Switched-On Bach Has a Back Story
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Published in: January-February 2021 issue.


by Amanda Sewell
Oxford Univ. Press. 264 pages, $34.95



AS AN ADOLESCENT in the early 1970s, I remember saving up my allowance to buy vinyl LPs of movie music, one of which included the theme from A Clockwork Orange (1971). The film was rated “R,” so I hadn’t seen it, but it evoked the sense of something totally new and forbidden. The cut on the LP—a synthesized version of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary—was unlike anything I had ever heard before. To later generations for whom synthesizer sounds are unremarkable, it’s difficult to convey how strange and futuristic these sounds were. Later, when I was in college and heard that the composer of that music, Walter Carlos, had undergone gender confirmation surgery and was now living as a woman named Wendy, it was another kind of shock. Such a transformation was simply unheard of at the time.

            Before creating the music for Kubrick’s film, Carlos had released an album called Switched-On Bach that featured a number of Bach’s works “electrified” via synthesizer. To this day, it is still the bestselling classical album of all time. The synthesizer was the invention of an engineer named Robert Moog, who had personally delivered one of his earliest modules to Carlos, who spent an entire weekend helping to get it set up. It would change both of their lives forever. Together they would develop and enhance the cutting-edge technology that has had such an impact on music ever since.

            The Moog Synthesizer could only produce one note at a time. To create the “switched-on” effect, Carlos painstakingly created each note, sequenced notes into lines, and then stacked them up, sometimes layering as many as six separate lines to create Bach’s counterpoints and harmonies. But there was also a performance virtuosity to Carlos’ recordings. No less a fan than Glenn Gould called Switched-On Bach the “record of the decade,” singling out its “unfailing musicality” and claiming it was one of the greatest feats ever achieved in keyboard performance. The album won three Grammys in 1969, including Best Classical Performance and Classical Album of the Year. A subsequent album, featuring Carlos’ version of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, was acclaimed by Gould as “the finest performance of any of the Brandenburgs—live, canned, or intuited—I’ve ever heard.”

Wendy Carlos in her home studio,1988. Ebet Roberts/Getty Images.

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Dale Boyer’s is the author ofThe Dandelion Cloud, Thornton Stories, and Justin & the Magic Stone.


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