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People Profile: Wendy Carlos

Wendy Carlos is one of the pioneers of electronic music. She is known for the revolutionary album “Switched-On Bach” and composed music for classic hit films such as “A Clockwork Orange”, “The Shining” and “Tron”.

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“INSIDE I HAD THE FEELING THAT I WAS A LITTLE GIRL. I PREFERRED LONG HAIR AND GIRL’S CLOTHES AND DIDN’T UNDERSTAND MY PARENTS TREATING ME LIKE A BOY. I KEPT MY FEELINGS TO MYSELF. IT’S A GOOD WAY TO BECOME CUCKOO.”

Wendy Carlos was born Walter on November 14, 1939 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In a 1985 article for people magazine, Carlos reflected on her early childhood stating, “Inside I had the feeling that I was a little girl. I preferred long hair and girl’s clothes and didn’t understand my parents treating me like a boy. I kept my feelings to myself. It’s a good way to become cuckoo.” She was often bullied for her femininity and she found solace in the piano which she started to learn how to play at the age of 6.

In her college years, Carlos studied physics at Brown University. She would go on to earn a master’s degree at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center at Columbia University. It was there she became fascinated with synthesizers and creating new sounds. She would work at Gotham Recording, a studio where she would meet an instrument engineer named Robert Moog. At the time, Moog was developing his famous synthesizer which graces his name. She would go on to provide Moog with valuable musical insights which he applied to his synthesizer designs.

Carlos would record an album of Bach music created on the Moog synthesizer. The record, aptly titled “Switched –On Bach”, would go on to revolutionize the recording industry as the pioneering classical crossover album. It was the largest-selling classical album of that decade. The album won 3 Grammy awards in 1969. While recording the album, Carlos had been working with Dr. Harry Benjamin, who was helping her with her gender issues.

1971, Carlos heard that Stanley Kubrick was planning to direct “A Clockwork Orange“, which was based on Anthony Burgess’ novel. Carlos had suggested that a synthesizer be used as as the basis of the soundtrack. After Kubrick heard Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach” and the later released “The Well Tempered Synthesizer”, he immediately asked Carlos to come to England to compose the critically acclaimed soundtrack.

“AFTER PUBERTY, MY CONDITION BECAME MORE AND MORE HELLISH, AND BY LATE ADOLESCENCE, AS I BECAME MORE MASCULINE, I BEGAN TO HATE MY BODY…”

After the release of the film in 1972, Carlos would complete her gender reassignment surgery and lay low for a while. It was not until seven years later, when she would come out as transgender in a now famous 1979 interview with Playboy magazine. “After Puberty, my condition became more and more hellish, and by late adolescence, as I became more masculine, I began to hate my body…it sounds so mad doesn’t it?”, Carlos told the magazine. The reception to her announcement would be mostly positive.

In 1980, Carlos composed the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining“. In 1982 she would compose the music for Disney’s “Tron“. She later released “Beauty In the Beast” in 1986. It was an experimental record that explored alternate tunings and soundscapes. She would later release a parody of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” with (Weird) Al Yankovic. In 1992 she would come full circle, releasing “Switched-On Bach 2000”, which was a new twist on the classic record that started it all.

Wendy Carlos’ contribution to electronic music has been unsurpassed. The Moog synthesizer was one of the most revolutionary instruments ever created. Her contributions to it’s design and rise to popularity influenced musicians and led a wave of electronic music well into the next century. She was a transgender pioneer who came out with her story in a time when it was still unheard of. In 2005, Carlos was presented with SEAMUS Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her groundbreaking contributions to electro-acoustic music and a storied career which began in the 1960’s.

Here is the classic title theme to “A Clockwork Orange” by Wendy Carlos.

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