I’m quite utterly amazed to read that its Wendy Carlos’ 80th birthday today. Good lord. I really didn’t need another reminder of the years rolling by, but there you go.
So Wendy Carlos. My first encounter with her electronic soundscapes dates back, like for many people I expect, to her 1982 score for the Disney film Tron. Its simply how most of my Star Wars generation first encountered her work, although she was actually most famous for her breakthrough work in the late 1960s pioneering electronic music through her Switched-On Bach recordings, in which she used a Moog synthesizer to record electronic versions of Bach concertos. The first Switched-On Bach album won three Grammys and sold more than one million copies – the first classical album to go platinum. It was the moment electronic music truly arrived, and the synthesizer became considered a genuine musical instrument. Not long after she released an original work, Sonic Seasonings, an ambient double-album that curiously predated Brian Eno’s ambient music by a few years.
Carlos caught the eye (or more aptly, the ear) of Stanley Kubrick who recruited her to record music for his film Clockwork Orange, and later, his film The Shining, and her music lends both films a pretty unique atmosphere and soundscape that helps them stand apart from other films to this day. The revised and expanded edition of the Clockwork Orange soundtrack released in 2000 is an amazing piece of work- like most of her music I’d hesitate to call it easy listening, its often complex and challenging but there’s something utterly mesmerising about the near-fourteen minute epic Timesteps that opens the album, a piece of music inspired by the book that she wrote before she ever started work on the film score.
As I have stated, I first became aware of her music through the Tron soundtrack, an orchestral/electronic hybrid of a score that had as unique a sonic identity as the films computer-aided visuals. I had a copy of the album for Christmas that 1982 and loved listening to it on headphones- I damn near wore that vinyl album out and would spend many years waiting for it to come out on CD. The score features one of the most achingly beautiful love themes that ever graced a movie- its one of those soundtracks that is much better than the movie it was written for.
My exploration and appreciation of her music post-Tron didn’t really start until around 1994 when she started releasing her back catalogue on East Side Digital in beautifully mastered and presented new editions. I think I read somewhere that her label, CBS/Sony sold her entire back-catalogue back to her believing it was no longer commercial enough to warrant future release, incredibly. Her Switched-On Bach albums featured in a deluxe box-set that remains one of the most finely-crafted CD sets that I have ever owned, with a wonderfully thorough book to accompany it. For several years back then I would buy her releases and read her notes and news/commentary on her website, which even now, although not updated since 2009 remains a fascinating source of information and a glimpse of everything someone like, say, Vangelis, has never been. She was so open and warm on her website, its easy to suggest now that she was well ahead of her time in how she engaged with her fans and curated her musical legacy.
Over the last ten years, however, she seems to have been enjoying an unannounced retirement, the energy and enthusiasm of those releases in the 1990s through to 2009 (including Tron finally on CD in 2002, hurrah!) unexpectedly fading away to Vangelis-like silence. Today her name has faded into a strange obscurity, her music sadly going out of print and commanding some daft prices on the second-hand market. Of course, her retirement is perfectly understandable and deserved, albeit its a pity she seems to have felt the need to distance herself from the public eye and her fans in particular.
Fortunately of course I still have these CDs to listen to and celebrate her work. I hope she is well and perhaps even still making music. Happy 80th, Wendy.