Long Read / 18 Jun 24
Wendy Carlos - Female Pioneers of Electronic Music
Roxy Caruana
In celebration of Pride Month, we honour the remarkable & fabulous Wendy Carlos!
Renowned for collaborating with Robert Moog on the first commercially available Moog synthesizer and for her groundbreaking soundtracks for the feature films "A Clockwork Orange" and "Tron."
Despite her challenging journey through her M to F transition, marked by societal prejudices, Wendy persevered, often living in solitude for extended periods, yet continuing to create and innovate in the world of music.
First Years
Born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1939 to a music-loving working-class family, Wendy began piano lessons at age six. Unable to afford a piano, her father drew a keyboard on paper for her to practice. At just ten years old (!) she composed "A Trio for Clarinet, Accordion, and Piano." By age fourteen, she earned a scholarship to set up a computer, a rarity at the time. Wendy later attended Brown University, studying music and physics, where she struggled with societal expectations, trying to date girls while still living as a man.
Wendy and the Moog
After graduating from Brown, Wendy pursued a master's degree in music composition at Columbia University. Her fascination with electronic instruments grew, and she met Robert Moog at a conference, advising him on the Moog synthesizer. She suggested innovations like pitch variation sliders, a filter bank, and a touch-sensitive keyboard, which appeared in the 1970s model.
Wendy acquired her first Moog synthesizer in 1966, using it to perform classical music and create jingles. In 1968, she released "Switched-On Bach." Despite Columbia Records' low expectations, offering her only $2,500 upfront, the album was a massive success, becoming the second classical and the first electronic album to achieve platinum status in the United States.
A Clockwork Orange
In 1971, following the success of "Switched-On Bach," Wendy composed the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's"A Clockwork Orange," blending classical music from Rossini, Beethoven, and Purcell with contemporary pop tracks like "Singin' in the Rain."
The following year marked significant milestones for Wendy: she underwent gender confirmation surgery and released the pioneering ambient music album "Sonic Seasonings," which predated Brian Eno's "Ambient 1: Music for Airports" by five years. In "Sonic Seasonings," she combined natural sounds with synths to depict the four seasons.
After her surgery, Wendy spent several years in seclusion in her New York apartment. In 1979, she was featured in a Playboy interview that largely focused on her gender transition rather than her musical achievements, leaving her feeling betrayed.
The Shining
In 1980, Wendy was invited by Stanley Kubrick to compose the soundtrack for "The Shining." Although Kubrick used only two of her pieces, the remaining compositions were released in 2005 in an album titled "Rediscovering Lost Scores."
That same year, Disney hired Wendy to compose the soundtrack for the 1982 science-fiction film "Tron." Using digital and analogue synthesizers alongside recordings from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the University of California choir, and the Royal Albert Hall’s pipe organ, Wendy created a rich, less overtly electronic score that remains popular today. This project marked her first collaboration with her partner Annemarie Franklin, blending the Moog synthesizer with the rare Crumar General Development System (GDS) digital synthesizer.
Following "Tron," Wendy released several more studio albums, including "Digital Moonscapes" in 1984. Inspired by astronomy, the album featured music written for an orchestra or its electronic equivalent, simulating a symphony orchestra using advanced synthesizers like the GDS and Synergy Digital Synthesizers. Wendy dubbed her ensemble the LSI Philharmonic, referencing "Large Scale Integration" computer chips, creating the first significant digitally synthesized orchestra controlled by a single composer.
Wendy Has a Certain Sense of humour
Wendy also collaborated with comedic musician Weird Al Yankovic on a parody of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf." Embracing the opportunity to showcase her sense of humour, Wendy re-orchestrated the music with a "MIDI orchestra," marking her initial use of digital interface technology.
Now 84, Wendy Carlos remains active and can be found on her retro-style website. She has a passion for cats and photographing eclipses, for which she travelled often to capture them.
Unfortunately, most of Wendy Carlos's music is unavailable on major internet platforms due to her personal choice.
wendy carlos
robert moog