Even though I’m rubbish with biographies – not that I’ve ever written one, but, well – I’d like to nominate Wendy Carlos for my role model woman in technology.
Wendy Carlos (born November 14, 1939) is an American composer and electronic musician. She gained fame in the late 1960s for playing on the Moog synthesizer, which was a relatively new and unknown instrument at the time. Though her early albums were interpretations of the works of classical composers, she later released original compositions.
Growing up, there was always classical music playing at home. My Dad was a huge fan of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and I still love Bach’s music to this day. I remember being especially taken with Wendy Carlos’ reworkings of some of his music when she released Switched On Bach in 1968 (I’d have been 11/12 then).
The significance of the record was in its demonstration that synthesizers could be used as a genuine musical instrument – it was performed on a Moog Modular synthesizer system. In that sense, it helped lay the foundations for much of contemporary music’s reliance on electronic instruments and sounds.
[The album] was recorded on a custom-built 8 track recorder [...] using numerous takes and overdubs. This was long before the days of MIDI sequencers. Recording the album was a tedious and time-consuming process — each of the pieces had to be assembled one part at a time, and Carlos, [and producers] Benjamin Elkind and Rachel Folkman devoted many hours to experimenting with suitable synthetic sounds for each voice and part.
The album received a mixed reaction at the time of its release. Some critics reviled it for trivialising the work of one of the most revered classical composers of all time, but others were excited by the freshness of the sound and the virtuosity that went into its creation.
I know my Dad loved it; he played it and played it, and I guess that rubbed off on me. For a huge chunk of my life I made music – not very well, admittedly, but it kept me going through some quite troubled times – and tinkering with synthesisers was as important as noodling on a guitar. It’s fair to say that hearing the music of Wendy Carlos as a child opened my mind to the possibility that there were ways of making music that didn’t necessarily rely on more traditional instruments and sounds.
After years not having heard it, last year I finally tracked down a copy of Switched On Bach on CD – I’m listening to it as I write this and it sounds as good to me today as it did 40 years ago.
Wendy Carlos: musician, composer, trans woman in technology, role model.