Women’s History Month artist spotlight: Wendy Carlos

Wendy Carlos, and her cat Pandy, in front of her Wurly II synth setup. (Wendy Carlos)

Allison Harris

Co-developer of the first-ever commercially available synth keyboard and composer of the soundtracks for “The Shining,” “A Clockwork Orange” and the original “Tron,” Wendy Carlos remains one of the most influential pioneers of synth music of all time. Now 81, Carlos is a living legend of the music world. 

Wendy Carlos, a transgender woman, is proof of the irrefutable impact trans musicians have on music at large and electronic music specifically. Born in 1939, Carlos has had a career spanning music, engineering, sound design, photography and map making. 

As a child, Carlos showed talent in music and engineering, earning a science fair scholarship for building her own computer. She studied music and physics at Brown University and completed her M.A. for music composition at Columbia University. After graduating, she met and befriended Robert Moog, whom she helped to develop the Moog Synthesizer, the first commercially available synthesizer.  

Carlos used the Moog Synthesizer to create her 1968 debut album, “Switched-On Bach.” “Switched-On Bach” is a compilation of songs by Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach, all performed on a synthesizer. The album helped to popularize the use of the Moog and won three Grammy Awards, including “Best Classical Album,” “Best Classical Performance” and “Best Engineered Classical Recording.” 

Giorgio Moroder, the legendary music producer behind many of Donna Summer’s most iconic songs and a pioneer in European dance music, credits “Switched-On Bach” for introducing him to the synth. 

“I discovered the synthesizer when I listened to [Wendy] Carlos,” he said in a 2013 lecture with Red Bull Music Academy. “The beautiful album called ‘Switched-On Bach,’ which was a classical rendering of Bach’s music but only played on the synthesizer.”

“When ‘Switched-On Bach’ was released, it stimulated strong reactions,” Carlos said, relating her music to her transgender identity in a 1979 interview with Playboy magazine. “Those who were comfortable in all forms of music, those who were open to novel variations, loved it. Transsexuality, too, is an emotional, action-prone situation, in that it tends to polarize people, depending on the attitudes one brings to sexuality and human rights. In both cases, there’s no middle ground.” 

Carlos went on to release a number of other studio albums, and Stanley Kubrick invited her to compose the soundtrack to his 1972 film, “A Clockwork Orange.” Later on, Kubrick asked Carlos to also compose the score to his 1980 horror classic, “The Shining.” She also composed the score to Disney’s 1982 “Tron,” which incorporated her own synthesizer music, music from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the UCLA Chorus and the Royal Albert Hall Organ. 

In 2005, Carlos accepted the Life Achievement Award from the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (also called SEAMUS). 

“Wendy always seemed to be the first to grasp the musical potential of new electronic music gear and, at the same time, to accept responsibility for developing the discipline necessary to use the new instruments to produce music of the highest quality,” said Robert Moog, who honored Carlos at the event. 

Carlos’ website includes a collection of articles and resources about her, as well as photographs, drawings and academic papers she has published. While she remains unknown by many, she is an essential figure in music’s history and a highly influential artist.

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