Wendy’s World

Part 5: Changing Times

Frank J. Oteri: Do you listen to much pop music?

Wendy Carlos: I used to a lot in my youth and loved the best of it, when it covered such a broad range of styles and media. I listen to Danny Stiles, who plays some fine popular music and jazz from the ’20s through the ’60s on WNYC each week, and am amazed by the variety and quality. It’s depressing that today’s young people are given such limited options. Worse, it’s not even as “hip” as what their grandparents heard: Peggy Lee, Sauter and Finegan (talk about your “hip”), Miles, Ella, Bill Evans…so many. While I trained as a classical musician and composer, and am no expert on popular music, what’s not to like about such lively examples of music making?

We all know the story of what happened when pop music glugged away too long at the mass market well, and sold out in the late ’70s. If you always need to reach the lowest common denominator, pull in the biggest profits, well, there’s not much room for art left, is there? The classic songs, ballads, Broadway showtunes, great jazz, big bands, blues, swing, folk, up through the British rock explosion (who doesn’t like the Beatles?), all of which prospered in the 20th century, still stand tall and are worth investigating if you’re a bit too young to remember them. Anything with art and artistry behind it is worth investigating. But I don’t hear that much any more. Pop music has even forgotten how to swing, alas, and has misappropriated the tools people like me pioneered to make unique kinds of music. Am I just being an old curmudgeon here, or is this where it all ends up: tools to crank out cheap clones, formulas which happened to sell once or twice? The same thing has happened to most films, and books, nearly all of television. Is that all there is? Thankfully, we still have all those great recordings, when you can find them. And the pendulum may be starting to swing back already. One must never give up hope.

FJO: So, to be successful as a composer today, looking back, taking the prism and looking back, to those early recordings which were on a major label—Columbia Masterworks, which became Sony—that’s very wide distribution. Nowadays, the major record labels, for the most part, don’t go near contemporary classical music. They don’t go near anything, and they’re folding left and right. What’s happened is we now have these little boutique labels that are then distributed by independent distributors, and that’s how music is getting disseminated, but once upon a time, there were these big record companies. There was Columbia, Deutsche Grammophon, Angel.

WC: RCA.

FJO: Yeah, and Nonesuch, a budget label then owned by Elektra that slowly rose and now it’s still around. It’s part of a major label, but it can do what it wants outside of the box a bit. And the road was always to have a publisher, and a publisher would get your music out there. We’ve been mentioning a lot of big names and a lot of them have their own publishers, but a great many composers these days are self-published. You’ve always been self-published, as far as I know.

WC: If you want to call East Side Digital, the new modest label that I’m on, “self-publishing.” I don’t see any reason to “swallow the world.” Clearly, businesses based on the Internet are now dominating all fields, aren’t they? Consider the idea that, like an online encyclopedia, everything is distributed. It provides the means to support the small boutique labels much better than it had been in the past. I guess you could get maybe one of the big labels to distribute your boutique label for a little while, until they’ve lost interest in you. I was on Columbia mainly because of the fluke of Switched-On Bach. And Clockwork Orange, I was going to mention that, too, but the film score actually became a digression, and we had to cut a special deal so that our CBS version came out two or three months after the Warner Brothers soundtrack version came out, which gave us the opportunity to include most of the music we’d composed for the film. It was nice to re-master for ESD recently, to return to the first mix master tapes, also to add a few tracks that there had been no room for on the previous LP, and to create a definitive edition, with greatly improved audio quality.

So the Internet alters everything, and self-distribution becomes viable, even on MP3s; certainly many people don’t buy CDs anymore. They only listen to MP3s, which bothers me as an audiophile, because I love great, uncompromised sound. I remember the uproar when the first mini CD was introduced (what was it called, the MiniDisc?) and listeners complained because it was compressed audio. Yeah, it was compressed, like jpeg images are compressed, yet web pages are filled with jpegs. If they’re done well and not that compressed, they can still look pretty good. But there’s no argument that there are “lossy,” which means loss is involved. You’re throwing away information. Dolby Digital, a popular high-quality medium for 5.1 movie soundtracks, carefully discards some audio information. With MP3s, even more audio is thrown away. So from that standpoint, I raise my eyebrows at people who tell me, “Yeah, I’ve ripped my whole library of CDs, streamed it all into mpegs, and I’ve got my music all on my iPod now.” Okay, you’re happy now, but I’m not sure that later on you might not be crying when you don’t have the pure, uncompressed audio versions anymore, especially if you give away or sell off the CDs, keep only the compressed versions, as some people I know have done.

FJO: Of course the thing that I find so potentially disturbing about everything moving to downloadable files is how easy it is to delete the files, how easy it is to turn it off, to stop listening, because it’s so easy to flick that ‘off’ switch. We’ve made it progressively easier not to pay attention. With the record, you had to drop the needle, you had to sit there very carefully, and you didn’t want to raise the needle in the middle of it because you might hurt the record, so you let it play out, and you listened to it in the order that the person who made the record wanted you to hear it in.

WC: You’re right; it’s changed our listening habits, to have first the random access on a CD, which is quite good, and then on an MP3 where it becomes immediate jump-anywhere-you-want. I like that, though, although your comment shows the downside of a new ability, used to negative ends. But random access itself is great. I love having DVDs—and Laserdiscs before—since I’m a film buff, too. I probably would have had a lot of fun living out in “Filmdom,” although I don’t care for L.A. But I do enjoy films, it’s in my blood. (Heck, my parents first met while working in the same movie theater!) And there’s art behind the medium, another reason I respect many of the people who write music for films. The art behind really classic films is something you can finally really study in detail via media like DVD, and of course the new hi-def versions of those will be the next major boon.

There’s a confluence of technological breakthroughs that are making it possible to go back and revisit some very important art pieces that were taken for granted during previous times. We can at last treat them with diligence, introspection, and respect. And I hope music, my music, can be treated the same way. It’s the upside of random access and easy control, scan, pause, search. I want to find a practical and relatively painless way to put my music out on Surround, like DVD-As, SACDs, something like that, because many of the albums, not all of them, many of them were mastered to surround you in the room.

I found that while it wasn’t quite as big a step as going from mono to stereo, moving from stereo to quad or five or more channels was extremely helpful for clarity, nearly as big an improvement. You heard everything better, even if your individual monitor speakers and amplifiers weren’t quite first-rate, as each would share the tasks of reproducing each instrument, distributing lines in different directions, and a varied ambience all around them. It’s so frustrating that, up until now, there has been no convenient, affordable way for me to put out my own music in Surround Sound. And as I sit here with you now, it looks like Surround has not caught on, or things would have gotten better. I’m still waiting for something to come along that I can use on my Macintosh computers that would allow me at least to produce a limited run, if only a sampler disc or two. I’d love to do that much.

Part of the reason for signing for a few years with East Side Digital is that they underwrote the costs, and motivated me during the tedious remastering process, pushing: “Come on, Wendy! Time to get the next album out!” That’s good for me, because I can be a procrastinator like anyone else and wouldn’t have finished it all nearly so soon on my own. There was so much to do, collecting and writing album notes, photographs, new graphics, and make everything look good, besides the key issue, to sound really excellent, as a unified, definitive collection of my music. For that, I thank the discipline of being involved with a congenial small record company. But soon I’ll be taking it over with my business partner. I don’t know if many record labels are going to be around much longer. I guess blame/credit streaming audio, and a change in listening habits. So what is music distribution going to become, individual artists only? So will a Laurie Anderson be putting out her projects by herself? From her loft? She works in some of the same ways I do, using multimedia, but the similarities are there, with many other artists as well. It feels kinda small-town and parochial, old time, doesn’t it?

It’s an interesting time to be alive, but also that’s the “Chinese Curse,” living in interesting times. I don’t know what the answer is. Sometimes it feels like we’re moving back into a medieval model, where you would write the stories, design the costumes, do the makeup, find a few instrumentalists, and you’d put it all together: “Let’s do a show!” Ever watch those Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland films from the ’30s and early ’40s? Or create something and then sell it on a street corner? But that is what this is becoming, and part of me is charmed by it, utterly charmed. And part of me is kind of worried. Is this really the way we want to do this? I’m not sure. I’m a terrible oracle; you should have asked someone more in touch. There’s always a double-edge involved. It cuts both ways. If I had my druthers, I would stop and say, “O.K., blow a whistle!” and say let’s take a look at where this is going to lead and what the implications are, but life doesn’t work that way. It just moves ahead, and you make it up as you go along. I don’t know where everything is heading—do you?

FJO: Every so often, people ask me my opinion about it. People think I’m supposed to know.

WC: You’re supposed to know, that’s right. You go and talk to all of these people, Frank, and you’ve been working in this field for years, how come you don’t know the answers to these questions? Are they really such difficult questions? [Smiles]

FJO: Okay, then, let’s take it back to how composers interface with larger entities to disseminate their efforts and how those interfaces have been changing. You have had these recordings on a major, internationally distributed label, but as far as controlling the publication of your music, you were always self-published, which is the way most composers are now. In a way, you’re something of a pioneer in that as well.

WC: There’s the well-known joke that you can always tell the pioneers “by the arrows they have in the arse”, right? The truth is, no one sets out to do that unless you’re a masochist. It’s too silly for words. But in retrospect, later on, you can rationalize and concoct an analysis you had taken which, as you took it, you were just navigating with your nose. So I don’t know how much of any of this has any importance. I don’t take it very seriously, in any case. Maybe so. I don’t know. So there was some pioneering going on. Certainly we were aware of that when we produced the Moog synthesizer tracks. Bob Moog was a lot of fun to work with, by the way. Really sad to lose him in ’05. In any case, the new instruments he was building then were new, and you couldn’t go back more than—I don’t know—five or ten years, really, before you ran into “the roots of the roots,” which you can follow back about a century. Early electrical instruments, right? And even including instruments like the Hammond organ, which doesn’t seem particularly related to the Moog synthesizer unless you look at the keyboard part. The Hammond is technically an additive synth. I was aware of all of that, the field was pretty small.

In ’68 CBS was trying to find examples for a new slogan—what was it—”Bach to Rock”? That was their advertising slogan they started out with, a catchy phrase, and they had several projects they were trying to put together, but they had nothing to represent the Bach side. Our timing by pure coincidence couldn’t have been much better. Elements of luck strongly affect our lives, like it or no.

In the same way Glenn Gould was pleased to discover Switched on Bach existed, that there was an album like this, that he could point to and say “See! What I’m saying about studio performances being better than on-stage recitals is not a bad idea; here’s someone else doing the same thing.” Anyway, Switched-On Bach fit the CBS’s new notion of “crossover,” breaking the bounds of conventional classical music albums. So they wanted to work with us, and we signed a contract. Actually, at first, they actually signed the synthesizer! We could next have said: “Bye, now, nice to meet you. If you need anything else, speak to the synthesizer!” Kind of silly and presumptuous of them. But then, on the first album, there was no credit at all on the cover for many months. The first two pressings only credit the Moog Synthesizer! For them it was just the synthesizer. Maybe it’s the old science-fiction movie image, blinking lights, a robot, or Hal. We had a sequencer that could blink its lights. We filled that cliché admirably for them. But it was also kind of insulting, applauding the tool, not the person who used it. But many people did that for years, credit the instrument first.

The result was a new contract which also allowed us do several other projects Rachel was interested in. But they also insisted we work in their studio, as all their artists did, and we couldn’t. We had to demonstrate in my little “studio” apartment how intricate the tie-in was for us, between the synthesizer and the rest of the equipment, using the multi-track and trigger tracks in fairly unique ways. It would have been very clumsy or impossible to handle that the CBS studios. We became the sole exception. Their union was very strong, and we met a lot of their engineers, some good people. We worked with them where we could, always for the final mastering, for example. But the recording of the actual tracks and the mix-downs we did in our own studio, because that was the only way it could be done then. Would it change now? You could put it together in a computer, I suppose, and bring the hard drive or CD-Rs to the company and say, “O.K., now stream it out and edit it and set the levels and equalization and balance.” But this is almost four decades later!

FJO: Where it’s different now is now—my eyes are popping open as you’re saying they wanted you to do it in their studio—virtually no record company wants to pay for anything. They want a finished master. They want the master handed to them. So the way you were doing it then is the way everybody’s doing it now, for the most part, and that’s for economic reasons.

WC: From my background as a recording engineer after college, I knew I wanted to use quality equipment, even if we had to go into hock for many years to pay it all off (which we did). Our share of Switched-On Bach was itsy-bitsy tiny. We were new artists, nobody knew of us, we had no clout. I’m not saying that’s evil or bad, it’s just the way it was. So we did get the best gear we could, and eventually had that professional studio.

Recently I blessed that good fortune, when it came time to remaster all the albums. We were among the first people to use Dolby. Fortunately, we met the Dolby people early on through a fine, savvy recording engineer, Marc Aubort. So we met Ray and Dagmar Dolby, Ioan Allen and all the people at Dolby Labs, who’ve been close friends for years. Anyway, at that time, few studios wanted to use Dolby. But we went ahead, thank goodness, and now those early tapes—most of them—are in beautiful condition. That’s part of the reason my new remastered CDs sound wonderful.

Initially I didn’t realize they would sound that much better than the early LPs cassettes, or reel-to-reels, and even the early CBS/Sony CDs. But those were all taken off of the same duplicating masters. Those represent the compromise step used to master LPs. You had to make special equalized, compressed limited dubs to tweak the limitations of cutting grooves in plastic. But CBS used those dubs to make their early CDs, so the CDs were similarly compromised.

We frequently had guests come to the city, and we’d show them the studio, and at that time, nobody had a home studio. They always seemed dazed and thanked us for such an unusual visit. A few would write: “Hey! You know, the best part of our trip to New York was seeing the studios!” That won’t happen anymore. Home studios have become common, as they should be. It’s a very democratic idea. And I love that it’s spreading now, like an idea whose time has indeed come. And so even if it’s video, people are working now with video, with the newest computers, everybody can get iMovie or FinalCut Pro, a decent camcorder like we’re using right now. You can learn this stuff at home. The technology is no longer an arbitrary wall or impediment. We have tools to allow most anyone to put together “brave new world” forms of artistic creativeness!

FJO: Well, the very thing we’re doing now that you reference, in a thing like NewMusicBox. This couldn’t have existed when you first started.

WC: No. There wouldn’t have been an Internet to put it on. What are you going to do? Bind a little Evatone soundsheet into your magazine, so people can listen? That’s the best you once could do. Keyboard magazine did it with me a couple of times. You could print pictures, some stills, so you’d have color pictures and an Evatone soundsheet, ten minutes a sheet. That would have been it.

FJO: So, the internet: a force for good, then?

WC: It’s a tool. I hand you a hammer. Do you want to build a house or hit somebody with it? I don’t know, and you don’t tell me. Obviously, I hope you won’t hurt anyone with it. Seriously, the net is a good sharp tool. The connections we’ve got right now can be used for great good. The media can be used for propaganda, too. You can convince some naive people of anything, spin human fundamentals and values, pervert a country, as we’ve proven recently. A tool: no more, no less. There’s no morality tied to it. It’s what we, as human beings, use it for, good or bad.

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