Part 9: Taking It into the Present
Frank J. Oteri: Well, we’ve talked about three things that you did which had a major impact on the history of music and a fourth thing—microtonality—that I wish had more of an impact than it’s had so far.
Wendy Carlos: That didn’t have much impact. You’re right, it should have. Oh, well.
FJO: But it probably will, at some point. And certainly there are lots of other people who’ve explored microtonality. But I think what’s wonderful about what you’ve done with it is that you’ve forged a path that is not dogmatic. You’ve shown that you can get interesting music from mining all different approaches to tuning.
WC: You obviously know Johnny Reinhard. I’ve known Johnny for over twenty years. Johnny is very open and democratic, very egalitarian. I’m also an omnivore. One may temporarily try to be insulated while in the middle of an intense creative project, but basically since we live in a society which is surrounded by everything, how could you not be an omnivore? How could you not eventually sample a little of all kinds of foods, music, dance, culture, art, and the rest? It’s all out there, and human nature starts out being very, very curious. Please, don’t be afraid. You don’t have to like all of it. There will be novel experiences which will surprise you favorably. It’s the best way to expand our world view, not sit in a worn-out, safe rut. Artists particularly need to explore new horizons. Composers will grow creatively by investigating novel styles, rhythmic patterns, and what you bring up, different scales and tunings.
It’s gotten much easier to discover ideas that are new to us. I may live in a loft in lower Manhattan, but I don’t go out all that much. Yet through the web, magazines, books, and the media it’s not hard to stay informed. You can be anywhere in the world right now and still learn about pretty much everywhere else in the world. Sorry to lecture like this, but as adults we can too easily forget to remain curious. And that may explain why so far topics like different tuning approaches remains largely ignored, by public and both amateur and professional musicians.
FJO: In terms of your own history as a composer: there have been those four steps. You talked about the great composers of the past, but I listen to your history as a composer and I’m in awe of it.
WC: Ah, to see ourselves as others see us, Robert Burns’s immortal line. Thank you for the too gracious complement. Anyway, I’m not. One of the most damaging things any of us can do is believe our own PR. Artists are scarcely immune to that. If you absorb all the “best-foot-forward” advertising used to promote what you create, without a wink or a nudge, you’re a fool. It’s almost as corrupting as reading your own reviews, both good ones and bad. Reviewers don’t have absolute knowledge, either, and we sure don’t. Undeservedly nasty reviews can really hurt, although undeserved praise is probably more damaging long-term. Well, it’s best to maintain a skeptical eye in either case.
FJO: So, what have you been doing recently?
WC: Oops, that question can’t be answered quickly, but let me try. It’s funny how unexpected events can steer us. One of the last things my parents gave me included a K-2600. They gave me an envelope and said, “Honey, get something practical with this that will help you in your work.” I had the two K-2000s and thought an upgrade was overdue. I started fooling around with it. First of all I discovered that it contained one of the best-sounding replica piano timbres I’d tried up to then. And I began practicing a lot of old pieces, and getting my chops back. Online I discovered there were many other new libraries of sounds available for the Kurzweil line, more than when I’d last looked. One that caught my eye was pipe organ sounds. I bought that modestly priced set just for fun,and started playing with it. I quickly realized that there was something here I had overlooked.
Pipe organs are an ideal instrument to replicate via samples. Why? There’s no performed expression. A pipe goes on and goes off with the air pressure. That’s it: “hello, goodbye.” If it’s in a chamber with expression shutters, okay, you can open the shutters, you can close the shutters, crescendo diminuendo. This is separate from the pipe sounding, which can be done within the synth’s flexible VAST modulation tools. There’s not much alteration past that. It’s the perfect paradigm to address with a sampler. It’s better even than a percussion instrument which you can hit hard or soft or in different places to get different sounds. So I started fooling around with their pipe samples. They were okay, not bad, not great, like a tempting appetizer.
FJO: So, are you actually performing music in real time? That’s a real departure from the way you’ve always made music in the past. And why the organ?
WC: I’d taken piano lessons starting at six. Later I took a dozen or so organ lessons in high school. But we didn’t have an organ, I had no place to practice, so I gave it up for another day. But a seed had been planted. Listening to some really excellent early hi-fi and stereo albums of pipe organs had already inspired me more than I realized for years. And organists, George Wright, especially. My website, wendycarlos.com, has a lot of the story behind the new Kurzweil setup, so I won’t repeat it here.
Anyway, I had only a rudimentary idea of organ technique from the old Yamaha E-5 I used on several albums. I’d never mastered the pedalboard. So I thought, all right I’m going expand the K-2600 into more of an organ, and as an adult beginner, teach myself to play it. It became a major project, just snuck up on me. Gradually I collected better sounds like the Post Organ Tool Kit, created by a fellow in Belgium, Michel Post, who has some beautiful classical pipe sounds. Then I got in touch with the Artisan Company, who led me to Mark Anderson. He generously allowed me to add his excellent Wurlitzer theatre organ sounds.
While there remains a snobbery against the theatre organ, it’s another useful class of tone, from a rich early 20th-century tradition that evolved from the large late romantic pipe organ. By now I’ve adapted all of the above into this instrument behind me, which I call the Wurly II, in honor of Wurlitzer. It’s been educational to learn how to voice and register both classical and theatre organ ranks. It’s a comfortable adaptation, with some novel features. You can see it’s a comfortable four manual instrument. The lower three keyboards are wider than an ordinary pipe organ with 76 touch-sensitive notes each. Twelve homemade pistons are attached to the lower front edge of each. The pedalboard is a homemade adaptation of the old E-5’s physical keys, but now MIDIfied, with velocity and aftertouch.
I’ve had to learn to play that without any shoes, because when you play with velocity, you have to sense the pressure and speed with your skin, as pianists do with the fingers; too much insulation and you can’t tell. What the heck, I decided to go barefoot. So I’ve learned how to play a pipe organ that isn’t a pipe organ, but some modern kind of mutation. If you play hard or soft you get a natural variation of the timbre, can bring out inner lines, balance accompaniment to the solo lines. Pipe organs don’t do that. You also have the traditional expression shoes. There are no stop tablets or draw-knobs, alas, the one thing I couldn’t do. But I’ve assembled libraries of sounds, and with pistons, some other toggle switches, I can couple mixtures and exchange voices from one instrument to the other. It may be just a collection of MIDI parts, but the whole thing feels like one unified instrument. While learning to play I concentrated on traditional pipe timbres. Now I’ve begun adding some of my orchestra sounds in, the L.S.I., and, you know what, the organ performance paradigm works very well with orchestra. I’ve tried my synthesizer libraries built over the years, and they fit very well, too. The tuning tables I built after Beauty in the Beast also work, but with varying degrees of effectiveness.
FJO: After everything else you’ve done, this seems like a weird time to be learning the minutiae of how to play the organ.
WC: I guess it is odd and sure surprised me. Yet the timing couldn’t be better right now. I’ve become really nutted out by the way things have been going here and abroad, more aware of current news than I ever was before. A scary time to live through, isn’t it? And sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is to step aside and try to learn something new, something physical, and cathartic—or at least LOUD. When you last interviewed me twenty years ago, I was mainly a composer and synthesist. I worked in a studio, long and hard and slowly to get every note right, no instant gratification at all. Only after hours or days of tedium, could finally sit back and listen to the results, several seconds, up to half a minute, all at once.
It’s also the way film animation works and CGI. Most art, actually—how quickly can someone sculpt a statue? And that’s how I worked for decades. But now I can also sit here and play, perform, and get instant feedback, with a big, rich ensemble, an exciting sound. So I’m back to the roots of music making, which years of synth work had detoured around. I’m enjoying the experience immensely, getting back to my roots. Granted, I’m not playing woodwinds or stringed instruments, but I’m planning to add both my L.S.I. Philharmonic and the new Garritan libraries of orchestral instruments, and also my collection of synth timbres. Turns out they all work splendidly with the new multi-keyboard setup and are very expressive in ensemble. To have the ability to play a solo violin, accompanied by a blend of large orchestra, big band, and theater organ, could be terrific. Put those all together with some percussion and maybe synth accents with a jazz tradition. Might be quite tasty.
Behind that I’m also getting back to the roots that all of us as Americans have forgotten, which is great American theatre music. I’ve lived with it all my life and I love it. If any music is done well, it’s worth listening to. There’s a snobbery that I’ve felt in classical musician circles, they turn their noses up at it, much like the classical organists who turn their noses up at theatre organ music.
And I’m also getting back to the nearly forgotten roots of great American theatre, stage and screen music. I’ve heard it all my life and I love the best of it. Anything really well-made is worth listening to. You just ignore all of the snobbery: the classical musicians who won’t listen to jazz, the jazz musicians who bad-mouth pop music, the rock musicians who roll their eyes at classical. There’s really just music, some great, a lot that’s bad, most of it middling. It’s fun to explore some popular and jazz forms, which aren’t part of a classical music education. Still, it’s in our blood, the feel, sly playing off of the beat, syncopation and swing. We’ve been brought up with this all our lives. So if you practice and get your chops in, you can pick up the looser, more improvisational way than classical music is played. Then you get an idea how to compose in styles which were formally opaque to serious composers. I suspect it will be synergistic and can only expand my horizons when I write serious music, too. We’ll see how it goes. It’s not so easy to emulate the elegant blurring of lines in, say, Gershwin, Ravel, Bernstein, Harris, a lot of American music. Should be fun!
It’s a fascinating time to work in this field. Instead of having it continue to wind down, as it had been doing, suddenly there are these rather exciting branches to explore. I don’t know where I’m going with any of it. I’m not a very disciplined person about steering a musical path, only in putting it together as well as possible. There’s probably an album or two lurking here, but I honestly don’t know what it will be exactly. Please don’t ask me that, “What’s next?” However, it’s still exciting, engrossing, challenging, to say nothing of fun, just exploring. There you are. This is as honest as I know how.
FJO: I didn’t even know you were going to take it there. For the first time in your entire career, you’re making solo instrumental music. But you’ve turned that notion upside down, by bringing in all these orchestral timbres, you’re creating this weird 21st-century one-person band. So it’s a new kind of solo music that is only possible now.
WC: For a long time, really most of my life, I’ve felt deprived about not being able to work with other musicians. When we put together the Bach at the Beacon concert, it was great fun to work with other musicians. I’d love to do that more. It took “only” thirty years to translate the Switched-On experience to a definitive eight live synthesizers on stage. There have been a few plans to collaborate with other synthesists, but they’ve not worked out, alas. We were just on different wavelengths, running off in opposite directions instead of coming together. It would be wonderful to work again with other musicians, because solo music is only one kind of music. And I continue to cherish a few straight-ahead serious orchestral compositions still in me (something I’m actually pretty good at), a bit of the old “hope springeth eternal.”
All that said, having gotten this big hybrid instrument together, I’m becoming more aware of a quality to music played alone—like organ or piano repertoire and improvisation. It will be great to mix these extemporaneous qualities with enough notes and details going on that it yields a rich ensemble steered simultaneously by one mind, allowing no more than one or two overdubs, perhaps. It would encourage a wiry rubato that would be difficult to match with other minds simultaneously. An ensemble would change things: it would become an average of what you all felt. I’d not stopped to think about it before, the two approaches to performance, ensemble versus solo. We spoke about it briefly earlier. All those years creating studio albums made me lose sight of this lovely complementary dichotomy.
Recently I’ve been creating some transcriptions of traditional orchestral works, and playing those alone you find the elasticity of the way you move the rhythm is so different from a drum machine. It has a breathing, living quality that arises intuitively as you do it. And that spontaneity can now be saved within a sequencer, then you go and fix any wrong notes. I first did that on the Bach 2000 album: kept the baby and the bath water, both. So in my old age I’m approaching several hybrids together: of ensemble plus solo, timbre plus tuning, live ad lib plus written-out studio precision and flexibility. It’s not so bad. I’m satisfied with the way my career has progressed. It’s not what I originally wanted, so there are disappointments. But I’m pleased that technology has come in, in the nick of time each time to bail me out of what would have been a cul de sac. It’s a heady time to be around, and I hope I have many more years to continue doing this.
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