Wendy Carlos, pioneering composer, will finally get the biography she has earned

Wendy Carlos, a giant of electronic music composition, should at last get a complete, well-deserved biography. The book is set to be published next month.

Michigan-based musicologist Amanda Sewell is set to profile the music legend in a debut title published by Oxford University Press, in a 264-page hardcover edition (and ebook) due on March 5. Sewell is also Music Director of Interlochen Public Radio.

It’s welcome news. My understanding from friends with personal contact to her was that the composer was often reluctant to speak with the media. I once had a short exchange with her publicist, but can’t otherwise comment on the specifics. But I do know this can trigger an all-too-familiar feedback loop – poor or incomplete journalism frustrates an artist, who then doesn’t want to talk to the press, who then stray even further from the narrative the artist might want to share (at best) or from the facts (at worse). I also feel strongly that this responsibility lies with us as writers. When we screw this up, everyone loses.

But Wendy Carlos is a composer so many of us would like to explore in real depth. The frequent narrative about Carlos’ work has been embarrassingly superficial. Yes, she produced the album that would become the breakout crossover hit for the Moog synthesizer, Switched on Bach. But significant as that album was, her film scores for Tron, The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and others have had lasting power, too. Her compositions evolve and grow over her career-long output, turning on a dime between unforgettable melodies and angular abstract sounds, perpetually innovating in their treatment of musical materials and instrumentation – including the synth. Arguably, few composers have had a greater impact on how we think about synthesizer orchestration, certainly in the context of writing for film. Seeing her work exclusively in terms of Switched on Bach misses the point – and, in doing so, may misunderstand the significance of the synthesizer more generally.

And then there’s the fact of so many writers and teachers mishandling mention of Carlos’ personal life. Instead of being able to read about a significant composer, aspiring transgender and non-binary artists often encounter transphobia in the first encounter with Carlos.

I don’t yet have a review copy in hand, but I very much look forward to reading about a person who was one of the people who inspired me to go into electronic music and writing about the field. (Thank you to Wendy Carlos for that.)

And the advance copy looks encouraging – it appears to cover every aspect of her career, with what promises to be complete coverage of her music, without shying away from talking about her gender identity.

The blurb:

With her debut album Switched-On Bach, composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos (b. 1939) brought the sound of the Moog synthesizer to a generation of listeners, helping to effect arguably one of the most substantial changes in popular music’s sound since musicians began using amplifiers. Her story is not only one of a person who blazed new trails in electronic music for decades but is also the story of a person who intersected in many ways with American popular culture, medicine, and social trends during the second half of the 20th century and well into the 21st. There is much to tell about her life and about the ways in which her life reflects many dimensions of American culture.

And table of contents:

Introduction. The Phenomenon of Wendy Carlos

Chapter 1. Origins (1939-1962)
Chapter 2. Foundations (1962-67)
Chapter 3. Switched-On Bach and Undesired Fame (1968-69)
Chapter 4. Something Went Wrong (1970-1978)
Chapter 5. “Welcome Back, Wendy!” The Playboy Interview (1979)
Chapter 6. Transformations (1979-1984)
Chapter 7. The Last of the New (1985-1997)
Chapter 8. Reissuing the Past (1998-2005)
Chapter 9. Preserving, Protecting, and Defending Her Legacy (2006-Present)

And it comes from a respected publisher. I see OUP is also including a glossary, presumably with an eye to making this book accessible to people outside electronic music, too.

Wendy Carlos: A Biography [Oxford University Press: Academic]

And apart from (hopefully) this book, if you do want an excellent resource on Wendy Carlos, well, Wendy Carlos remains a great resource. Her official site is full of material. It covers not only expected topics (like a tribute to Bob Moog), but more peripheral interests like exploration of color, map making, and solar eclipses. Also, pictures of cats.


Pictured: the composer in her studio, 1979.

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