When Wendy Carlos was 6, she started piano lessons. Her family didn’t have much money in her early childhood, so her father drew a keyboard on a piece of paper for Carlos to practice on. There were times when her mother or father sought to “motivate” her to practice by hitting her over the knuckles with a ruler.
Despite that harsh formative experience, Carlos nevertheless fell in love with composing music and building her own instruments with whatever materials she could afford. Those pursuits were often a refuge for her, particularly in her earlier years. “This anxious, bullied teenager, working alone for hours and hours in her parents’ Rhode Island basement laboratory, was independently developing many machines that would become the leading commercial audio trends during the 1960s,” writes Amanda Sewell, music director of Interlochen Public Radio. Sewell’s book, “Wendy Carlos: A Biography,” chronicles the life of Carlos, a recording engineer, inventor and pioneer of electronic music whose first full-length album, the Grammy-winning “Switched-On Bach,” ignited a musical revolution in 1968.
The album, on which she collaborated with producer Rachel Elkind, rendered the well-known classical sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach on the Moog modular synthesizer, then a perceivably weird, largely unknown analog electronic instrument. The biography captures the freshness and ingenuity of the project. “Listening to ‘Switched-On Bach’ creates a sort of auditory paradox,” Sewell observes. “How can something be so mechanical and so human at the same time?” She also reveals the producer’s excitement in working on the album. “For Elkind, these electronic versions of Bach’s music that Carlos rendered on the Moog offered dynamic contrast, clarity, and nuance for listeners that she wasn’t hearing in recorded acoustic performances at the time.”
Sewell worked against the realities of an unresponsive and historically reclusive subject. Carlos, now 81 and living in New York, declined repeated requests for interviews for the book, the first full-length biography dedicated to her life. The author nevertheless sheds much light on what drew Carlos to the then-painstaking task of generating electronic tones and splicing magnetic tape; her collaboration with the Moog’s inventor, Robert Moog, on greatly enhancing the instrument; and her rise at the vanguard of revelatory ambient sounds. Through exhaustive archival research, Sewell meticulously captures Carlos’s career, including delving into her albums; her writing for orchestras; and her movie soundtrack work for famed director Stanley Kubrick, on “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining,” and for Disney’s “Tron.”
Along with the ascension and ebbing of Carlos’s career, Sewell conveys the more intimate aspects of the composer’s life. Carlos, who “was assigned the male sex at birth [in 1939] and given the name Walter,” was one of the first public figures to disclose having undergone sex reassignment surgery. Sewell shares such details without allowing them to overwhelm the multidimensional, complicated truths of her subject. As Sewell notes throughout the book, Carlos feared that her sonic accomplishments would be overshadowed by her honesty about her transition. Those fears were indeed often realized — for example, when the composer entrusted journalists to convey in print what she hoped would be a balanced perspective of who she was in everyday life.
Sewell takes great care to place Carlos’s story within the context of the historically persistent and damaging academic and scientific theories regarding transgender people, as well as to cite some of the clinicians who offered advancement through research and lifesaving medical care. She chronicles the perceptions and treatment of transgender people by the general public — and the threats of physical violence and harassment Carlos had to consider in her life and career.
As the world clamored, for example, to learn more about the composer behind “Switched-On Bach,” whom they knew initially from the album’s credits as Walter Carlos, Sewell asks, “What happens when you’re the artist behind the most popular classical album in the history of recorded music but you can’t appear in public without fear of being the object of ridicule or the victim of physical violence?” Just as the record was exploding in the public sphere in 1968, Sewell says, “Carlos socially transitioned to female.” There were copious requests for interviews with Walter Carlos, but he was fading from existence. As Sewell sums up rather poignantly, “Carlos was trapped: Her album was more successful than she ever could have imagined and she wasn’t able to promote it because of her gender and the risk it posed for her to disclose who she was.” She went into hiding for another decade because of that fear.
The biography points out that while the public may have found Carlos’s gender reassignment to be the most interesting thing about her, “she thought it was the least important aspect of her story.” Sewell documents Carlos’s long-held contention that she was underappreciated for much of her career and did not get the recognition she deserved. That tension between how she wanted to be perceived and how she thought others depicted her life and work intensified over the years, with Carlos dedicating more and more energy to preserving, protecting and defending her legacy.
Sewell devotes much space to how this took shape in the form of filing lawsuits against people whom Carlos thought had harmed her, or taking them to task in letters to the editor or on her own website in lengthy screeds. This latter part of the book becomes somewhat granular in this regard; die-hard fans, if not general lovers of electronic music and its history, may find the anecdotes compelling.
Overall, however, “Wendy Carlos: A Biography” is an important account that helps us understand the legacy of an underexposed trailblazing composer. It also offers readers much in the way of how transgender people have historically been treated and represented, including at the hands of the tastemakers in popular culture.
By Amanda Sewell
248 pp. $34.95