The trans woman who switched on synths for American ears: new biography of Wendy Carlos | Michigan Radio
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The trans woman who switched on synths for American ears: new biography of Wendy Carlos

Sep 2, 2020

Before 1968, most Americans had never heard music played on a synthesizer, which was then still an emerging technology. Many would also have said at the time that they didn’t know anyone who was transgender. All that began to change, though, when composer Wendy Carlos released her debut album, Switched-On Bach.

The record, a synth rendition of pieces by classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach, was a surprise hit for Carlos. But the electronic music pioneer spent years following the album’s release hidden from the public eye. Her story is told in a new biography, Wendy Carlos, written by Amanda Sewell and published September 2.

“Up until the late 1960s, the synthesizer was largely something that you found in a very specialized laboratory at a university,” said Sewell, who is music director at Interlochen Public Radio. “[Carlos] wanted to bridge that gap and show people that the synthesizer could make music that was approachable.”

But how exactly could she do that? Sewell said Carlos’ friend and producer Rachel Elkind suggested she make an album featuring something listeners were already familiar with: Bach’s compositions. Sewell said Elkind didn’t expect the album, made using a Moog synthesizer, to sell more than a few thousand copies. But she was wrong.

“Critics were just bowled over. I mean, everybody was,” Sewell said. “It was unprecedented. …  This particular interpretation of Bach just knocked everybody’s socks off.” The album won three Grammy Awards and soon sold over a million copies.

Carlos, again working alongside Elkind, also composed and arranged music for some of Stanley Kubrick’s films, including the ominous and memorable title themes in The Shining and A Clockwork Orange.

But despite her pioneering work’s success, Carlos, who was assigned male at her birth in 1939, often kept to herself after she transitioned to female. At that time, there wasn’t a prominent transgender celebrity or  much public knowledge about what it meant to be transgender, Sewell said.

Carlos’ transition also took place right around the release of Switched-On Bach, which bore her former name. Sewell said this put Carlos in a difficult position, especially when the record turned out to be so popular.

“She was caught in ‘Do I tell people who I really am and risk the ridicule, the abuse that would come with that? Or do I hide and pretend that this Walter Carlos person still exists and is just an aloof person who doesn’t appear publicly?’” Sewell said. “So she hid from the public for over a decade after Switched-On Bach came out because she didn’t feel safe disclosing her transition.”

Carlos ultimately told the public about her transition in an article published in Playboy, which Sewell said had a significant impact on readers and listeners, many of whom were excited to find out Carlos was still alive and making music.

“A lot of people I talk to now, they remember not only when Switched-On Bach came out, but also when Wendy Carlos disclosed her transition, and those were very notable cultural moments for people,” Sewell said. “She was the first trans person that a lot of people had known by one name and then by another.”

Support for arts and cultural coverages comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.