Where is Wendy Carlos?

Raymond Pettibon’s No Title (The indivisible point...), 2017.
Raymond Pettibon’s No Title (The indivisible point...), 2017.

What defines a legend? What constitutes the legendary? A figure well-known, yet shrouded in mystique, talked about more than seen; a history in which the circulation of tales overshadows the visibility of bodies. This is certainly the category of Wendy Carlos, whose name may be familiar to some, though few have met or spoken with her directly (particularly not in the past 15 or so years). Yet if her name is not familiar, her work almost certainly is. Her sounds exceed our access to her person, an arrangement that very well may be of her own design.

First and foremost a composer of original music, she is perhaps most well-known today for her work scoring films, including Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and A Clockwork Orange as well as the 1982 sci-fi classic Tron. But her first success came with Switched-On Bach in 1969, an album of Bach concertos performed on an analog synthesizer. The album won three Grammys, sold more than one million copies and was the first classical album to go platinum—a significant statement at the time that the synthesizer was a “real” instrument, and the beginning of a turn towards electronic music as a medium that could be used across all genres, rather than a single (experimental) style.

Indeed, few people have had such an influence on electronic music. Though often excluded from the official narrative, Carlos’s work with Bob Moog was highly influential to the creation of the eponymous innovation that was the Moog Synthesizer (the instrument Carlos uses on Switched-On Bach). It was Carlos who pushed for accessibility in the instrument’s design—in the form of a touch-sensitive keyboard, a user-friendly alternative to the knobs, wires and buttons featured in most synths of the time. Soon after, at the dawn of the 1970s, Carlos, along with her longtime collaborator Rachel Elkind, released Sonic Seasonings, an ambient record that predates Brian Eno’s use of the term “ambient” by several years. A decade later, she would release another pioneering work: Digital Moonscapes, an exploration of digital synthesis, MIDI and the possibilities of a digital orchestra. Yet Carlos did not see the realms of the digital and the “traditional” as ontologically distinct. Instead she presciently advised towards a hybrid of the two, something which has come to fruition in music today.

Ever groundbreaking, Carlos has remained devoted to education about electronic music alongside innovation. Her transparency about her own musical techniques demonstrated the collaborative instinct that ran through her work at the same time that it modeled her creative prowess. This is most evident in the album Secrets of Synthesis (1987), in which Carlos explains, with the charm of her Rhode Island accent, the possibilities of electronic music from orchestral sounds and choral tones to musique concrète, hybrid timbres and the alternative tunings she believed would represent “the future” of music.

Yet in the past decade or so, Carlos has gone underground. She became increasingly silent over the years, refusing interviews or even an acknowledgement of her whereabouts, but it was in 2009 that her website, once an active interface between Carlos and her fans, stopped updating (it still remains the most reliable source of information on her life and work and is worth a visit—it even features an Escher-style germinating tile pattern made out of the word “Wendy”). At the same time, her music has become increasingly difficult to find: digital copies are hard to come by even for purchase, and videos attempting to stream Carlos’s music on YouTube or elsewhere are quickly taken down. In fact, this is the one space where traces of Carlos’s activity can still be found: as recently as 2016, she was represented in a lawsuit against individuals who had used her music in their own YouTube videos, often for humorous ends.

Though her wishes for privacy today should certainly be respected, it is her disappearance from the public in tandem with the increasing inaccessibility of her music (especially as we have become much more of a streaming culture in the years since Carlos has dropped out of view) that raises questions not only about personal legacy but about how music should be cared for. Though often the question of the separation between an artist and their work hinges on the value of an artwork in light of its maker’s choices, Carlos offers a powerful counterpoint: are we allowed to go on appreciating an artwork despite the artist’s wishes to have it buried? Are we allowed to remember what the artist wishes forgotten? Can we even know what she wants anyway? To use one of Carlos’s favorite phrases: “Quo vadis,” or “Where do we go from here?”

Though the remnants Carlos has left offer competing and contradictory views on how she would want to be heard today, one of the last interviews she did offers insights into her own wishes of legacy. In 2007, speaking with fellow composer Frank Oteri, Carlos remarked on how technological breakthroughs in the present have allowed us to revisit artworks of the past with new esteem. She says, “we can at last treat them with diligence, introspection and respect. I hope music, my music, can be treated the same way.” And some have already taken up an effort to do just that. Erik DeLuca, a professor of electronic music at Brown University (where Carlos received her degree in physics and music) has created an archive of all of Carlos’s recorded work and organizes a listening community engagement project in Pawtucket, Rhode Island (where Carlos is originally from), to bring attention—a particularly guided, cared for attention—to Carlos’s works. Here, the appreciation of Carlos’s art is not hindered by her demands for privacy. As DeLuca says: “It is okay that Wendy Carlos is private and that she makes her music difficult to find; it makes her music more special.”

Though her last album, ominously titled Tales of Heaven and Hell, was released in 1998, Carlos—a prototypical polymath—has found other sites where her role as a pioneer and innovator could flourish over the years, most notably as an eclipse photographer whose images have been published by NASA as well as on the cover of Sky & Telescope, an amateur astronomy magazine. A self-proclaimed “coronaphile,” Carlos has journeyed throughout the world to capture images of various eclipses, and has even developed her own technique of composite photography which has garnered appreciation by fellow astronomers.

There is something recursive in Carlos’s fascination with the eclipse event and the desire that keeps us asking where Wendy Carlos is today. Both are attempts to capture the unknowable and illustrate the unseen, that which exceeds our perceptive abilities. We are left with a totality visible only in pieces, and perhaps this is how she always wanted it to be. In the closing remarks of Secrets of Synthesis, Carlos says, “there’s a story attributed to Sir Ernest Rutherford which I’m constantly reminded of. He used to say: ‘there are only two kinds of science: physics and butterfly collecting,’ thanks for allowing me to share a few of my favorite butterfly specimens with you.”

This is not the first time Carlos has disappeared from the public. In 1972, as A Clockwork Orange swept through the cultural zeitgeist, Carlos underwent gender reassignment surgery and immediately pulled away from public view to keep her transition secret. Her name at birth, Walter Carlos, had become familiar to the public through the success of her soundtrack work as well as Switched-On Bach, and perhaps in an effort to preserve the success under that name, her chosen name, Wendy, remained the name only those closest to her knew. However, in 1979, Playboy published an interview with Carlos that made her transition public and allowed for the album Switched-On Brandenburgs, released in the same year, to be the first record of hers to brandish the name Wendy Carlos. Though this was certainly a turning-point for Carlos, the interview was not necessarily the introduction into the public she had trusted Playboy with delivering. By today’s standards the interviewer’s questions are not only outrageous, but downright insulting. Carlos was given the task of educating the public about “transsexual” identity, including the details of her surgery, while at the same time an almost complete obfuscation of her central importance as a composer and musical innovator amounted to so many violations of trust (Carlos also claims on her site that she was manipulated into saying much of what is published in the interview) that it led her to almost never speak publicly about her transition again. Though she continued to release music in the years that followed, giving interviews here and there with those she trusted to maintain a focus on her music and not her identity, it is hard to keep from wondering if her more recent disappearance from the public is at all connected to the first.