Electronic Music Pioneer Wendy Carlos Demonstrates the Moog Synthesizer on the BBC (1970)

We can break pop­u­lar music into two peri­ods: before the Moog and after the Moog. Upon its debut in 1964, that syn­the­siz­er made a big splash in the small but long-estab­lished elec­tron­ic-music world by, among oth­er inno­v­a­tive qual­i­ties, being small­er than an entire room. Over the next few years, inven­tor Bob Moog (whose pre­vi­ous line was in theremins) refined his epony­mous brain­child to the point that it became acces­si­ble to com­posers not already on the cut­ting edge of music tech­nol­o­gy. But for Wendy Car­los, the cut­ting edge of music tech­nol­o­gy was where she’d spent most of her life; hence her abil­i­ty to cre­ate the first best­selling all-Moog album, 1968’s Switched-On Bach.

By the begin­ning of the 1970s, great pub­lic curios­i­ty had built up about these new music-mak­ing machines, thanks to Car­los’ work as well as that of com­posers like the BBC Radio­phon­ic Work­shop’s Daphne Oram. It was the BBC that pro­duced the clip above, in which Car­los explains the fun­da­men­tals of not just the Moog but sound syn­the­sis itself.

She even plays a bit of the sec­ond move­ment of Bach’s Bran­den­burg Con­cer­to #4, Car­los’ ren­di­tion of which on Switch-On Bach’s fol­low-up The Well-Tem­pered Syn­the­siz­er moved no less an author­i­ty than Glenn Gould to call it “the finest per­for­mance of any of the Bran­den­burgs — live, canned, or intu­it­ed — I’ve ever heard.”

In this footage, more than half a cen­tu­ry old as it is, only an evi­dent skill at oper­at­ing the Moog and under­stand­ing of the prin­ci­ples of syn­the­siz­ers sug­gest Car­los’ iden­ti­ty. At that time in her career she was still known as Wal­ter Car­los, and she has since spo­ken of hav­ing main­tained that image by apply­ing a pair of fake side­burns for pub­lic appear­ances. (She would return to the BBC to do anoth­er Moog demon­stra­tion as Wendy nine­teen years lat­er.) Today one dares say those mut­ton chops look a bit obvi­ous, but it isn’t as a mas­ter of dis­guise that Car­los has gone down in his­to­ry. Rather, her work has showed the way for gen­er­a­tions of musi­cians, well out­side of cam­pus lab­o­ra­to­ries, to make use of elec­tron­i­cal­ly gen­er­at­ed sounds in a man­ner that res­onates, as it were, with the wider lis­ten­ing pub­lic.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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

Bob Moog Demon­strates His Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Moog Mod­el D Syn­the­siz­er

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 Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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 or on Face­book.


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