The other day a friend gave me a cassette tape. It’s got to be pretty old because the artist is credited as Walter Carlos. I liked it so much that I went to the library website to see if I could get my hands on a cd, which probably would sound clearer. The only name that came up in my search was a Wendy Carlos, so I assumed someone at the tape factory made a typo.
Turns out that Carlos suffered from “gender dysphoria,” as the DSM-5 labeling system puts it. So she underwent a sex change to become Wendy Carlos. The album, which some of you might remember, is The Well Tempered Synthesizer. It was a follow up to the very popular Switched-on Bach. How interesting, I thought. Not only was Carlos a pioneer in electronic music. She was also a pioneer in changing one’s sex.
When I was a boy S-OB, as the artist herself abbreviates it, was pretty huge. We never owned the record but the cover is so memorable, I remember it well. And the Canadian pianist and composer Glenn Gould spoke very highly of The Well Tempered Synthesizer.
Glenn Gould once wrote of Wendy’s Bach recordings (incidentally on the back of her Well Tempered Synthesizer LP), “Carlos’s realization of the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto is, to put it bluntly, the finest performance of any of the Brandenburgs—live, canned, or intuited—I’ve ever heard.”¹
Well, I’m not Glenn Gould and that track isn’t my personal favorite. But this tape is fascinating. The sounds are soooo 70s. Carlos also did the music for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and the atmosphere of WTS is pretty similar. There’s a haunting, nay, foreboding retro-futurism that I just love. One almost expects those droogies-gone-bad to be pounding at the door.
Apparently Carlos was instrumental in getting the creator of the Moog synthesizer to add touch sensitivity (i.e. a velocity keyboard). And after the colossal success of Switched-on Bach, Moog sales escalated dramatically.²
What a score this tape was. And free!
² Carlos was a childhood prodigy at the keyboard. She was also highly gifted with computers and tech, making devices for herself. See http://www.wendycarlos.com/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendy_Carlos