Wendy Carlos – 20th Century Beethoven

(Written by Chris Hibberd)

Have you got anything by The Heaven Seventeen?

Wendy Carlos - 20th Century Beethoven

A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the American edition of the titular book by Antony Burgess is often cited as an important film in the development of cinema as a transgressive art form: viewed as violent for its times and explicit in its portrayal of a young urchin and his gang.

Though not banned in the UK, it was withdrawn at Kubrick’s request. Whilst respectful and understanding of its creator‘s request to remove it from public view – at the time of its release as it was linked to several instances of violence in the UK (this was the official reason given for his withdrawing the film though it emerged later he withdrew it due to death threats made against his family) – it also meant that Wendy Carlos’ arguably best/most important work often went unheard and unappreciated here in the UK. Besides this towering work, there is a lot more to Wendy, the person and the artist. Let’s start at the beginning…


Wendy Carlos was born on November 14th 1939 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  Taking her lead from her mother, she began piano lessons at the age of six and produced her first composition by ten. During her college and universities studies, she combined her music ability with her passion and expertise in computers and technology.

Switched-On Bach

Post education, she was instrumental in the development of the Moog synthesiser and did much to bring the instrument into the public awareness via the success of her 1968 album, Switched-On Bach.

Wendy Carlos 01The genesis of the album can be traced back to the fact that Columbia ran a sales promotion called Bach to Rock but didn’t have any material which encapsulated the idea or concept. (Mad Men ? Very Silly Men more like it !) Carlos with additional instrumentation from Benjamin Folkman and Rachel Elkind producing got to work. Due to limitations with the Moog

Carlos with additional instrumentation from Benjamin Folkman and Rachel Elkind producing got to work. Due to limitations with the Moog synthesiser which often went out of tune and only one note at a time could be recorded which made the birth of the album prolonged. It took an estimated 1,000 hours to produce.

10 pieces of Bach music, which were within the public domain, so licensing wasn’t required, were selected for the album. Whilst striving for perfection in the music she produced and released, she expected the same from her record label. The album was released in two different sleeves. The second sleeve being of a man dressed as Bach standing up and the first seated which she felt represented her interpretation of Bach and his music in an overly silly way. Whilst the music can be viewed as jolly or frivolous, Wendy was strong in her beliefs that it should be treated and presented in an appropriate way.

It reached number ten on the Billboard 200 chart stateside and was number one on the Classical charts for three years. It has sold over one million copies. She won three Grammy Awards for the album too. The Well-Tempered Synthesizer followed a year later and broke into the Billboard 200 chart also.

When Wendy met Stanley

An American by birth but a fear of flying had made him an honorary Brit by default, Kubrick was a perfectionist who was obsessive about music in his films and how it worked with the moving pictures he created. A Clockwork Orange is interesting in terms of how the music it uses in that some previous and all subsequent films he directed he tended to use used existing music in their existing classical/traditional arrangements. His perceived view being that a hired composer couldn’t trump what was available already.

Wendy Carlos 02Whilst the music in this film is a mixture of existing classical pieces and some new pieces it’s the interpretation and reimagining of these pieces which makes it fit so well with the visuals.

A near future dystopia, Kubrick visually imagined this to be a decaying, lawless one with the brutalist architecture of London from the 1960s having been left to ruin and the inhabitants of future London becoming little more than scavengers making do with what’s left. The source material is explicit in its referencing of Beethoven as the (anti)hero’s music of choice but Carlos’ interpretations via her electronic wizardry work brilliantly in evoking dread and suspense.

A Clockwork Orange

Whilst to those with some or limited knowledge of the film or its score, it would appear at a glance that the music within relates solely to Beethoven. This is a misunderstanding that whilst the film main pieces of music are either reinventions of his music or other music rendered in his style, we shouldn’t overlook Carlos’ own composition Timepieces and the usage of music by Rossini and Purcell.

Whilst the bombast of Beethoven gives the film a propulsive energy, the Rossini piece, The Thieving Magpie is more reflective, acting as a counterpoint to the films Sturm und Drang, giving the viewer a chance to breathe.  The abridged version of the William Tell Overture is impish and jolly and scores impeccably the scene where Alex entertains two young devotchkas he picks up at the record store and takes home. A mixture of traditional and electronic instrumentation including a prototype of the now ubiquitous vocoder was used for this recording.

Music not used in the film was released in 1972 as Wendy Carlos’ Clockwork Orange.

Walter to Wendy

She was able to use the funds generated by the success of her first two albums to complete her transition from male to female in the early 1970s.  She still released records as Walter Carlos rather than Wendy throughout the 1970s. She revealed that she had had gender reassignment surgery to the general public via an interview with Playboy magazine in its May 1979 issue.

Wendy Carlos 03A belated follow-up to Switched-On Bach due to demand from the public and Columbia/CBS records was released in 1973, Switched-On Bach II.

After Switched-On Bach II, she managed to balance her own creative desires with public feedback for more of the same. She worked on new compositions as well as interpretations of classical and popular music which were compiled as the 1975 album, By Request.

By Request

A mixture of classical pieces by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Wagner, Wendy’s own compositions and two pieces from the pop cannon, Eleanor Rigby and What’s New Pussycat. The final track in the US pressings was an interpretation of themes of Elgar. The Estate of Elgar took umbrage to its frothiness and the UK pressings have tracks from The Well-Tempered Synthesiser in place of it. In this instance, she fell afoul of how the music was perceived via those who were custodians of it in its original form.

At The Movies

She produced two full-length film scores after A Clockwork Orange – again, working with Kubrick on The Shining and Disney’s Tron. Only parts of her work for both projects were released at the time of the related film’s release (due to a mixture of contractual issues, The Shining and perceived non-commercial potential of the material, Tron) so it wasn’t until the 2000s that most of the music made for both film scores was commercially available via her own self-released compilations of unreleased material. Wendy continued recording and releasing new material throughout the 1980s and 1990s and releasing archival and previously non-released material in the 2000s.

Many Firsts

An innovator in terms of the music she produced, a hybrid between the old re-imagined as new, a key mover in electronic instrumentation, a catalyst in the wider popularity of electronic music, helped to imagine and interpret an alternative reading of the Beethoven canon and for being at the forefront of gender politics in a less tolerant time, we salute you Wendy Carlos with a glass of cold Moloko Plus.

Recommended Listening

  • Switched-On Bach (1968)
  • Wendy Carlos’ Clockwork Orange (1972)
  • By Request (1975)


2 thoughts on “Wendy Carlos – 20th Century Beethoven

  1. “What you’ve got back home, Little Sister, to play your fuzzy warbles on!” I love the score to A Clockwork Orange. I still find the song “Singin’ In The Rain” to be sinister sounding, though I’m sure it was meant to be just the opposite.


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