The Composer Who Revolutionized the History of Electronic Music
In 1968, Wendy Carlos became globally famous with the new musical use of synthesizers.
It seems paradoxical that the most acclaimed record in the history of electronic music was entirely devoted to the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Wendy Carlos, born as Walter Carlos in Rhode Island, 1939, was a musically premature girl. At the age of six she had already began taking piano lessons and, at the tender age of ten, she had already composed her first musical score. Before she turned eighteen, Wendy had designed her own non-tempered keyboard. Music and technology came together in the young girl’s curiosity. Between 1958 and 1962 she would permanently fuse her two vocations together by beginning her studies in Music and Physics at Brown University.
But it was in 1964 that Wendy met the person who would change the course of her musical research. During the AES (Audio Engineering Society) Wendy met Robert Moog, who at the time was launching his first tension-controlled modular synth. Moog and Carlos immediately became close friends.
Carlos’ experiments with the new synths soon resulted in improvements on them, which allowed Moog to implement new utilities and perfect some of their mechanisms.
After a stint in Gotham Studios, where she carried out some advertising tasks, Wendy met Rachel Elkind, a young jazz and musical comedy singer with a knack for production. When she heard Wendy’s Bach composition, recorded with the sole use of the Moog synth, Elkind had a hunch that it could be well received by the audience. Soon Elkind and Carlos got to work. They selected a repertoire by the baroque master and began their creation process.
Wendy chose harmonious music when the general trend was serialism, characterized by atonal music. Her intent was to step away from experimental music and use the new technology to reach the greatest number of people possible. Technological avant-garde and musical tradition were fused in a project that, despite its commercial success, was attacked on both fronts. On the one side were the classicists, who had accused her of having trivialized the German genius’ music; and on the other, those who were interested in new electronic sounds, reproached her use of a new means to reproduce music from the past.
Nevertheless, Switched on Bach immediately became the most transcendental album in the history of electronic music. Because of it, the sound of synths was able to leave the ghetto of labs and break the barrier that separated it from a wider audience. Bach was resuscitating through unheard sounds as a result of an arduous effort to tear from the still rudimentary analogical synths the shine of his counterpoint and the spiritual dimension of his compositions. The panorama of music would never be the same.
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