Wendy Car­los’ Switched-On Bach.

After voic­ing his dis­taste for com­pi­la­tion albums, com­par­ing them to Read­er’s Digest con­densed lit­er­a­ture, Gould informs his lis­ten­ers that “the record of the year — no, let’s go all the way, the decade — is an unem­bar­rassed com­pote of Bach’s great­est hits.” The whole record, he claims, “is one of the most star­tling achieve­ments of the record­ing indus­try in this gen­er­a­tion, cer­tain­ly one of the great feats in the his­to­ry of key­board per­for­mance,” and “the surest evi­dence, if evi­dence be need­ed, that live music nev­er was best.” Gould had retired from the “anachro­nis­tic” prac­tice of live per­for­mance four years ear­li­er, seek­ing his own kind of musi­cal per­fec­tion with­in the tech­no­log­i­cal­ly enhanced con­fines of the record­ing stu­dio.

On that lev­el, it makes sense that a metic­u­lous­ly, painstak­ing­ly craft­ed record­ing — not to men­tion one impos­si­ble, at the time, to repro­duce live — like Switched-On Bach would appeal to Gould. He also takes the oppor­tu­ni­ty on this broad­cast to intro­duce the Moog syn­the­siz­er, which Car­los used to pro­duce every note on the record. “The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, the Moog can be encour­aged to imi­tate vir­tu­al­ly any instru­men­tal sound known to man, and there are moments on this disc which sound very like an organ, a dou­ble bass or a clavi­chord,” Gould says, “but its most con­spic­u­ous felic­i­ty is that, except when cast­ing gen­tle asper­sions on more famil­iar baroque instru­men­tal arche­types, the per­former shuns this kind of elec­tron­ic exhi­bi­tion­ism” — a sure way of scor­ing points with the restraint-lov­ing Gould.

The broad­cast includes not just Gould’s thoughts on Switched On-Bach and the Moog but two inter­views, one with poet and essay­ist Jean Le Moyne on “the human fact of automa­tion, its soci­o­log­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal impli­ca­tions,” and one with Car­los her­self. Asked about the choice of Bach, Car­los frames it as a test of how the new tech­nol­o­gy of the syn­the­siz­er would fare when used to play not avant-garde music, as it then usu­al­ly was, but music with the most impec­ca­ble aes­thet­ic cre­den­tials pos­si­ble. “We’re just a baby,” Car­los says of the enter­prise of syn­the­siz­er-dri­ven elec­tron­ic music. “Although now we can see that the child is going to grow into a rather excit­ing adult, we’ve still got to take one step at a time. It will become assim­i­lat­ed. The gim­mick val­ue — thank god — is going to be lost, and true musi­cal expres­sion, and that alone, will result.”

via Syn­th­topia

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Glenn Gould Chan­nel Mar­shall McLuhan and Cre­ate an Exper­i­men­tal Radio Doc­u­men­tary Ana­lyz­ing the Pop Music of Petu­la Clark (1967)

Watch a 27-Year-Old Glenn Gould Play Bach & Put His Musi­cal Genius on Dis­play (1959)

Lis­ten to Glenn Gould’s Shock­ing­ly Exper­i­men­tal Radio Doc­u­men­tary, The Idea of North (1967)

Glenn Gould Explains the Genius of Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach (1962)

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

How the Moog Syn­the­siz­er Changed the Sound of Music

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (4)
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  • Tony says:

    Actu­al­ly, “Switched on Bach” was per­formed by Wal­ter Car­los. Wal­ter did not become Wendy until 1972.

  • Bob San Socie says:

    In his heart he knew he was Wendy. Peace bro! Love the record­ing.

  • Tony says:

    Don’t dis­agree about the record­ing. It had more to do with giv­ing me an appre­ci­a­tion for clas­si­cal music than any up to that time (and long after).

  • dee says:

    What is amaz­ing; this is a seg­ment from a Sun­day morn­ing CBC radio pro­gram. Not only is the tone and intent of Gould a mas­ter­ful atten­tive­ness to the intel­li­gence of the mass­es. But his eru­di­tion a mark­er of what pub­lic radio and media was, and in gen­er­al could be. Lo and behold where the prof­it mon­gers have led us.
    Those Sun­day morn­ings were sub­lime.

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