Watch Composer Wendy Carlos Demo an Original Moog Synthesizer (1989)

She’s worked with Stan­ley Kubrick *and* “Weird Al” Yankovic, and helped Robert Moog in the devel­op­ment of his epony­mous syn­the­siz­er. Wendy Car­los is also one of the first high pro­file trans­gen­der artists–credited as Wal­ter Car­los for Kubrick’s A Clock­work Orange but hav­ing tran­si­tioned to Wendy by the time of The Shin­ing, in which only a few of her pieces were used.

In this brief clip from a 1989 BBC episode of Hori­zon, Car­los, accom­pa­nied by her two cats, explains how she uses ana­log synths to cre­ate elec­tron­ic fac­sim­i­les of real instruments–in this case cre­at­ing an approx­i­ma­tion of a xylo­phone, sculpt­ing a sine wave until it sounds like a mal­let on wood.

The seg­ment also shows Car­los oper­at­ing one of the orig­i­nal Moog synths, about the size of a fridge and look­ing like an old tele­phone switch­board with a key­board attached. By plug­ging and unplug­ging a series of cables, she demon­strates, the sine wave is decon­struct­ed from its orig­i­nal “pure” but harsh sound. Lat­er ana­log synths were addi­tive, not sub­trac­tive, she explains. (It’s one of the few times I’ve seen old tech explained so well and so quick­ly.)

Along with work­ing with Bob Moog, Car­los stud­ied at Colum­bia-Prince­ton Elec­tron­ic Music Cen­ter along­side two pio­neers of ear­ly elec­tron­ic music: Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luen­ing, both of whom would make very chal­leng­ing com­po­si­tions and musique con­crete.

But Wendy chose both the clas­si­cal and pop­u­lar path, cre­at­ing the Switched on Bach series that fea­tured 18th cen­tu­ry music played on the Moog synth and oth­ers. It would lead her to Kubrick and A Clock­work Orange’s idio­syn­crat­ic score and even more suc­cess. Apart from her score for Disney’s Tron, now very much beloved by fans, Car­los turned to more per­son­al, sound­scape work lat­er. And in 2005, if you can find a copy, she put out a mul­ti­ple-CD set of all her sound­track work that Kubrick nev­er used for The Shin­ing and oth­ers.

The descrip­tion of the entire Hori­zon episode has a tech­nofear theme: “In Paris, Xavier Rodet has taught a com­put­er to sing Mozart; in Green­wich Vil­lage, Wendy Car­los syn­the­sis­es a clas­si­cal con­cer­to from elec­tron­ic tones…In Aus­tralia, Man­fred Clynes reck­ons he has dis­cov­ered a uni­ver­sal human lan­guage of emo­tion. To prove it he cre­ates feel­ings on tape. What’s left for human per­form­ers to con­tribute?”

This pro­gram was at least a decade after the first sam­pling key­board, so the anx­i­ety is either late or over­hyped. But it also sounds famil­iar to our cur­rent con­cerns over AI (as seen in these very web pages!). Synths nev­er replaced human instru­ments, but it did cre­ate more synth play­ers. AI won’t replace human deci­sion mak­ing (prob­a­bly), but it will cer­tain­ly cre­ate more AI pro­gram­mers.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Glenn Gould Sing the Praise of the Moog Syn­the­siz­er and Wendy Car­los’ Switched-On Bach, the “Record of the Decade” (1968)

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

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

What the Future Sound­ed Like: Doc­u­men­tary Tells the For­got­ten 1960s His­to­ry of Britain’s Avant-Garde Elec­tron­ic Musi­cians

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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  • John says:

    She did do a real­ly excel­lent job of explain­ing both addi­tive and sub­trac­tive syn­the­sis.

    As far as being one of the first high pro­file trans­gen­der artists, I’d say she was one of the first high pro­file trans­gen­der peo­ple in any field. She’s the first per­son that I’m aware of who was already famous before the gen­er­al pub­lic became aware that she is trans­gen­der. Before Wendy, most famous trans­gen­der peo­ple became famous because they were trans­gen­der.

  • Anthony Garnett says:

    A nice enough arti­cle (I bought Switched On Bach myself back in the day — still sounds amaz­ing!) but for heav­en’s sake — 17th cen­tu­ry???? Real­ly?? Do yer research! Try 18th

  • Ted says:

    That’s a typo! Sor­ry, we’ll fix it.

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