From virtual orchestras and polymicrotonality to pioneering ambient music and switching on Bach, Wendy Carlos has created several musical worlds.
January 18, 2007—8:00 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
Wendy Carlos in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Transcribed and Edited by Dave Allen, Lyn Liston, Wendy Carlos, and Frank J. Oteri
Videotaped by Wendy Carlos
Video edited by Randy Nordschow
One of the highlights of my doing interviews with composers all these years has always been one of the earliest ones I ever did back when I was an undergraduate at Columbia University and hosting a radio program on WKCR-FM. To usher in 1985—the 300th Anniversary year for J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel, and Domenico Scarlatti—we ran a 300-hour marathon of their music with recordings, live performances, and conversations with some of the people who had done remarkable things with that music. (Don’tcha love truly non-commercial radio!) Always looking for a way to inject new music into anything, even back then, I plotted to do an interview with Wendy Carlos, whose Bach transcriptions for the Moog synthesizer brought electronic sounds into the mainstream—Switched-On Bach was even the first classical album to go platinum.
Much to my surprise, a few days after tracking down a phone number for her and getting up the courage to leave a message on her answering machine, Wendy called me back and agreed to be on the program. We spent a delightful New Year’s Eve together live on the radio doing our best not to stray too far away from Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti. She had a lot to say about them. But despite all of her erudition and expertise in music and electronics (or anything else that came up during those three hours), she was always completely down to earth and I felt that we had a great rapport with one another. Talking with her was a joy, and it has always remained a standard by which I have measured every public talk I have done with anyone ever since.
But despite how wonderful that radio broadcast was, it left me frustrated. I wanted to learn more about her other equally if not even more fascinating projects over the past four decades. First and foremost a composer of original music, Wendy’s own compositions encompass film soundtracks, a concerto for string quartet and orchestra written for Kronos, and an album of ambient music that came out a few years before Brian Eno started using the term. Wendy was also responsible for developing digital synthesis and virtual orchestras, helping to usher in the return to tonality among many contemporary composers, and pioneering a whole new approach to microtonality, which might best be described as “polymicrotonality.” It is amazing that she has managed to do so many things that have had such an impact on musical history, and yet she has always remained outside the musical establishment.
I’ve tried my best to stay in touch with Wendy Carlos, and to keep up with her work over the past two decades: maintaining correspondence, attending album release parties, etc. It turns out that we even have a few mutual friends. And ever since NewMusicBox got off the ground, I’ve wanted to feature Wendy on the site. Luckily, on the eve of NewMusicBox’s 8th anniversary on the internet, she finally agreed to meet with me and share her thoughts about music in a way that I can share with the readers of this site. As you’ll read, we had a lot of catching up to do. This has got to be one of the longest conversations I have ever had with anyone, and it is undoubtedly one of the longest we have ever presented on these pages. But don’t let the length scare you away. Wendy has a tremendous amount to say, and her insights are frequently impassioned. Wendy’s perspective is also chock full of humor and exudes lots of good ole common sense. It has taken months for us to transcribe and edit all of this, so don’t feel you need to absorb it all in one go. This talk will be accessible from our home page for the entire month and then be accessible in our archive thereafter. So feel free to wander through at your own pace and as often as you want to.
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