Watch out, Wendy Carlos is switched on

Watch out, Wendy Carlos is switched on


norman lebrecht

November 11, 2020

The long-silent synthesiser virtuoso, 81 this week, has raised objections to an unauthorised biography published by the Oxford University Press.

This summer, an 80-year-old synthesiser pioneer suddenly appeared online. She had been silent for 11 years, but now something had appeared that she just wouldn’t tolerate. “Please be aware there’s a purported ‘biography’ on me just released,” wrote Wendy Carlos on the homepage of her 16-bit-friendly website, a Siamese cat and a synthesiser behind her portrait. “No one ever interviewed me [for it], nor anyone I know,” she went on. “Aren’t there new, more interesting targets?”

Read on here.



  • Cubs Fan says:

    That first record was so influential. Several local pop/rock radio stations played cuts from it. Others made synthesized records trying to cash in on the craze – remember “Everything You Ever Wanted to Hear on the Moog, but Were Afraid to Ask?” But no one was as successful as then Walter Carlos – there was genius in it. Then Walter became Wendy. That’s something that, for better or worse, still interests and titillates readers. Won’t be the first unauthorized biography. Just ask Donald Trump.

  • Tribonian says:

    The Bach albums are wonderful. I have very happy memories of first hearing them. And Ms Carlos’ cat is fantastic!

    I find it slightly odd but quite touching that a genuine technology pioneer hasn’t updated the design of her website.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    For better or for worse – and speaking as someone who enjoys great string playing, I’d say for the better; speaking as a lower-end-middling talented string player, I’d say for the worse — the Switched-on Bach album upped the ante for chamber orchestra performances of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, as now people came to expect those incredible and exciting tempos. The final Allegro is now very often done at or close to Carlos’s Vivace; Bach did not specify a tempo for the first movement and in heaven he’s possibly thinking “I should have written in a tempo marking, I should have written in a tempo marking.”

    I also think the Carlos-composed “central movement” (in quotes because Bach only composed a couple of chords, seemingly as a place holder to invite the empty space to be filled in to match the cadence) of the Third Brandenburg on that first album retains all of its outrageous entertainment and sonic value.

    • Paul Dawson says:

      Well put. My personal favourites from her are the Cantata 29 Sinfonia and, sending shivers down my spine at my first viewing of A Clockwork Orange, the Queen Mary Funeral Music.

    • John Marks says:

      Jazz flutist Hubert Laws and some illustrious colleagues including Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, and Airto Moreira put out a classical-crossover LP in 1971 entitled “The Rite of Spring.”

      I for one think that their “Brandenburg Concerto 3” remains charming. Laws does some soloistic things for the “central movement,” and the third movement cruises along at the genteel speed of about 68 bpm.

      You can find the entire album on YouTube or Qobuz and most likely Tidal as well.

  • Paul Dawson says:

    My Amazon review of the book was very short.

    “In my view, Wendy Carlos’s gender transition is of far less interest than her extraordinary musical output. The author seems to feel the opposite.”

  • Edgar Self says:

    A long way from the pioneering versions of Bach’s third Brandenburg concerto by Alfred Cortot/Ecole Normal and Adolf Busch chamber orchestras, Furtwaengler/BPO and Karl Munchinger/SCO, then the HIP deluge and Wendy Carlos. It;s better known today for all that, and … no violins! The music, especially its finale, is motoric, irresistible, and indestructible. Some borrow elsewhere for the bridging adagio Bach neglected to give us, but I don’t miss it.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Big Wendy Carlos fan here!
    Her Bach records were a revelation and led me to who eventually became my favorite synthesisist, Tomita.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Something is wrong with your website, Norman – it at first wouldn’t allow me to submit, then after I clicked on the button a few times, it said that “I think you’ve already said that” or some such nonsense.
    At any rate, what I ORIGINALLY wanted to say is that I am a big fan of Wendy Carlos, whose great Bach records led me to listening to who eventually became my favorite synthesisist, Tomita.

  • John Marks says:

    WAY back in the day, I ran into Ms. Carlos at a New York Chapter meeting of the Recording Academy. I introduced myself, and told her that we shared a cosmic connection.

    “What is that?” she politely asked.

    I replied, “One of my college work-study jobs was to empty the wastebaskets and vacuum the rug in the Electronic Music Studio you had donated to Brown University. Knowing that I was an electronics hobbyist, they trusted me not to touch anything! And, here I am, at a NARAS meeting, tonight meeting you!”

    So, we had a nice laugh. Arturo Delmoni was with me, looking on benignly and somewhat bemusedly.

    I can’t help but wonder whether Ms. Carlos’ rhetorical question of today, “Aren’t there new, more interesting targets?” casts back to my favorite Thackeray quote:

    “It was in the reign of George II that the above-named personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now; and do not the Sunday papers and the courts of law supply us every week with more novel and interesting slander?”

    the first part of which, Kubrick used as an epilogue to his film version of “Barry Lyndon.”

    I am sure that she must have seen that movie!