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.
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.