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October 2020 Issue [Reviews]

The Well-Tempered Synthesizer

Wendy Carlos’s music of the spheres
Illustration by Ben Giles. Source photographs: Wendy Carlos in her New York City recording studio, 1979 © Leonard M. DeLessio/Corbis/Getty Images; Moog synthesizer © Granger

Illustration by Ben Giles. Source photographs: Wendy Carlos in her New York City recording studio, 1979 © Leonard M. DeLessio/Corbis/Getty Images; Moog synthesizer © Granger


The Well-Tempered Synthesizer

Wendy Carlos’s music of the spheres

Discussed in this essay:

Wendy Carlos: A Biography, by Amanda Sewell. Oxford University Press. 264 pages. $34.95.

Electronic music existed in the United States before the majority of Americans had access to electricity. The lineage can be disorienting that way. It is older than hip-hop or rock, certainly, but then it is also older than doo-wop, older than bluegrass or big-band jazz. It’s old enough to have predated futurism, which, with its call for a new music that could “conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds,” might otherwise seem to have conjured it into existence. It’s old enough, for that matter, to have made Mark Twain fear death.

This was in 1906. Twain was in Manhattan, sitting on a stage at the corner of 39th Street and Broadway, a few days before Christmas. The New York Times found him there admiring a new musical instrument called the telharmonium, which resembled an organ but one backed by, instead of pipes, a tall switchboard with hundreds of cords leading down into a concealed machine room beneath, full of the complicated whizzing interplay of metal shafts and dynamos. The contraption had been patented a decade earlier by a man named Thaddeus Cahill, who had designed it to produce a “scientifically perfect music,” the Times wrote, “capable of reproducing any sound produced by any musical instrument and many more that no musical instrument produces.” Twain had come to hear it and been awed by it. “The trouble about these beautiful, novel things is that they interfere so with one’s arrangements,” he said. He was moved to the degree that it made him want to live longer. “I couldn’t possibly leave the world,” he went on, “until I have heard this again and again.”

The Times reporter was similarly struck, and noted that playing the keyboard occasionally produced the “blue flash of an electric spark.” There was, he wrote, “a suggestion of magic in it all,” comparing it to an effect by the stage magician Harry Kellar, then famous for levitating female assistants and simulating his own decapitation. The “hidden chambers” of the machinery below were of particular fascination, their very inscrutability serving “to intensify the mystery.” Already, in this early encounter, we find all the hallmarks of speaking and writing about electronic music, the distinguishing tics that have pursued the medium well into its maturity. There is the promise of an uncanny precision, the possibility of overcoming human mediation and error. And, on the other hand, there is its fundamental secrecy or impossibility; this is a faceless, alien music, haunted by the notion that it is, at the end of the day, mere plastic reproduction.

When ­RCA introduced its Electronic Music Synthesizer in 1955—picture a sterile room lined with rows of circuits and knobs, solemnly operated by bureaucrats in identical suits, like something from a Cold War thriller—it provoked a similar kind of utopian curiosity tinged with dread. Describing the instrument that year in this magazine, Edward Tatnall Canby wrote that it “has a grotesquely inhuman quality.” He saw it as a remarkable but frightening triumph of engineering over nature. “There is, indeed, everything in this synthesized sound but life itself,” he wrote. Electronic music has always inspired this kind of neurosis over the status of the human, a fear of the cyborg. In this context, Twain’s preoccupation with his own death seems in accordance with the challenge this technology appeared to pose again and again in the twentieth century. There was the intimation of some terrifying new potential, as though we were suddenly made aware of an ongoing project we might not see to fruition—we could hear a future, or a range of possible futures.

Among the artists who made the case for machine music and won, there is no more significant or intriguing figure than Wendy Carlos. We can point to any number of crucial hinge points for the medium—the early musique concrète broadcasts in Paris, Edgard Varèse at the Brussels World’s Fair, the science-fiction film Forbidden Planet, with its all-electronic score (a dispatch from the twenty-third century)­—but none of them had the impact of Carlos’s Switched-On Bach, released in 1968. If it is now more often mistaken for a novelty record, a flea-market artifact of midcentury middlebrow kitsch, in fact it was epoch-altering, and remains peculiarly beautiful. As a demonstration of the harmonic and affective capabilities of electronic music, nothing had ever approached its level of sophistication. “Here, almost at one leap,” wrote the New York Times, “is the much-promised revolution.”

The product of a reclusive physics student, the album—a collection of Bach pieces performed on a Moog synthesizer—quickly became one of the most unusual ever to reach the top tier of the Billboard charts. Glenn Gould called it the album of the decade. Brian Wilson said it was among “the most electrifying albums I ever heard.” Carlos’s work marked one of those frameshift mutations in popular music’s ­DNA, a divergence that proved advantageous to the line. After Carlos, a representative from Columbia Rec­ords told Billboard in 1969, “We feel the average consumer is no longer afraid of electronic music.” Our fears having been overcome, the landscape rearranged itself accordingly. In seemingly a single gesture, the synthesizer was welcomed into the auditory fabric of the everyday.

Carlos, who is now eighty, has not performed or made a public appearance in many years. Her albums vanished from circulation more than a decade ago, and have never been made available on any streaming platform. She declines most interviews. In their history of the synthesizer, Analog Days, Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco describe her as “a shadow, a recluse.” She has gone to great lengths, in other words, to make herself and her music elusive. When the musicologist Amanda Sewell began writing the first full-length biography of Carlos and sought her subject’s participation, she was rebuffed. And not only by Carlos herself. “Not one person in any of Carlos’s past or present personal or professional circles agreed to speak on the record about her for this project,” Sewell writes in the introduction to the book, which she decided to complete anyway. The result is a dramatic illustration of the difficulty of telling stories about the origins of electronic music—of looking for narrative in its halting complexity, for the personal in its rigid impersonality. Writing about the contradictions of the medium, Gould once quoted the Godard film A Married Woman: “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory.”

Carlos was born in 1939 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Her parents met while working together at a movie theater. She started piano lessons at the age of six, but for lack of a real piano or the money to buy one, she was left to practice on a piece of paper on which her father had drawn a keyboard. Soon she began tinkering with the family’s various electromechanical appliances. She built the family a hi-fi system from scratch, cutting the wood for the speakers and soldering the wires herself. At fourteen, she assembled a computer and set up a serviceable recording studio in the basement, where she spent much of her time. “By the time she was a teenager,” Sewell writes, “she knew what an oscillator was and how to create a gating envelope out of photocells and light bulbs.”

Her childhood was miserable. She was depressed, a condition exacerbated by the fact that she had been designated male at birth, and given the masculine name of Walter. Her upbringing, then, was shadowed by the loneliness and tumult of gender dysphoria. When Playboy interviewed her in 1979, she became one of the first public figures to speak openly about the experience on a national stage. “I remember, when I was five, staring out my window at a little girl who was staying with her foster family next door,” she said. “I thought it would be bliss, having long hair.” She knew who she was, but was unable to bring that person into harmony with the person she was compelled to perform in her daily life. In her adolescence, she was tormented. “Boys would lie in wait and then jump me,” she said. “I never fought if I could avoid it—only to put my hands over my head when kids would throw stones at me, or punch me, or stuff like that.”

After college, convinced that one could productively combine the study of music and physics, she found her way to the Columbia-­Princeton Electronic Music Center, the most suitable institution imaginable for a technologically precocious music student looking for the next frontier in the 1960s. These were the years of electronic music’s most hyperactive fermentation, during which it developed from a hobbyist obscurity into a viable artistic medium, a process that took the form of a grand, transnational science experiment conducted mostly at state-sponsored broadcasting studios repurposed as incubators of new and left-field sounds. In Germany, there was the Studio for Electronic Music at Cologne’s public broadcaster, Westdeutscher Rundfunk. In France, the Club d’Essai at Radiodiffusion-­télévision. Even in the U.K., there was the ­BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where a team of brilliant artist-technicians were employed by the state to develop wild incidental sound effects for, among other things, Doctor Who. The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center was their closest American analogue.

The brainchild of the composers and Columbia professors Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening, whose early tape-music performances had landed them on the Today show, the center was for years housed in one or the other’s apartment or in the trunks of their cars. The center’s third foundational component arrived in 1959, in the form of the composer and Princeton professor Milton Babbitt, who’d started experimenting with the ­RCA synthesizer a year or two before. An imposing, bespectacled figure, Babbitt was by then already infamous for an article he’d written titled who cares if you listen?, in which he defended the forbidding complexity and cliquish elitism of the contemporary musical avant-garde as being sensible, the way things should be. The center coalesced around these men, molding to their prejudices, and became a finishing school for the first generation of American electronic musicians.

It is not only fortunate that Carlos ended up there, it is almost inconceivable that her contributions to music could have occurred otherwise. ­RCA built a new synthesizer exclusively for the center, a half-million-dollar monstrosity that filled a room and was called the Mark ­II, aka “Victor.” Synthesizers still weren’t devices one could buy; you needed the keys to the room. You punched holes in paper—there were different columns for frequency and octave and volume, the various parameters of sound—and fed them into the Mark ­II, which could read about four inches per second and which then imprinted the sounds onto shellac. It was a painstaking process. Babbitt claimed he could produce only about a minute of music a day. Carlos found it an “indirect, clumsy way” to work, with results that sounded “unfelt.” Nevertheless, she was here at the front lines.

The instrument for which she would become famous (and which she would make famous in turn) was manufactured not by ­RCA but by a kindly inventor named Robert Moog. They met at an engineering conference in 1964—Moog was napping on a bench and Carlos shook him awake. Moog, who had come up selling mail-order theremin kits, saw that a synthesizer shouldn’t have to be an appliance the size of a garage; he pioneered the modular synth, in which the various sonic parameters were built into small modules linked by patch cords that could be unplugged and recombined endlessly according to the artist’s imagination, all controlled, in his case, by a keyboard. (“Controlled” being the operative word: the keyboard on a Moog is just a voltage source, generating different pitches by means of different electrical outputs; many competitors abandoned the keyboard altogether.) This was the world’s first commercially available synthesizer, and Carlos helped to hone and refine it.

In the years after her apprenticeship at the center, Carlos found work producing audio spots for toothpaste, beer, and the yellow pages. The banality of the work, together with the constant, gnawing disturbance of her gender presentation, left her depleted and despondent. “Daily,” Sewell writes, “she considered committing suicide by cutting her wrists with the same razor blade that she used to splice magnetic tape in the studio.” But Carlos was preoccupied by the possibilities of the Moog. She thought that electronic music could not only sound new—not only strange or jarring, that is—but could be made to sound beautiful. The sounds the machine produced were not intrinsically musical; she would have to wrangle the artistry out of them with patience and precision. She settled on the music of Bach. “You start assembling,” Carlos recalled later, “much like you might build a wall out of bricks.”

Robert Moog would later remember a party Columbia Records held for Switched-On Bach and a slate of other new releases that were expected to outperform it. “Terry Riley was there,” he said, “in his white Jesus suit, up on a pedestal, playing live on a Farfisa organ.” There was a bowl of joints on the mixing console. Carlos made an appearance, but a characteristically brief one. She snuck out before she could be asked to perform or get trapped in conversation. Her name would be listed in the album credits as “Walter,” but, as if in refutation of it, the album was attributed to Trans-Electronic Music Productions, Inc.

By the summer of 1969, it was a gold record, ascending the pop charts to outsell the Who’s Tommy and Johnny Cash at San Quentin. It became the first notionally classical album ever to sell more than a million copies, and it would top the Billboard classical charts well into the next decade. The New York Times called it “an astonishing experience,” claiming that it “rates the most serious attention musicians and musicologists can give it, for it raises issues that go to the root of their art,” and that in its wake, “new modes of mastery will come into being.” One can’t quantify this sort of influence, but the Times was not exactly wrong in its prediction. In Japan, the composer Isao Tomita heard the album and took up the synth himself, opening a new neural pathway for popular music in that country. When the Italian producer Giorgio Moroder (of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and Blondie’s “Call Me”) first encountered electronic music and decided he’d like to try it, he was listening not to Stockhausen or Subotnick but to Carlos. In Manhattan’s West Village, Stevie Wonder knocked on Carlos’s door one day, hoping to try out a Moog for himself. She hid from him, afraid that her voice might betray the fact that she had begun taking estrogen.

It has become difficult to hear the album’s provocation, but it has to do with the unexpected but profound agreement between Bach’s music and the early synthesizer. There is something primally right about the pairing. Bach himself was a technician and instrument inventor; the Baroque originalists who would insist these pieces be performed on a harpsichord have to somehow elide this aspect of his biography. More than that, there is his music’s essential rigor and deceptive simplicity. “Bach represents the triumph of pure logic,” the pianist Jeremy Denk has written. “He captures the deepest feeling while remaining perfectly logical, thereby demonstrating that those imperatives are not at all opposed.” This appealed to the physics student (and the depressive) in Carlos, but it also suited the medium’s particular aptitudes and limitations. The Moog couldn’t really produce chords, for instance; it was capable of sounding just one note at a time. Carlos had to record each tone separately, then synchronize and stack them. And, like the harpsichord, the keyboard wasn’t touch sensitive, making it difficult to assert the sort of hierarchical relationships between melodic lines that a pianist does instinctively. In this way, it was a perfect machine for generating true counterpoint, something we associate with Bach almost metonymically.

It was this quality, what he called its “diatonic sobriety,” that Gould admired most about the rec­ord. A few classical critics were repulsed; the New Leader called it “noise pollution.” Gould, though, wasn’t being ironic when he called it the album of the decade. It represented the sort of inhuman perfection that he’d been aiming for but considered out of his reach. He had Carlos on a program he produced for Canadian radio, describing the album as “one of the most startling achievements of the recording industry in this generation,” and “one of the great feats in the history of keyboard performance.”

Up to this point, electronic music had been primarily timbre oriented, a succession of “bloops and bleeps,” in Sewell’s dismissive phrase. In rejecting the acoustic, its proponents were also rejecting the older tonalities and values, more interested in the new tone colors and hallucinatory possibilities the devices enabled. This was arguably the more radical stance, to throw out not only the old instruments but the whole architecture undergirding what we think of as musical. Given how difficult it was to operate a synthesizer, though, it was also simply easier to produce chaos. Carlos considered the abstraction and serialism in vogue among electronic composers to be “gibberish”—both pseudo-intellectual and unpleasant. She didn’t find dissonance particularly interesting in and of itself; there was enough of that in her day-to-day life. She allowed instead for an electronic music that was consonant, that aimed to communicate more than its own novelty. As she modestly put it to one interviewer, “I tried to make music that was not ugly.”

I started revisiting the album seriously in April, while quarantined in a neighbor’s small, spider-filled rental unit, having driven across the country and back so that I could attend a funeral at which everyone present, even the minister, wore surgical masks. The world had begun to contract. I hardly ever went outside. I’d wake up and sit on the couch alone wearing headphones, listening to this album. Some days it contained an enormous intensity, and other days it sounded cheap and ridiculous. Both impressions seem true to me now. The very frailness of the instrument—the way the Moog can sound, to modern ears, occasionally tinny or pitiful—has the effect of enhancing the poignancy of its performance of sacred music, as if making literal, in the contrast itself, our weakness in relation to God. Listen even to the secular Prelude and Fugue No. 7 in E-Flat Major, for instance, and you can hear what sounds like strenuous reaching, on the part of the device, toward the divine. This from a piece of music Bach had written, according to Ernst Ludwig Gerber, whose father had known him, “in a place where discontent, boredom, and the lack of musical instruments of any kind had forced him to this pastime.”

Carlos witnessed her first solar eclipse in the summer of 1963. She was on a hill above a lake in Maine, and for approximately sixty-two seconds the clouds parted, allowing her to glimpse the totality. For decades afterward, she traveled the world—to Kenya, the Philippines, the middle of the ocean—hoping to catch every total eclipse she could. In the process, she became a renowned photographer of the phenomenon, publishing her work in magazines like Astronomy and Sky & Telescope. She identifies as a “coronaphile,” one who is drawn to the solar halo surrounding the blackened moon.

Electronic music has always been associated with the cosmic. Leon Theremin, years before he invented his namesake instrument or was thrown into Stalin’s gulag, studied astronomy at Petrograd University. Joe Meek, the pop producer who had a hit with the satellite-inspired “Telstar” in 1962, a few years before he shot himself, said that with the single, “I wanted to create a picture in music of what could be up there in outer space.” Bebe Barron, who scored Forbidden Planet with her husband by overloading homemade electrical circuits until they burned out, creating unrepeatably strange noises in the process, said, “I just knew instinctively that that’s what it has to sound like when you’re traveling through space.” (They were right, in a way: In 1969, the astronauts of Apollo 10 heard eerie electronic sounds over a radio receiver while circling the moon; one of them described it as “outer-space-type music.”)

For most this association persisted because the medium was thought to be psychedelic or oneiric, fundamentally unearthly. For Carlos, the opposite was true. Hers was the Pythagorean tradition of the “harmony of the spheres.” (Describing her original concept for the cover of a later album, Digital Moonscapes, she pictured herself “in outer space surrounded by the orbiting satellites with their elliptical paths circuiting around my head.”) She was interested in astronomy because the workings of the solar system signified absolute balance and order. Her music evinced the same. Sewell quotes a maxim that Carlos referred to as her First Law: “Every parameter that you can control, you must control.”

This desire for control permeates her art, as it does the story of her life. It may be why she worked so well with Stanley Kubrick, who invited her to produce music for A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Kubrick, too, was often described in terms of his apparent coldness, austerity, and perfectionism. (His frequent production designer once called him “computerlike.”) The glassy surfaces of Carlos’s music would seem to make it a perfect complement to the exacting specifications of Kubrick’s compositions, the psychological impenetrability of his characters. The music she made for Kubrick is probably better known today than anything she released herself. Despite having followed Switched-On Bach with another successful album of Baroque music, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, as well as an album of proto-­ambient music, Sonic Seasonings, which predated Brian Eno’s coinage of the term by several years, her name still often conjures these films and their horrifying sterility.

Carlos’s perfectionism grew into a kind of wedge between her and her audience. She bought a computer terminal and started making music digitally. She wanted more complexity, more exacting simulations. In the 1980s, she later admitted, “I found myself swamped by the anarchy of total possibility.” She became interested in alternate tunings, invented scales, Balinese gamelan. On the new digital synthesizers, she didn’t have to labor quite the way she had before. The sounds she could produce seemed infinite. “It’s a perfect way to drown,” she said. She remastered and rereleased her earlier rec­ords, attempting, Sewell writes, “to repair what she heard as defects.” She removed the hisses and pops, all the superfluous sounds she couldn’t countenance. She wanted her renderings to sound as immaculate, as crystalline, as they did in her head. But her audience rebelled. They wrote letters of complaint. They wanted the hisses and pops, wanted all their “favorite little technical problems,” Carlos conceded. I understand why they did. Like Gould’s humming, the extratextual sounds give the records a sense of aura. They remind us that this music was made in a room by a person. It is an atavistic prejudice.

It is not exactly accurate to say that Carlos retreated from public life. Better to say that she avoided it initially out of fear and then later out of resentment. The world had first required her to playact as a man. She often told a story about being invited to debut her synthesizer onstage with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. In the hotel room beforehand, she cried while donning fake sideburns and a wig. She kept saying, “Let Walter go and do it.” Having transitioned, she was further burdened by the newly apparent sexism of her peers, compounded by the fact that many couldn’t or wouldn’t make the leap—­even the ones who admired her. “Oh, that Wendy,” they’d say, “he’s a genius.” That was the example she related to the Times. She heard the way their interpretation of her gender could shift like that over the course of a single sentence, a sense of maleness somehow creeping back in to provide a context for the presence of genius. To review the literature on Carlos is to be exposed to a vast capacity for public cruelty. There is an impulse to constrain the poor treatment to some vanquished past in which bigotry was the way of things, but recent history hasn’t been much kinder. On the radio show This American Life, she was used as a kind of avatar of perversity, of “Sodom and Gomorrah.” An article in Pitchfork referred to her as “a trans-gendered, avant-new-age synthesizer freak.” A musicologist at Cornell wrote not long ago that Carlos herself was a “product of technology,” her use of the synthesizer a form of “radical reassignment surgery.” One begins to understand how she might have lost interest, turned away, and taken her music with her.

One of the challenges of writing about Carlos is in characterizing the precise nature of her accomplishment. Was she a performer or an engineer? Sewell notes that Carlos often preferred to think of herself as an arranger or orchestrator, in the spirit of Maurice Ravel. The gender-studies scholar Roshanak Kheshti has argued that Carlos might best be described as a synthesizer, presumably following the ­OED’s original definition, which dates back to the nineteenth century: “One who or that which synthesizes.” Carlos offered another possibility. Both her music and her personal life, she argued, had been considered new and unusual interventions—tests by which we might measure our ability to accept change. She wrote, “It seems that I am a barometer.”

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