Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Wendy Carlos has fit a lot of life into her 69 years on this Earth.
Born in 1939, she was a pioneer of electronic music, using the Moog synthesizer to compose original works as well as to create new arrangements of classical compositions. The Moog was still a primitive instrument in the '60s, but with a lot of hard work, Carlos was able to coax strange and unforgettable sounds out of it. Her 1968 album Switched On Bach was one of the first classical music LPs to sell over 500,000 copies, and it won three Grammys (including Best Classical Album) and spawned a host of imitators. But it was controversial at the time, with some critics responding to its innovative sound and some accusing Carlos of trivializing Bach's music.
Dr. Robert Moog modified the synthesizer quite a bit following Carlos' suggestions, and he was amazed by what she could do with the machine, later writing, "Here was something that was just impeccably done and had obvious musical content and was totally innovative."
Her work attracted the attention of Stanley Kubrick, and she was one of the few artists he chose to work with on more than one film. Kubrick famously used her classical Moog pieces on the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange in 1971. The music was a perfect fit for the film, with some of the greatest compositions in human history transformed into robotic bloops and bleeps that were comic one moment, eerie the next. Here's the film's opening sequence, featuring her chilling rendition of Henry Purcell's Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary.
He also used some of her original compositions for The Shining, although not as much as Carlos would've liked. Their relationship was friendly but sometimes difficult; Carlos felt that Kubrick settled too often for her "rough" tracks, refusing to incorporate her later changes. (And what does it say about your own perfectionism when you're giving Stanley Kubrick grief for taking the easy way out?) There was enormous mutual respect between them, and perhaps affection as well, but both were focused on the work and didn't worry much about sparing each other's feelings. Carlos would later write, "Attempts since his death to paint a revisionist (image) of Kubrick as some kind of warm and fuzzy fond old uncle are both ignorant and bizarre. The world has plenty of avuncular supportive seniors already. What's in short supply in the world is Stanley Kubricks: artists who will spare no effort to do work of the highest caliber."
Following her work with Kubrick, she continued to put out albums (in 1988 she recorded a version of Peter and the Wolf with Weird Al!) and worked on the soundtracks for various films, including her iconic theme music for Tron. Beyond her music, she's also a noted photographer of solar eclipses (check out this bad boy) and a prolific amateur visual artist who draws some really charming cats... Although her portrait of her 20-year-old cat spending the last night of his life curled up in her lap is one of the saddest things I've seen in a long while.
Carlos underwent a sex-change operation in 1973, changing her name from Walter to Wendy, but didn't officially "come out" as a transsexual until a 1979 Playboy interview. Since then she has generally declined to discuss her gender, other than writing a scathing essay for her personal website and creating an online Shortlist of the Cruel in which she hands out "black leaf awards" to those she feels have misrepresented or otherwise wronged her. (Interestingly, This American Life's Ira Glass and Sarah Vowell both make the list, with Glass described as "(demonstrating) sexual hang-ups, and little or no empathy" and Vowell dismissed as "(having) a sexual axe to grind, and needs sensitivity training." Not wishing to earn the black leaf myself, I'll respectfully drop the matter there!
Her website is a fascinating and endearingly quirky affair, sort of like spending an evening with your eccentric, genius, Grammy-winning aunt as she regales you with stories about Arthur C. Clarke and shows you her sketches and photos. In writing of Kubrick, Carlos implied that it's better to be a sharp and uncompromising artist than a "warm and fuzzy" old person. But it's possible to be both. She herself is proof.
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