Wendy Carlos: A Biography
Oxford University Press
Wendy Carlos is one of the great pioneers of electronic music, champion of the Moog, creator of mesmerising soundtracks (A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, TRON) and as well as recontextualising classical music to make one of the genre’s all-time best sellers, it is likely she also created ambient music ahead of the genre being named and marketed.
So you would think she’d make a perfect subject for a biography.
But Carlos is notoriously media-shy, having been media-burned. She is not interested in being interviewed and is in control of the delivery of her music, removing it from all digital platforms and issuing legal writs to YouTube uploaders. So this is the first attempt at shining some light on her life and work. It is a critical biography that has been built from the parts of previous interviews and leftovers. Carlos not only declined any of the offers to speak on the record for this book she has issued a statement declaring it a work of fiction – doing so on her quaint 1990s website.
Sewell, a musicologist, does her best to map out the major musical moments and to sketch the biography as best as possible – focussing more on the music and always aiming to be respectful around the gender discussion; mentioning that Carlos’ genre-busting debut album, 1968’s Switched-On Bach was of course credited to a “Walter Carlos”, despite the creator of the album living as a woman by the time of the album’s release. Wendy’s story sees her as a pioneer of not only electronic music but of transitioning – she hid her real self around the release of the album, even telling a story that she was Walter’s sister and that Walter had shown her some of the music and she would be doing the publicity. From there she fully transitions, she has what was then referred to most simply as a sex-change operation and was a requirement for legally changing gender, future versions of the album are credited to her as Wendy, via a time when there was no name at all on the cover.
Turning up for interviews about her music and being asked almost exclusively about her gender was the reason Wendy Carlos retreated from the press and the public eye. At least that’s the story we’re given here and it seems reasonable – reasonable to understand that being the reason. It’s a cruel, protracted punishment that one of the 20th Century’s great musical genius composers, arrangers and players was reduced to the headline or footnote of her gender, and of there being some confusion around that, given it was the 1970s.
I found Sewell navigated this with respect – and championed Carlos as a pioneer, and not just a musical pioneer.
But you won’t find huge details of collaborations with Stanley Kubrick here, Sewell has to go on what’s already been written. She has to talk about the music and can only hint at some of the difficult musical relationships. She doesn’t apportion blame – merely suggests that Carlos would have her reasons for perhaps appearing difficult or prickly or simply withdrawing from communication and collaboration. Which, in the end, is what she did. No new music in many years, no way of buying and hearing most of the amazing music from the 1970s, 80s and 90s – unless you still have the copies you bought the first time, or are able to find copies someone else has done away with (in many cases now they are not cheap at all).
So an intriguing and brilliant musician remains somewhat under wraps. Which is how she wants it – and her biography here at the very least understands that.
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