What You're Not Listening To

What You're Not Listening To

Switched-On Wendy Carlos (Audio and Video)

December 15, 2019

To the children of the revolution, this one is especially for you. This program is presented by a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor and Leatherman which spotlights a trans woman who changed music forever. #wendycarlos #transvisibility

One of the two questions I am most asked about recently is the following: “Who are the children of the revolution?” It could be anyone listening to this program, but is focused on giving voices to dispossessed populations. More specifically, I am speaking to two groups: the first are long-term HIV/AIDS survivors and Leatherman like myself to illustrate we still have so much to give to our community in terms of history and relevance in a world that attempts to diminish our contributions to what it means to be queer.

Electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos. Photo: Vernon L. Smith/via www.wendycarlos.com  

The other group is LGBTQi youth: Yes, children, I was once one of you, many moons ago. I mean that not just in terms of my identity, but a sobering realization: Queer youth commit suicide at a rate three times the national average. As someone who almost succeeded when I was 15, I know the despair so many of you face. Visibility matters, and I am here to tell you that you too have so much to give. Leading by example is sometimes the best way to illustrate this concept. So much of what I do with this program is to offer a different viewpoint from my personal experience.

The cover of Carlos’ debut album, Switched-On Bach. Yes, that thing in the back with all the wires is what she had to work with to make this music.

Our featured artist today is Wendy Carlos, who was once known professionally as Walter Carlos. Wendy seemingly did the impossible: create a whole new world by her pioneering work with electronic instruments, especially the Moog synthesizer. She transformed what was considered a strange type of avant-garde music, electronica, into a mainstream series of albums that not only redefined the possibilities of classical music, her original entry into the recorded world, but also ambient music as well. Her work is most importantly felt in Rock, Funk and many of today’s Pop acts, where, unlike in the classical field, synthesizers became a mainstay, finally replacing early tape driven samplers like the Mellotron.

“Nobody is in her league.”Robert Moog, the creator of the synthesizer, on Wendy Carlos for People magazine in 1985

A college graduate with major in music and a minor in physics, she also helped Robert Moog, who developed the first electronic synthesizers, in the design of the instrument. Carlos, an unproven talent, was offered a deal with a major label because Columbia Records had a marketing campaign called “Bach to Rock” they needed new music for. They took a chance on what seemed like a strange concept and then slowly watched it explode. The resulting album, Switched-On Bach, became a top ten Billboard LP and was only the second classical music album in history to sell a million physical copies. It also won Carlos three Grammy awards, illustrating the impact the album had on contemporary music. Much of the success that Carlos has achieved is due to her producer and friend, a jazz singer named Rachel Elkind-Tourre. If you believe that seeing a woman produce platinum-selling album today is a rarity, imagine what it was like 50 years ago.

Wendy Carlos in the early 1970’s. Her androgynous fashion style of the time was in of itself influential over the years, but borne of a personal struggle.

Carlos would go on to work with Stanley Kubrick on two of his films, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, as well as create what many consider to be the very first ever ambient music release,