Chus Martinez On Wendy CarlosPosted: February 5, 2013
Wendy Carlos (born Walter Carlos in Pawtucket, Rhode Island on 14 November 1939) is an American composer and electronic musician.
Carlos first came to prominence in 1968 with Switched-On Bach, a recording of music by J.S. Bach painstakingly assembled, phrase-by-phrase, on the Moog synthesizer, at the time a relatively new and unknown instrument. The album earned three Grammy Awards in 1969. Other classical recordings followed. Carlos later began releasing original compositions, including the first-ever album of synthesized environmental sounds, Sonic Seasonings (1972) and an album exploring alternate tunings Beauty in the Beast (1986). She has also worked in film music, notably writing and performing scores for two Stanley Kubrick movies, A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), as well as Walt Disney’s Tron (1982).
A musical prodigy, Carlos started piano lessons at six, and at ten composed A Trio for Clarinet, Accordion, and Piano. In 1953 (age 14) she won a Westinghouse Science Fair scholarship for a home-built computer, well before “computer” was a household word. Carlos earned a B.A. in music and physics at Brown University (1962) and a master’s degree in composition from Columbia University (1966). She studied with Vladimir Ussachevsky, a pioneer in electronic music, as well as Otto Luening and Jack Beeson, working in the famed Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.
Remaining in New York after graduation, Carlos was introduced to Dr. Robert Moog and became one of his earliest customers, providing advice and technical assistance for his further development of the Moog synthesizer. Carlos convinced Moog to add touch sensitivity to the synthesizer keyboard for greater dynamics and musicality, among other improvements.
Around 1966, Carlos met Rachel Elkind, who went on to produce Switched-On Bach and other early albums. With the proceeds from Switched-On Bach, the two renovated a New York brownstone, which they shared as a work and live space, installing a studio for live and electronic recording on the bottom floor where all subsequent recordings have been produced. Carlos took the unusual step of enclosing the entire studio in a Faraday cage, shielding the equipment from radio and television interference.
Switched-On Bach (1968) was Carlos’ break-through album, one of the first to draw attention to the synthesizer as a genuine musical instrument. Multi-track recording techniques played a critical role in the time-consuming process of creating this album, when it was significantly more difficult than it is today. Switched-On Bach was the last project in a four-year-long collaboration with Benjamin Folkman and won gold records for both Carlos and Folkman. The album then became one of the first classical LPs to sell 500,000 copies, going gold in August 1969, and platinum in November 1986. It remained at the top spot on the Billboard Magazine classical album chart for two years and 49 weeks.
Carlos was aware of her gender dysphoria from an early age stating, “I was about five or six…I remember being convinced I was a little girl, much preferring long hair and girls clothes, and not knowing why my parents didn’t see it clearly”.
In 1962 when she moved to New York City to attend Columbia University she came into contact with information about transgenderism (including the work of Harry Benjamin). In early 1968 she began hormone treatments and soon began living full-time as a woman. After the success of Switched-On Bach, in May of 1972 Carlos was able to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
Carlos spoke about herself in an interview in May 1979’s Playboy magazine, picking this publication because: “The magazine has always been concerned with liberation, and I’m anxious to liberate myself.” She has since come to regret the decision. Carlos prefers not to discuss her gender reassignment, and has asked that her privacy regarding the subject be respected.
Carlos is also an accomplished solar eclipse photographer.