November 11, 2020
She went platinum by plugging Bach into 20th-century machines, and was soon working with Stanley Kubrick. But prejudice around her gender transition pushed Wendy Carlos out of sight
She made music jump into 3D: Wendy Carlos, the reclusive synth genius
This summer, an 80-year-old synthesiser pioneer suddenly appeared online. She had been silent for 11 years, but now something had appeared that she just wouldn’t tolerate. “Please be aware there’s a purported ‘biography’ on me just released,” wrote Wendy Carlos on the homepage of her 16-bit-friendly website, a Siamese cat and a synthesiser behind her portrait. “No one ever interviewed me [for it], nor anyone I know,” she went on. “Aren’t there new, more interesting targets?”
Given that Carlos is arguably the most important living figure in the history of electronic music, it’s remarkable that Amanda Sewell’s Wendy Carlos: A Biography is the first book about her. This is the musician who pushed Robert Moog to perfect his first analogue synthesiser, from which pop, prog, electronica and film music flourished. Her smash-hit 1968 album Switched-On Bach made the Moog internationally famous and became the second classical album ever to go platinum in the US. Then came her extraordinary soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Tron. She made an ambient album five years before Brian Eno did, and jumped from analogue machines to do leading work in digital synthesis, but worried that her status as one of the first visible transgender artists in the US would overshadow it.
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