By David Llewellyn
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19th February 2016

History Month Profiles – 2: Wendy Carlos

For our second LGBT History Month profile, we're taking a look at the career of 'Clockwork Orange' composer and electronic music pioneer, Wendy Carlos.

The word “iconic” is overused so much these days, it’s practically lost all meaning. Often, when someone refers to something as “iconic” they simply mean “popular”, but certain movies have more than earned the label, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange is one of them.

From its distinctive costume design to its quasi-Russian teen slang (taken largely from Anthony Burgess’s source novel) the film is instantly recognisable, even to many of those who’ve never seen it. Indeed, until Kubrick’s death in 1999 it was impossible to watch legally in the UK – the director having withdrawn it in the wake of copycat incidents of violence. (That didn’t stop this blogger from seeing a ropey VHS copy in the mid-1990s.)

A Moog Synthesizer
A Moog Synthesizer

One thing that instantly makes the film stand out, not just from contemporary cinema but from Kubrick’s body of work before and after, is its soundtrack. Burgess’s antihero, Alex DeLarge, has a passion for Beethoven, and throughout the film we hear fragments of his Symphony No.9, as well as works by Elgar, Rossini and Purcell, but not quite as you might hear them on Classic FM. Instead, these are wild and weird versions, filtered and distorted through the wonder of a Moog synthesizer by the musician and composer Wendy Carlos.

Born Walter Carlos in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1939, Wendy Carlos combined a love of both music and technology from a very early age, studying piano at six, and winning a science scholarship for building her own computer at the age of fourteen. After studying at both Columbia and Brown Universities (and while still living and working under her birth name of Walter), in 1965 she helped composer Leonard Bernstein programme a concert of electronic music at New York’s Philharmonic Hall.

Iris Blog - Wendy Carlos 4Carlos’s big breakthrough came with the release, in 1968, of Switched-On Bach, an album of works by J.S. Bach rearranged by Carlos and played on the Moog. The album proved controversial with Bach purists, but found an enthusiastic audience with the counterculture of the time.

Hollywood soon beckoned, but after an abortive first attempt at providing the score to a science fiction film (the producers of the 1969 movie Marooned electing, instead, to have no music whatsoever), she was invited to provide music for Stanley Kubrick’s follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Throughout his career, Kubrick was an expert in the use of existing music, from Dr Strangelove’s bomber refuelling to Try a Little Tenderness to a Shostakovich waltz in Eyes Wide Shut. But while in 2001 he gave us a future set to the sweeping strains of Khatchaturian and Richard Strauss, in A Clockwork Orange we have a dystopian Britain filled with the unsettling squeaks and bleeps of Carlos’s reworked classics.

Original poster art for The Shining, designed by Saul Bass
Original poster art for The Shining, designed by Saul Bass

The composer and director would work together once more, almost ten years later, on Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, with Carlos underscoring the dreamlike opening titles with a terrifying, synthesized version of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. 

In the interim between these two collaborations, Carlos had completed her transition as a transgender woman, a process that was begun following her move to New York in the mid-1960s. For early media appearances (including an interview with Dick Cavett and her first meetings with Kubrick), Carlos resorted to wearing fake sideburns and wigs, even after she had begun taking hormone therapy, and recounts how she wept following concerts at which she still presented herself as male.

After spending much of the 1970s still working under the name Walter, she announced her transition to the world in a 1979 interview with Playboy magazine, and The Shining was the first film on which she was credited as Wendy Carlos.

Tron (1982)
Tron (1982)

Though her focus continued to be in composing and recording her own work, and Moog arrangements of existing classical pieces, Wendy Carlos returned to cinema in 1982, with her soundtrack to the groundbreaking movie Tron.

It makes sense that for a film that would transform the way computers were used in generating visual effects, the filmmakers would call on someone who had changed the musical landscape, and Carlos didn’t disappoint. Futuristic, glacial and sumptuous (and often all at the same time), her score to Tron is one of the unsung heroes of electronic film music, a genre often overshadowed by Vangelis’s work on Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire,  or besmirched by the excesses of disco king Giorgio Moroder.

A re-release of the soundtrack album in 2014 went some way to challenge this, but Carlos’s decision not to work in film again means she has never quite received as much recognition as a film composer as she deserves. Maybe LGBT History Month is the perfect time to correct that.

(Note: I’ve tried without success to find a picture credit for the photo of Wendy Carlos used above. If you know who took the picture or for which publication, please let me know and we’ll credit it!)

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