8 Dec 2018

Groundbreaking Moog masterpiece Switched On Bach celebrates 50 years

From Music 101, 3:00 pm on 8 December 2018

Ground-breaking electronic album Switched on Bach celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The 1968 album by composer by Wendy Carlos (released under her birth name Walter Carlos) seemed innocent enough at the time of its release, but it went on to have a seismic effect on music throughout the 1970s and beyond.

Switched on Bach album artwork

Switched on Bach album artwork Photo: Supplied

The album is a collection of pieces by German composer Bach, performed on Robert Moog’s prototype synthesizer. It brought electronic music into the mainstream and has influenced artists from Italian electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder to French electronic duo Daft Punk.

Switched On Bach won three gongs at the 1970 Grammys and by June 1974, it had sold over one million copies.

RNZ Music’s Trevor Reekie spoke to Mark Graham, a musician and lecturer in the Department of Creative and Performing Arts in Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland, who recently wrote a comprehensive piece for The Irish Times to mark the album’s 50th anniversary.

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

Mark, perhaps the opening question should be just who is Wendy Carlos, because, despite her considerable list of achievements and legacy, I think it's fair to say she remains something of an enigma. Can you tell us – who Wendy Carlos?

Yeah, the album that she released in 1968 is probably better known than she is. At the time of recording, Wendy Carlos was six months into transgender hormone therapy. When the album actually hit shelves, Walter Carlos was responsible for it. It was a few years after that that Walter Carlos went through transgender surgery and became Wendy Carlos. It wasn't until several years after that that Wendy Carlos came out in an interview with Playboy magazine and revealed herself to the world as Wendy Carlos.

In the meantime, she'd worked with Stanley Kubrick – probably most notably, and composed the soundtrack for the film A Clockwork Orange and also for The Shining. So even that work you would think would have brought her attention – if you're interested in popular culture, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining are still massive films in terms of that, and Tron is another film that she composed the score for.

So her name isn't, probably, as well-known as it should be, but Switched on Bach was a huge milestone in terms of electronic music, and in terms of popular music in general I think. That album, in 1968, was the first of the electronic albums to cross over into the mainstream. That went platinum in the US. It was #1 in the Classical charts for three years, and it reached #10 in the Popular Music charts so it had a massive impact.

I think one of the things that displays the impact it had is Italian music producer, Giorgio Moroder’s production work on Donna Summer's 1977 hit ‘I Feel Love’. That track and the way that Moroder used a Moog modular synthesizer is meant to be what gave birth to electronic dance music as we know it, and he has said more than once that what brought him to the synthesizer was Switched on Bach by Wendy Carlos. All the instruments on that track were recorded on Moog modular synthesizers the same way that Wendy Carlos recorded Switched on Bach.

Meeting Robert Moog, the electronic genius responsible for the Moog synthesizer, Wendy described their relationship as a ‘perfect fit’, saying, “He was a creative engineer who spoke music. I was a musician who spoke science.” Did your research delve into how these two people met and how their relationship blossomed?

Their meeting, I think, is massive. It's one of those occasions where in thinking about it, I'm not sure we would be talking about either of them if they hadn't met each other. They were hugely influential on each other when they came together. I think it's fair to say that without Wendy Carlos, the Moog synthesizer wouldn't have become as popular as it is or wouldn't have made its way into pop music and into the new romantic bands like Depeche Mode who started using synthesizers in the 1980s and became kind of the dominant force in the charts in and around that period.

It was that album, Switched on Bach, that brought the synthesizer to people's attention and let people know it could be used to create music. Up to this point, you'd find synthesizers most often in universities and in laboratories for experimenting with sound. There were composers using them, but it was mostly serious composers who were creating experimental music. It wasn't being used to create tonal and rhythmic music up to that point, and especially not music that crossed over into popular music charts.

It was Wendy Carlos that did that for the synthesizer, and in particular did it for Bob Moog and his synthesizers and the instruments that he was making. But on the flip side of that, if Bob Moog hadn't been making these synthesizers and Wendy Carlos' professor at Columbia University hadn't told her to go and seek out Moog and to have a look at the instruments he was making, we wouldn't be talking about Wendy Carlos either because she wouldn't have recorded that album.

I think there was a mutually beneficial relationship between the two of them. It's really nice to read about it now because here was a musician who played an instrument that was really cutting edge at the time, and she couldn't afford to buy her first instrument because Bob Moog would only build a handful of them every year – they were all hand built beautifully finished with polished walnut wood casing. Massive instruments and incredibly expensive. Walter Sear – the guy that used to sell them in the States, said that you could buy a house and a car for what they cost at that time. They were really expensive, so not a lot of musicians were playing them.

Wendy Carlos at the time couldn't afford to buy one because she was a student when she met Bob Moog. They kind of set up a relationship where she was a really prolific musician who could not just play the instrument but could also play the keys, also play the filters, and play the envelopes to get expression from the instrument.

Sometimes it's overlooked that they were kind of basic electronic instruments. We take it for granted now that when you switch on a keyboard or a synthesizer, it's going to be in tune and when you press the button it's gonna make the sound that the button says it will, but that's not how these instruments worked. They went out of tune quite a lot and they had no expression pedals. When Wendy Carlos started playing it first, it didn't have any touch sensitivity. So no matter how hard you pressed the key, it was the same loudness all the time, the loudness didn't change. So there was no real expression or dynamic to the instrument.

A synthesizer like that is like learning any instrument, but if you handed somebody a saxophone and said, "Now play something on that with dynamic and expression," it would take years to figure out how to do that. The Moog synthesizer was the same, but Carlos built up that expertise and she was able to showcase what the instrument was capable of. Bob couldn't play it himself. He knew what it could do, but here was somebody who could really play it. So she could showcase the instrument for him, and recorded pieces of music. She also advised him on things that he could introduce to the instrument that would make it more attractive to musicians. It was kind of barter system where he gave her a cut-price Moog synthesizer and by god was that a good investment on his behalf because he got paid back multiple times over on that.

So, what I was talking about initially was the relationship they had that when she got her first instrument, it was delivered to her apartment in the back of Bob Moog's car. If you or me went out and bought a Gibson Les Paul or a Fender, it'd be like the person who made that guitar coming and bringing it to your house.

It's a wonderful relationship for the musician and the engineer to have. There was a really nice documentary about Bob Moog, and it's something he talked about in that. The idea of what he wanted to create ... He was a hippie at heart, right? He was an engineer, but he was a hippie at heart and a lovely man. Very mild mannered man. He talked about there being something in the instrument that tapped into the mind of the musician. That the musician could relate to how the sounds were made and then by feeling that, there was kind of an intuition about how you would make the sounds on the keyboard just like any instrument.

You know when you see somebody who can really play an instrument, right? It's just like the instrument is part of them, part of their body. That the movement and the fluidity of them playing the instrument just seems to come naturally. That's what Bob Moog invented. He invented an electronic instrument ... one of the very few electronic instruments where a musician could do that, could have that fluidity and expression.

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

You're right about Bob Moog. He was a beautiful man, but he was also, like Wendy, a bit of an isolated soul himself. As a child, he spent a lot of time just building electronics when other kids were out playing. I believe one of Moog's first instruments was a theremin kit which actually financed both his education and later his company, Moog Music. Do you know much about that fledgeling enterprise?

Yeah, I do because it's an instrument I love myself. I think it's easy to see how that instrument would capture the imagination. It was around 1917 that Leon Theremin, who was an electronics engineer himself in Russia, was tinkering with radio components and noticed that there had been an electronic field set up around a certain set of components. It was a magnetic field. Humans are conductors, so when he put his hand through it, it changed the flow of electricity through the circuit and manifested itself as a sound.

What he did was, he invented an instrument that took advantage of that. I don't know of any other instrument that you can play without touching it. If people aren't familiar with it, the theremin, it has two aerials. One is vertical and the other is horizontal. The vertical aerial controls pitch and the horizontal aerial controls how loud the sound is. When you move your hand closer to the vertical aerial, the pitch increases, and when you move your hand away, the pitch decreases.

It still to this day looks like a magical instrument because what you have is somebody waving, not actually touching the instrument, but moving their hands close to it, and waving their hands, and moving their fingers slightly. That produces the sound. It's kind of a ... It's definitely an other-worldly sound. At the time it was invented, it caught people's imagination, watching somebody playing something and creating this really eerie sound, but without touching the thing, so it was absolutely magical. It could have only been even more magical to see this in the early part of the 20th century when people weren't familiar with electronic instruments.

As you mentioned before, Moog delivered a prototype synthesizer to Wendy in the back of a station wagon, and they started this relationship, which was a cashless transaction. How did that lead to the recording of Switched on Bach? Because I'd have to say that Columbia Records actually showed considerable initiative courage and foresight to take on this ground-breaking album. Do you know much about that side of the enterprise?

Well, I think that as much as the name Wendy Carlos may not be well known, just as much credit should be given to the producer of the album who was another pioneer, Rachel Elkind. She was working in Columbia Records when very, very few women were working in the recorded music industry in and around that time, the mid to late 1960s.

She heard one of the pieces that Wendy Carlos had recorded to showcase the instrument. It was one of the Bach pieces. She kind of cottoned onto it before anybody else. She thought, "Well hey, we could make a whole album of this because this is quite engaging, and this is new, and if we put an album of this together I think that people will buy it and people will listen to it." That showed incredible foresight on her behalf. Even when it was released, Columbia Records didn't realize what they had because it was released in conjunction with two other albums.

So it was kind of an also-ran. You know, it didn't have its own release. They didn't think it was worth its own release, but little did they know how massive it would go on to be. It's difficult to appreciate now, but that was the first classical album to sell more than 1 million copies in the United States of America. That is a huge amount of sales for any album, be it a pop album or a classical album. To stay at #1 in the Classical charts for three years ... They sold a lot of albums. It made a lot of money for Columbia Records. That was down to the vision of Rachel Elkind.

And not just her vision, but the work that she put in it. That the instrument was primitive. In order to get the layers of sounds and to get the expression of sounds, they had to track numerous different takes, and they had to tune the synthesizer for each take. It was a huge undertaking not just in playing it, but in the technicalities of actually recording it, and mixing it, and putting it together. Even listening to it now, the stereo mix and the way the sounds are layered, it still stands up, you know?

As you mentioned, the Switched on Bach became an all-time best selling classical record – 49 weeks in the charts. Do you know how the album managed to gain sufficient traction to break through? because there would've been negativity from some classical purists. How did it actually break through to a new demographic?

I'm just surmising here. I don't have evidence to back this up, but it ... Novelty was one of the factors.

When you put yourself in this time in 1968, this is a sound that hadn't been heard before. Nobody had heard music played like this before on an electronic instrument. People who didn't even like classical music were buying this album, hence the crossover into the Popular Music charts.

I'd have to think that it was novelty that helped do that. That it was a sound that had never been heard before, and you can imagine that even now, when we listen to radio, that we are used to hearing so many repetitive sounds.

That was the case at that time period. Popular music and classical music, you could almost tell what it was going to sound like, but then when you heard this you go, "What is that? I have never heard anything like that before." So it got people's attention.

But as well as getting people's attention, the quality of the musicianship and the quality of the production is what didn't just make it stand out as a novelty, but made people go and buy it, and made people want to listen to it repeatedly, so although it had novelty value to initially catch attention, it was the quality that helped it gain more traction once it had grabbed people's attention a little bit.

I guess also that after Switched on Bach's release, it was played at Carnegie Hall on a couple of occasions, and it received glowing reviews from the likes of really credible people like Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould who praised the album and the performances. Later on, they had another performance at the New York Museum of Modern Art where more than 4,000 people turned up. Those must have been defining moments in helping to promote this album as well, I would imagine.

Absolutely. And when you talk about what happened at the Museum of Modern Art, that's newsworthy. When you have this in the news as well ... when there's something that's new and something that's newsworthy, people want to cover it and want to talk about it. This, as well as being new and newsworthy ... it caused quite a lot of controversy. On television and on radio, something that is controversial, they'll want to talk about, because it's going to have interest whether people like it or hate it. It's gonna get people animated, and people are gonna talk about it. The fact that some music purists hated it probably helped it as well because that's part of what was making people talk about it.

But Glenn Gould said of it that Carlos's realization of the 4th Brandenburg Concerto is the finest performance of any of the Brandenburgs he had ever heard on any instrument. That's high praise indeed for a pianist of his calibre. Bernstein and Stukowski used the synthesizer in pieces that they arranged themselves afterwards. In hearing what was possible, all these different people started to think, "Hang on. Here's an instrument we can actually use in our own music," and another example of that was The Rolling Stones bought one.

And quickly after that sold it on because they couldn't play it and sold it to the German band, Tangerine Dream. So that Moog synthesizer turned up on that album, and it wasn't just the album. It popularized the instrument as well as the album. It did turn up in a lot of interesting places and got a lot of coverage. Carnegie Hall was one of them, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York was another.

As you mentioned before, Wendy Carlos publicly announced her gender reassignment in a 1979 Playboy magazine. She actually said, "I don't know what effect this is going to have." Do you think that the publicity surrounding her gender radically changed how her work was perceived and also added to the discussion? Would that be another point as well?

Yeah, I certainly do, and I've read papers by people who know more about this than I do. They think that it had an influence as well. I know that in reading what Wendy Carlos has written, she didn't like that idea. Especially as her career progressed that that's what people tended to focus on rather than her work. As a result ... She became more and more reclusive. Her website hasn't been updated in several years now, which is a pity. She has a wonderful website. It's very down to earth. WendyCarlos.com, it has photographs with her with her cats. It talks about, very honestly, what she thinks about interviews and pieces that focused on her gender rather than her work, and it's not something she likes. She did want her work focused on more than anything else.

I would think that it had an effect because if you read something like Vice.com and you see her work covered on that, Vice aren't covering her work because of the merits of her work. Vice are covering her work because of that other side of her story and because of her gender and that element of it. You can argue that, well, Vice wouldn't be talking about it otherwise, but on the flip side of that, is that it had to have had an effect on her work.

When you put this, again, in context, we talked about the context of the sound of the work in 1968. When you talk about transgender people who were trying to live in America in 1968 – if you were transgender it was believed at that time that that could be cured by aversion therapy. That's the period that we were in America. Not a pleasant time to be transgender and in that country.

You can only imagine how people who controlled that industry viewed her work and viewed her when she came out and gave that interview in 1979 in Playboy magazine. She said herself, "I don't know what effect this is going to have," and I think that was kind of prophetic that she talked about what effect her transgender surgery would have. I think she had an inkling of what effect it would have.

Part of Wendy's legacy is that along with Robert Moog, Switched on Bach launched the synthesizer revolution. How would you assess Wendy's legacy with Switched on Bach and the influence she had on electronica. Does she get the rightful amount of credit she's due?

No, she doesn't. Not at all. Not at all. One of the things that I was wondering, in the album’s 50th year, would this have happened? Would synthesizers have found their way into popular music anyway is a question I was asking myself. The answer to that is probably yes. But the person who was responsible for synthesizers in popular music and classical music is Wendy Carlos. The person who's not just responsible for synthesizers in music, the person who's partially responsible for how they were designed, and how they were created, and what they did when you played them is also Wendy Carlos because Bob invented them, and Bob made them, but he listened to Wendy Carlos. He listened to what other musicians had to say about the synthesizers that he was inventing and how they'd make them more playable.

It's not just when we hear a synthesizer that we can say, "Well, you know, that's part of Wendy Carlos's legacy." The actual, physical thing itself is part of her legacy as well, but that was how she partnered with Bob Moog so in answer to your question: her influence on it is absolutely massive. I think it's fair to say that no other person had as much influence on electronics in popular music as Wendy Carlos did.