Wendy’s World

Part 1: Switching Bach On

Frank J. Oteri: Where to begin? There are so many places to begin. I think you changed the course of the history of music at least three times.

Wendy Carlos: Oh, no no no.

FJO: I think there are more, but there are three things that really caught the world at large.

WC: Or the world at small. I’ll grant you the world at small (grins).

FJO: The first, obviously, is Switched-On Bach. Not only because it was the first platinum-selling classical record—which is a very big deal—but also because that record sent the message to everybody that a synthesizer is a musical instrument. And it helped make the synthesizer mainstream, rather than just something in a laboratory that professors were doodling around with to make these weird, electronic pieces. You suddenly brought it down to earth.

WC: What I was aware of before I started the album was that electronic music was a medium and it was not a style of music. It was just a tool. Piano music can also be anything: commercial rock/pop, real jazz, early through late classical repertoire, even the most challenging of serious music. But isn’t any medium like that?

FJO: Until you did that, it wasn’t.

WC: Let’s just say it hadn’t been done yet, but certainly it would have been done eventually. I just happened to be there at the right time in history, which is a matter of luck. That’s how our lives get determined largely. You can’t predict everything in advance. But you can view history as you know it, and perhaps decide something, like wanting to follow in the footsteps of other people who pioneered new instruments—the first people who went from harpsichord to fortepiano. Cristobaldi and Mozart, for example, pioneered that path, and Beethoven went on to the notably massive pianofortes he used. Bach did the same with the pipe organ. Mozart also championed clarinets in serious concert ensembles; while the saxophone never made it, did it? Well, at least it did make it into jazz and other types of music with excellent results.

I didn’t really want to restrict my first album to J.S. Bach, but it seemed like the best way for the public to embrace electronic music would be to focus on one known, non-moving target, then let the innovation arise from the novel variations possible within a very flexible new medium.

FJO: The thing that I found so ironic and fascinating about that album being such a big deal is that you are a composer, but your first major project, and we’re talking a major major thing, was not your own music, but transcriptions of another composer’s music.

WC: To be candid, it was irritating to me. It felt like a detour, and it still does, when I think back at it. It represented so little of my strengths, and so much what I could only “sort of do”, and I’m still a bit embarrassed by that, being considered a classical performer first. There are so many people who write me and tell me how they got involved with classical music through S-OB, which drives me slightly nuts! Because that’s something you would really hope they’d have learned about from the great performers of the time. With fine recordings now available from many decades, you can pick and choose some excellent people—and that’s not me. So I got a little upset because the spotlight was aimed at things that I didn’t do only competently. I did create arrangements and orchestrations to keep it lively, and from that point of view I guess it’s like Leopold Stokowski’s Bach arrangements (Reger had done a few as well), and other similar notable cases. That doesn’t place your main attention on this [mimes playing keyboard]! Students like me who went through music departments like Columbia University can usually play an instrument or two alright, can read music, work out keyboard harmonizations okay, but that doesn’t make you an expert. To be a true performer, you ought have the skills and talent to become an expert at it, and I was never one of those.

FJO: That recording happened around the same time that Glenn Gould decided he was never going to play in public again.

WC: That was just before that, yeah.

FJO: And he was making records in the studio, and here came this recording of Bach. Just like his recordings, Switched-On Bach could also only be done in the studio.

WC: That was probably the reason that he quickly became a big supporter of ours, for which I’ve always been grateful. Ten years after he had died, I met his father and thanked him for his son—which is sort of a hollow gesture, a little awkward. But at the same time, I knew there was no way I could thank Glenn any more, although he knew my thoughts from a few messages back and forth, two phone calls, also a NYC-Toronto radio interview for CBC, but we never met. As he aged Gould grew increasingly reclusive, which is something a ham like me never fully understood, but I respected it and will always remember him as a quirky, generous genius.

When you think through the human nature side, you grasp that yes, he praised my early albums. But it was also because they came along at a time when it served his point of view: that recording was an equally valid performance medium to concertizing. S-OB was another example, a good demonstration, that his point of view was right. You don’t have to be just an on-stage concert performer to be a “definitive performer.” You can do it in a studio, and while it’s a different form of performing, it’s part of the same tradition, has its own validity, and historically becomes maybe more important. All those wonderful live performances have been lost, but we still have recordings. So it’s the difference between narrative improvised storytelling, you and me talking together, or now that we’re recording this for a text transcript, it will have a lifespan far beyond what we or anyone else who might be here could ever hope to remember, if they spoke about this evening years from now.

FJO: And I think that’s what’s so exciting about the process of recording in general. But there’s another thing that strikes me about the milieu in which this recording entered the world. The period instrument movement really got steam after the release of Switched-On Bach. Though it seems like they might not be related, in a weird kind of way I think they are.

WC: I’m aware of the period instrument movement, but I thought that started earlier, in the ’50s, since even when I was a graduate student at Columbia, you could find a special period instruments section for recordings in the library, and even in some larger record stores here, like Sam Goody’s and Discophile. I felt rather inspired by those LPs, as more than a curiosity, not the other way around. It’s not so much that one copies the other—period instruments and/or synthesizer—but that they both come from similar insouciant questions: “What if?” Or “What was it like?” Or “How would this work instead of the usual?” Open-ended curiosity drove them both, I suspect.

FJO: Well, certainly there were period instrument performances in the ’50s, but the movement really took off with the general public a bit later. The period instrument approach and Switched-On Bach became something of a two-pronged assault from both directions which challenged the status quo of conservatory-trained performance practice up to that point. The conservatives said, “This isn’t Bach. It’s supposed to be done such-and-such a way.” But they were playing Bach on the piano or with a large orchestra which, in fact, also isn’t the way it’s supposed to be done.

WC: That’s right. Sure. Bach originally wrote for a hundred-piece orchestras, didn’t you know that? [Grins]

FJO: Though they were saying, “Playing Bach on synthesizers is terrible; this isn’t the real way it was played,” what they were doing also wasn’t the real way it was played.

WC: Kind of lame and hypocritical, huh?

FJO: I think Switched-On Bach allowed for a new understanding of what Bach’s music could be. Even though it’s using the opposite of period instruments—it’s using what was the most up-to-date thing at that time—the way it was recorded, one line at a time, is analogous to Josh Rifkin in the ’70s doing Bach’s B Minor Mass and having one person on a part. In both approaches, each line is its own thing and stands out.

WC: You gain a particular clarity, an expressiveness that is usually hidden. There’s a difference between a solo violin and an orchestra’s violin section where you hear an average, as with much of music expressiveness through 19th-century Romanticism. Human beings are naturally expressive, so to turn that into an average. You’re in a group; it tends towards “group-think” instead of a unified point of view, although a firm-handed conductor can impose a single personality over all the instrumentalists. Same with choir, or chorus, large chorus. But I don’t know, I’m torn between the two approaches, aren’t you? Music is always a compromise. I love it big, and I love it small, so let’s have it big-and-small, or small-and-big, whichever you prefer, an oxymoron!

FJO: There’s also another part to this process. What you did was an interpretation of another composer. It makes me want to turn the tables on you.

WC: How?

FJO: Your music is largely created in the studio and it is your own interpretation. It’s not being performed by other interpreters. So how would you feel to be in the position you put Bach in, if someone were to switch on you?

WC: I think I would rather like it, why not? I’ve always felt that somebody who was that intelligent—and it takes great intellect to compose great Bachian music—somebody like that would likely be quite curious, and would have felt our synth approach to be a hoot. Don’t you think? I can’t imagine that Bach would have been really put off, especially if he were alive and we had approached him, I mean, if we’d shown him the respect to say: “Here’s what we propose to do.” I can’t see that Johann Sebastian would have been as uptight as the people you mentioned before, who perhaps felt threatened by it, which is okay. They were a minority, I’d say, but they sure were a vocal minority.

FJO: They always are.

WC: Yeah, you’re right. Is it the reactionaries in any particular field? I don’t know, don’t get me started. But there is a human trait which I don’t much care for that’s restrictive, constipating, and more interested in saying no than saying yes. That’s sad. It runs all through humanity, y’know. Forget music—but certainly in culture and art and life—you do need conservation to balance innovation. You can’t just head off wildly scattering nuts in May, because you know what you get from that: undisciplined scatter. It’s balance we need, a nice yin-yang balance, which can’t come out of saying no. “No” doesn’t progress, create the new, and it may hide a hidden agenda, some dogma. I’m becoming convinced that dogma, and regression without progression to balance it, are seriously unhelpful, if not generally damaging to society and the individuals within it.

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