Herstory 2: Wendy Carlos, Electronic Music's Godmother
Wendy Carlos: Godmother of Electronic Music
She's both an icon in modern music and the LGBTQ+ community.
The American composer and musician brought electronic music to mainstream listeners, popularized MOOG analog synthesizers, and ultimately changed the course of modern music. She was also one of few openly transgender people of the 70's. She spoke about her sex reassignment surgery at a time when the procedure was still unknown to the general public.
Wendy credits a lot of her musical success to her "silent partner" Rachel Elkind-Tourre. Rachel was a producer and frequent collaborator during Wendy's early days.
Together, Wendy and Rachel Changed Modern Music Forever. Here's How:
Before Wendy joins forces with Rachel, she meets Robert Moog. Wendy meets Robert "Bob" Moog at an Audio Engineering Society (AES) conference in the 60's. He's the founder of MOOG Music, a manufacturer of electronic music instruments, best know for their analog synthesizers.
Wait…Synthesizers? WTF Are Those??
Analog synths use electronic signals to create their sound. They rapidly change voltages in a circuit to create vibrations — remember that sound-waves are essentially vibrations creating changes to air pressure. This is why plucking a guitar string creates sound too.
Once you've got a sound, you can manipulate the waveform with the synth's controls. You can change its size, speed, and structure. The possibilities were still pretty limited in the 60's, so you could really tell that these sounds were artificial. It was great for psychedelia and sci-fi movies, but it made it harder for synths to be viewed as an instrument. It was more like a machine that made otherworldly noises. To learn more about synths (past and present), check out the full history at Gizmodo!
Wendy meets Bob while she's studying composition at Columbia University. Before that, she studied music and physics at Brown University. MOOG Music is still in its early days — hardly the music industry powerhouse that it is now. Wendy purchased her own MOOG synthesizer in 1966 – her engineering background allowed her to see opportunities for MOOG product upgrades. Plus, she was the perfect collaborator for Bob; he was an electrician, not a musician. Throughout her career, Wendy worked heavily with Bob to refine his products.
Synthesizers have gone through an incredible evolution over the years, but at the beginning, they were expensive and difficult to use. The first commercially available modular synth would've cost $20,000 today. It's hefty price tag meant that the only people with access to synthesizers were classical establishments. It’s unfortunate because the classical community didn't even appreciate the creative possibilities of synths. Lucky for us, Wendy saw the beauty in synthesizers.
Making Music History: Synths + Bach
After experimenting with the MOOG synthesizer, Wendy decides to record an all-synth album. She enlists the help of music producer Rachel Elkind. Rachel wasn't interested in synthesizers (or Wendy, really), so Wendy spent the next year trying to convince Elkind to join the project. Eventually, Rachel agrees.
To help Rachel see the potential in synthesizers, Wendy performs two electronic covers for her: Tom Jones' “What’s New Pussycat” and Bach’s “Two-Part Invention in F Major.”
The Bach cover sparks Rachel's interest. She predicts that the fusion of classical music and electronic music could finally bring the genre to a mainstream audience. At the time, synths were still absent from chart toppers.
Wendy had her heart set on recording her own compositions for the album, but Rachel convinces her to release a set of Bach covers instead. The duo create, produce, and mix the album during the spring and summer of 1968. Near the end of production, Rachel reaches out to Columbia Records to see if they would be interested in signing the record. Thankfully, Rachel makes this suggestion while Columbia is developing their "Bach-and-Roll" marketing campaign. The label sees the album as a low-risk opportunity because most of the production is complete and they'd be signing two unknown artists.
October 1968: Switched-On Bach Is Released
Just like Rachel had predicted, Switched-On Bach became a pop sensation. Even classical composers embraced Wendy's work. Glenn Gould, one of the most celebrated classical pianists of the 20th century, praised Switched-On Bach at every opportunity, solidifying her spot in music history. Glenn was referring to Switched-On Bach as the "record of the century." The album went on to win three Grammys.
The Album is Iconic for a Number of Reasons
For MOOG, it established the analog synthesizer as a powerful musical instrument worthy of its own standing. Switched-On Bach led to MOOG orders from some of the biggest names in music — Stevie Wonder and The Beatles to name a few. MOOG's cutting-edge technology also paved the way for the synth-heavy disco tracks of the 70's and the eventually led to the creation of EDM.
For Wendy, the album's success is able to pay for gender reassignment surgery. Around the time that she started experimenting with synthesizers, she started seeing a sexologist. She released Switched-On Bach as Walter Carlos, but spent the next few years transitioning. Worried about the public's reaction, Wendy kept it a secret for about a decade. Walter Carlos rose to fame but only her closest friends and family knew about Wendy Carlos.
In 1979, Wendy shares her story with Playboy Magazine, which was a very deliberate choice. She sees the publication as a symbol of sexual liberation. Surprisingly, her feature isn't met with much resistance from the general public. After experiencing the public's indifference to her news, Wendy tells People Magazine in 1985 that hiding her identity for so many years was a "massive waste of time." Her secrecy is understandable though, sex reassignment surgery was still a foreign concept to many. You can read the 1979 Playboy interview here — the journalist isn't very sensitive to trans issues so certain parts of the interview will seem like an odd read in 2018.
After Switched-On Bach, Wendy and Rachel Continue Working Together
Together, Wendy and Rachel continued to push the boundaries of electronic music. Some of their most notable work includes film scores for The Shining and Clockwork Orange and Tron. In 1980, Rachel leaves the music world to move to France with her husband. Wendy continues to create music but stays out of the public's eye. She he also started her own website around that time! It's got a pretty retro vibe for 2018 standards, but the stories are moving and provide an inside look into the mind of a musical genius. Check out wendycarlos.com if you're interested.
Wendy and Rachel are pioneers in electronic music. They combined technology and creativity in a way that made the world pay attention.
Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for unlearning music misogyny.
For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
If information looks incorrect, please let us know! When we're retelling stories that are left out of our history books, finding info can get tricky. We want to make sure we're portraying these stories as accurately as possible!