Electro Feminisms: Wendy Carlos

Emily McAvan
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Wendy Carlos is an American electroacoustic musician and composer. According to her website, much like Delia Derbyshire, her education combined science with music, with her taking a hybrid major in music and physics at Brown University, and a M.A. in music composition at Columbia University, where she studied at the first electronic music center in the U.S.A. After graduation, Carlos became friends with Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer. For her most important work, she worked with another woman Rachel Elkind, who produced her records for twelve years, starting with her breakthrough album Switched on Bach. Elkind also occasionally ventured in front of the microphone, adding the vocals to several songs including some of Carlos’s early experiments with vocoders.

A trans woman, Wendy Carlos is unfortunate in that her most famous work Switched on Bach, which sold a million records, was released in 1968—several years before she transitioned (it was later re-issued). As a result, she tends to remain in the public eye “really” a man and “really” the assigned name that appeared on her early records. You’ll note that the Wikipedia page for Switched on Bach currently achieves the astounding feat of describing the album in-depth without using a single pronoun, reflecting the general ambivalence in describing a trans woman’s life entirely with the correct name and pronouns.

The actual album for Switched on Bach is a playing of Bach entirely on Moog synthesizers—painstakingly multitracked in the time before sequencers. As with Clara Rockmore on the theremin, the classical pieces helped popularize the synthesizer by borrowing some of classical’s respectability for electronic music. Helen at Bird of Paradox has written about the influence of this particular album on her childhood, saying:

It’s fair to say that hearing the music of Wendy Carlos as a child opened my mind to the possibility that there were ways of making music that didn’t necessarily rely on more traditional instruments and sounds.

It’s sort of hard to imagine there was ever a time when synthesizers might not have become a popular technology, but given their size and unpredictability (many would come in and out of pitch) early on, it’s possible that without the work of pioneers like Carlos the instrument might have just remained a curiosity.

Wendy Carlos also composed the soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange, The Shining (co-written with Elkind) and–my favourite—Tron which combined electronic and traditional instruments. Because what would an electro feminist be without science fiction?

It’s sort of hard to imagine what kinds of pressure Wendy Carlos felt as a million-record selling recording artist and composer to remain in the closet in the 1970s—let alone what kinds of pressure record companies, agents etc. might have put on her. But come out she did—in a Playboy interview of all places—and it’s nice to add another woman to the pantheon of female electronic producers.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Great Post

Thanks for the post. I've been a fan of Carlos' music for ages (not realizing it was her that did Clockwork Orange or Shining until 'discovering' her music in my 20s). Her contribution to electronic music can't be expressed enough and I'm pleased to see her getting further recognition.

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