Wendy's World

Wendy’s World

From virtual orchestras and polymicrotonality to pioneering ambient music and switching on Bach, Wendy Carlos has created several musical worlds.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Part 8: The Meaning of Music

Frank J. Oteri: This takes us to Heaven and Hell. In your notes you talked about creating scary music.

Wendy Carlos: It was meant as melodrama, a sort of film score type of music without a specific film. It was having my cake and eating it, too. So I didn’t have to worry about a director changing edits on me at the last minute: “We’re gonna switch to this other scene, cut out X, and insert Y.” But that ruins the music! You do it, of course, you try to adapt. In this case, I could use some of the gestures that can make film music a lot of fun to write and to hear, and included quite a few edgy, scary things, too, without having to worry about other restrictions, or having to collaborate. I do love some of film’s interplay—and I enjoy collaborating—but there’s something to be said for a solo effort, too. Why not?

FJO: Part of what’s scary about this music is the unfamiliar intervals.

WC: Yes, some of it’s that, but there are also some creepy sounds. There are several timbres that are almost like nails on a blackboard.

FJO: I wasn’t scared by it.

WC: No, of course not! You’re also very familiar with the genre and its methods. I think that the scary part is the same reason people go to horror movies. You’re not really scared, but you know the programming and you know what it felt like when you were a kid, so you emote accordingly. You savor the creepiness, if not to react with: “Ooh, I’ve got to run away; I can’t listen to this.” Ah, perhaps I’m talking through my hat. But I do think there’s something there that’s in human nature. You can enjoy hearing things that are a little bit weird and uneasy. “Mommy, mommy, tell me that story again about the monkey’s paw, where the son returns home after he’s dead.” It’s that kind of a thing, like a good ghost story.

FJO: You know what I thought was scary the first time I heard it? “Winter” from Sonic Seasonings.

WC: It’s kind of barren and desolate.

FJO: It conjures up a really cold day, which can be really scary. But that strikes me as something somewhat different from macabre horror. Walking down the street tonight, I’ve been noticing all these ads for some awful horror film. And they made me think to myself when I kept seeing them: “Why do we want our society to partake in this? What is it in a society that wants to experience this?” There’s a particularly nasty poster for a movie with a bunch of skulls and a caption underneath it says it’s about the worst serial killer of all time. Why would anyone want to go see that? What possible appeal can there be in watching someone kill tons of people?

WC: I suppose that some of our human nature has a need to let off steam. As a civilization, we have to be somewhat inhibited. Without those inhibitions, we’d wreak havoc upon each other. There have to be laws, police, all that. One understands all that sort of passively. Obviously we all would like to really be free, but it’s hard to know how to be free. It’s also easier to talk about being free than actually going out and try to do something constructive that’s ad hoc brand new. I can ask you as a composer to go out now and write something that’s completely different. Ha, I dare you! That’s gonna be pretty challenging. You’re going to have to think past all the things you have ever done, if you really want to be different, because inadvertently you’d probably lapse into a few of them.

Freedom is the same way. Echoes and ghosts of frustrations from the past linger within us. So now and then we feel the need to exorcise these gremlins which we’ve repressed. Some people may go out and watch big tough guys batter each other on the football field and feel a release. It’s not my cup of tea, but you can see where that could serve such a function. Perhaps it helps to watch a competition and root for your side to win. Seeing a horror movie can serve a similar cathartic function, I suspect. A popular if corny kind of movie when I was growing up was the kind that scares the bejeebus out of you, then supplies a happy ending in which good people are saved, and you’ve vanquished an enemy or a monster. Then in the ’60s they gradually shifted to films where there wasn’t such a happy ending, but it was still cathartic. In the ’70s and ’80s a happy ending might invert the old “moral” conventions and be a bank-robbery film in which the crooks got away with the money. So that would be a different twist. There’s a cultural aspect to all of these which seems to fill a human need, don’t you think?

FJO: But, to bring this back to music, we’re saying music is scary or happy or sad; isn’t music ultimately abstract?

WC: True, but it can contain those elements as well. As long as music has a pulse, it contains a physical side. Loud rhythmic music can excite you, your pulse, raise your adrenalin level. If you attached a polygraph to your body, you’d see the measurements rising, your eyes might dilate, pulse accelerate, your respiratory system would react, and so on. Physiological changes can be triggered by certain melodic gestures, contrasts, and sequences, but even more so by combinations of sounds and certain decibel levels. So it’s not just abstract; there’s a physical side, like it or not. If you’re too intellectual and you don’t want to respond to that side of the physicality of music at all, then you have to approach it as a dry aural and mental exercise. But I like music that has something visceral to it and believe most of us do, too.

FJO: So this brings us back to the audience. What do you want the audience to get from your music?

WC: I want people to respond. Don’t just sit there passively. Listen, feel. Hopefully respond sufficiently to take something away with you, maybe you’ll even want to re-experience that response again. That’s sufficient. A few might like the main melody and find themselves humming it. That’s good news, but it’s not the only element. “Music is a singing, dancing thing,” is a remark a composer I knew used to tell me. So let’s add dance, the rhythmic element. We’ve already noted the singing element, as most of us have something within us that enjoys expressing ourselves: we sing and hum.

And an essential part of music is to connect with our shared inner feelings, to recognize the connections and know that you’re not alone. We’re born alone; we die alone. In between we have music, and a great gift it is, too. It’s in there with our social structures: families and friends and loved ones, a shared humanity. I like to think of it as the old metaphor of two ships at sea. We flash our signal lights as we pass one another. It makes life less lonely. It’s wired into us. If music were taken away from us, I do believe we would invent it again. In a few generations, we would develop it all over again.

FJO: But isn’t part of the social connection of music lost when music is created in the studio and is disseminated through recordings?

WC: But who cares? As long as it exists and is heard. I would like to produce more musical events on stage. We had that chance when we assembled the Bach at the Beacon concert several years ago, for Ettore Stratta. A lot of the job was homework: arranging and printing out scores, figuring out the orchestrations, creating synth libraries, practicing, rehearsing—all of that had to be done. For this concert we spent quite some effort on the sounds, trying to capture the flavor of my early Moog albums and Switched-On Bach 2000, also performing with the same intonations that Bach would have used. We went the whole nine yards. And it did capture some of the original magic, but in a live event, not studio music. Alas, being live, it was gone after it was over, although a friend of ours snuck a hidden recorder in, so we’ve got some audio tracks, and you can hear that our ensemble of eight synths did pretty well that night. Credit my musical friends (alphabetically): Gloria Cheng, Clare Cooper, Matthew Davidson, Larry Fast, Chris Martirano, Mayumi Reinhard, and Jordan Rudess. A wonderful team!

FJO: And you did get to commune with an audience that night and watch their reactions to your music.

WC: It was fun. I loved it.

FJO: This brings us back to what’s happening now with people listening to music on iPods with headphones walking down the street.

WC: You’re right, it’s all solitary again.

FJO: And that’s one of the things that disturbs me about it.

WC: But don’t society’s patterns oscillate back in forth like a pendulum? There was very extroverted music in the ’70s and ’80s, and for past dozen or more years we’ve been stuck back to introverted again, playing it safe and “keeping it simple, stupid.” I hope it cycles around again. Particularly in the commercial forms of music, I’d love to see audiences get fed up with the old clichés, the boring formulae. Throw them out, people! There’s so much more that we could do. Stylistically we haven’t moved very far in the last forty years, well, thirty anyway. Nutz.

FJO: But we’re at a crossroad right now. Attention spans are shorter than ever, and music education is almost non-existent for most people.

WC: That’s the tragedy of our time. With the media as powerful as they are, they’re used for less and less actual content. There’s an apt saying, the law of strawberry jam: “The wider a culture is spread, the thinner it gets.” That’s us, alright, spread super wide and super thin. It’s such an empty-minded use of all the media. Let me show my years and think back on ’50s television, how innovative and exciting some of early programming was. Some of those classics have become available on DVD collections. The early TV days shouted innovation. It was a new medium that covered only a few densely populated areas at that time. They didn’t worry about filling each hour with the maximum number of commercials, while making sure people would stay tuned to your station. Most cities had only one station anyway, so the producers felt freer to be experimental, not pander to the lowest common denominator. Television soon became a wasteland, most of it, driven by ratings. We all realize that; it’s the big cliché of our time. It’s hard to think of carrying programs today like Sid Caesar, Edward R. Murrow, Robert Montgomery. It would be inconceivable for such fare to attract a sufficiently mass audience today.

FJO: At least not a wide audience. Everything is so fragmented now: the media with its thousand cable channels, as well as the internet. We’ve got all these resources now, so we actually could access almost anything with them. Everyone talks about the death of the mainstream. It’s great that there’s no longer a mainstream, because when there was a mainstream it was utter banality. In its place are these tiny, little pockets. The people over there who like gangsta rap, the people further down who like some subgenre of heavy metal, and then the people over here who are into 53-tone Just Intonation. Okay, cool, let’s go hang out in their room. But it’s all these rooms and sometimes it feels like nobody’s really talking to anyone outside of their room.

WC: Except for the commercial people who are essentially selling the same three songs over and over and over again, and unfortunately programming the newer generations to lose their curiosity and to be easily satisfied. I find it a great tragedy that the drum machine has replaced real drummers, become so omnipresent to many listeners that they accept the notion of a completely rigid, fascist beat—something that’s like hearing a pile driver or factory equipment. Someone recently closed his jazz club in Berlin after being successful for a lot of years, but he said he’s leaving it now because the current jazz/pop music doesn’t swing. And it doesn’t: quantized rhythm is rigid and mechanical. We’ve become robots, and it’s tragic. Maybe we’re heading into cultural upheaval, a paradigm shift that’s revolutionary. Maybe the lifespans of these claustrophobic strands have been spent and now we face a new revolution. A beneficent revolution that adds more than it takes away. I hate to dwell on big topics like this because I’m but one artist, and most artists have to remain detached and focused on what they create, at least while doing it. Composing can be a bit insular.

Talk about your iPod community, it’s what creating is about, even when you work with other artists. You’re basically all sharing one small project together, for the duration. You tune out the rest of the world. So I have no bird’s-eye view. You need to be like an eagle to fly up high like that. I don’t know. I can tell you about only what I see. I’m looking at the forest, but my eyes are really seeing only trees. Take everything I’ve said with a grain of salt.

Being put in the position of talking about my art and music makes me sound solipsistic: talking about me, me, me, and I’m uncomfortable in that position. It’s kind of arrogant when you can study the world’s great masterpieces, music, and art. Anyone can head into a library or store or go online, order from places like Amazon, to learn all of the best of any field. And when you truly grasp it, it’s overwhelming, rather intimidating. I’m just chipping away here, tinkering about. Sometimes maybe we hit the mark, but more often, well that one didn’t work. You just continue moving on. It’s part of the experience of being alive. I hope each new curiosity and adventure will lead to interesting results, but I don’t know it will. Your thoughtful, generous questions, taking the time to speak with me this evening, make it sound like there’s much more importance and significance than there really is.

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