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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wendy Carlos - Switched-On Brandenburgs

posted by on May 7 at 14:05 PM


Before 1968, when a new version of a piece of classical, and specifically baroque, music was produced, it often happened in the same way. Example:

A) Take a piece of baroque music, written for the harpsichord, transcribe it for string quartet, woodwind sextet, small string chamber orchestra….

B) Record, and release album with copious notes on how you came to make what decisions, in which instrument would get to play which lines, hardly varying from previous work done by similar artists….

C) Wait for the stodgy classical world to throw accolades upon you for your perseverance and hard work in the challenges of transcribing and recording a piece that had already been transcribed and recorded thousands of times before.

All that changed in 1968.

Wendy Carlos, then going under her given birth name, Walter Carlos, with the help of Robert Moog, recorded and released Switched-On Bach. Using multiple tracks to record all the parts of the various pieces from Bach’s cannon, Carlos created one of the first versions of classical music performed entirely on sythesizers.

At first, deemed a gimmick by the classical community, that same community as a whole must have been aghast as Carlos went on to become the first classical artist to have an album of work go Gold (sell 500,000 copies) then Platinum (1,000,000 copies) in the following years. Switched-On Bach went on to win three Grammy awards in the classical music categories, one of which was Best Classical Album, the classical category version of “Album Of The Year”.

Upon first hearing these works, many received them as “gimmicky”, and in fact to this day some people see them as oddities (just look at the reviewer for who calls her work “quirky”, “hilarious” and “wacky”). But while many in the classical world stood aghast at what Carlos had done, bringing, essentially, a pop music instrument in to the lofty world of classical music, others valiantly stood up for her and her recordings. 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.”

Special note should be taken of the fact that at the same time Wendy Carlos was releasing her first seven albums,all released under the name Walter Carlos, she was hiding the fact that in 1967, before Switched-On Bach, the first album, was released, Walter had had sex reassignment surgery, becoming Wendy. Because essentially these were recorded works that took hours of studio time, but could never be performed live, the secret stayed safe. Until 1979 when Wendy came out with the released the double album of all six Brandenburg Concertos, Switched-On Brandenburgs: The Complete Concertos under the name Wendy Carlos.

Carlos has a fantastic essay on her personal website titled “On Prurient Matters” which details her feelings about anyone dwelling on this topic alone. (Interesting note to Seattle NPR liberals: the essay includes a link to a list of people on Wendy’s Hall of Shame for their Cruelty in discussing matters of gender which includes the names Ira Glass [“Demonstrates sexual hang-ups, and little or no empathy”] and Sarah Vowell [“Has a sexual axe to grind, and needs sensitivity training”]) And by Wendy’s own advice I shall leave the topic at that.

Well, except to say if you ‘d like to read a fantastic essay on electronic music and sexual transgression you should pick up Peter Shapiro’s Turn The Beat Around and read chapter 3, “Like Clones And Robots That We Are” which nicely sums up why so many “outsiders” come to electronic music to find community.


On to the Brandenburgs themselves.

Wendy Carlos’ recordings are spectacular. They don’t just mimic the sounds of a string or woodwind orchestra. They clearly define each line, each phrase, each note with a clarity that is truly phenomenal.

Yes there are “violin”-like and “harpsichord”-escque sounds and “flute”-like passages, but while these are pleasant enough, Carlos also surprises by throwing in phrases performed with gusto by angular synths that surprise and delight in their reverb and force, chewing into movements giving them that slightly spaced out effect that sends Bach from well-grounded and dated sounds into the futuristic space that Carlos carved out for herself.

Add to this that the Moog synthesizer was not the most predictable instrument to play(to this day some Mini Moogs are often found to have tuning that is slightly off-pitch), sometimes requiring multiple tracks to just get “chords”. Anyone who has fooled around with Moogs knows they don’t like legato sounds very much and often needed to be forced to except fingers moving from one key to the next.

Never mind the limitless ability of the synthesizers to “create” synthetic sounds in the first place. The number of choices for sound and the way they were made must have been daunting in itself, add to that the performance and production of such a monumental work and you can get a feel for what an astonishing album this was to create.

The clarity and beauty with which these concertos speak is wonderful and can be recommended to anyone who enjoys both electronic and classical music. But don’t stop there, if you hate classical, or dislike electronic music, listen to these concertos, and Ms. Carlos’ work in general to have your ears and senses opened up. That, I believe, is exactly what Bach would have wanted them to sound like today, if he was still alive.

Lively, prophetic, intriguing and beautiful. All thing, the master himself was, reiterated by the new master of her genre, Wendy Carlos.

Samples of some of the Brandenburgs can be found here.

RSS icon Comments


I love Wendy Carlos. Rocky Mountains, baby. But I'm only familiar with her scores for motion pictures. This whole post has been enlightening. Thank you.

Posted by Mr. Poe | May 7, 2008 2:18 PM

These are some of my favorite records of all time. They really capture a whole "familar yet unsettling" thing that I love so so so much. Oddly enough my first exposure to her was a tape of "Peter and the Wolf/Carnival of the Animals" that she did with...wait for it...Weird Al.

My favorite "Switched On" LP is actually NOT by Wendy Carlos but is "Switched On Gershwin" by Gershon Kingsley. That one in particular is delightfully bizzare.

Posted by Eli | May 7, 2008 2:23 PM

i'm not sure what i think about 'switched on bach' because, truth be told, classical music is not my thing and other artists were making much weirder (and in my mind, better) sounds with moogs during the same period. the soundtrack to 'tron' is ill.

my personal favorite 'switched on...' is the horrible idea, yet somehow good 'switched on bacharach' by christopher scott (what a horrible play on names, right?). scott's version of 'walk on by' is my second favorite (the best, of course, by isaac hayes) and the rest of the album has some extremely cheesy low points, but is still much better than similar cash-in albums from that time period.

and you can't fuck with the cover:

Posted by cosby | May 7, 2008 2:42 PM

Wendy Carlos is like having chocolate in your peanut butter (well, if you love Couperin AND Suicide equally). Love. Her.

Posted by bronkitis | May 7, 2008 6:06 PM

What a magnificent post!

Composers today who use sampled orchestra instruments - or any kind of keyboard triggered sound - can learn much from her deft and detailed use of note articulation (attack, decay, vibrato, etc.). Carlos makes the notes breathe with microscopic variations that make almost every single note she plays sound unique.

As a composer, Carlos merits investigation, having progressed from the run-of-the-mill "Dialogues for Piano and Two Loudspeakers" to the exquisite stuff in A Clockwork Orange, Sonic Seasonings, and so on.

Also, Carlos' reissues on East Side Digital trump (and in some cases repair) the older vinyl versions. Avoid the old LPs.

Oh, and Carlos' site teems with archival details, photos, and anecdotes.

Posted by Christopher DeLaurenti | May 7, 2008 9:26 PM

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