In 1968, Wendy Carlos' Moog-synthesized renditions of Bach's compositions proved that synthesizers could be used to make “real” music. Her Grammy-winning Switched-On Bach (CBS, 1968) introduced a generation to the pleasures of electronic music via the classics, and was the first classical album to go Platinum. A future-looking technologist, Carlos released a fully digital version, Switched-On Bach 2000 (Telarc), in 1992.
A master of both art and technology, Carlos also transmitted her influence upon modern electronic music through soundtrack work on films such as Stanley Kubrick's 1971 A Clockwork Orange — in which Carlos introduced the vocoder — and his 1980 horror masterpiece, The Shining. Carlos used a combination of digital and analog synthesizers to compose the soundtrack to Tron, the 1982 movie about video games come to life. Her contribution to the film helped create a work that remains one of the starting points for the digital futurism of techno and early electro, providing both visual and sonic markers for early rave and hip-hop cultures. Equally cutting-edge, albeit in a different way, was her 1972 Sonic Seasonings (Columbia), whose minimal ambient odes to nature presaged the new-age genre. She shared more of her knowledge on the 1982 The Secrets of Synthesis (CBS). She also wrote conventional works for ensembles as diverse as the Kronos Quartet, the London Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony.
Carlos is also an important experimentalist and researcher. Between the years 1992 and 1995, Carlos and Larry Fast developed Digi-Surround Stereo Sound, a digital process of soundtrack restoration.
Like her music, Carlos' life illustrates a synergy between science and art. Born Walter Carlos in 1939 in Rhode Island, she started playing piano at age 6, winning a Westinghouse Science Fair scholarship for a home-built computer. Studying music and physics at Brown University, she earned a master's degree from Columbia at the first electronic music center in the United States. Moving to Manhattan to become a sound engineer, Carlos met Robert Moog. She became one of his first clients and was pivotal in the development of Moog's landmark synthesizer.
Understandably, Carlos would prefer to be known for her art rather than the quirks of her personal history. However, any overview of her career would be remiss if it posited her as a woman throughout and placed in the closet her transformation from Walter to Wendy. Combined with her influence on electronic music, Carlos' surgical gender change has made her a post-modern touchstone for experimental artists interested in gender issues or the Baroque in electronic music. For example, the eccentric but brilliant artist Momus featured a track called “Walter Carlos” on The Little Red Songbook (Le Grand, 1998). After an offended Carlos launched a lawsuit, the track was removed from the album. Terre Thaemlitz also name-checks Carlos in his Interstices project (Mille Plateaux, 2000) as part of a fictitious Queer Media Series, featuring Switched-On Gender: Moog Swings in the Transition from Walter to Wendy Carlos.
In both her personal life and her music, Carlos is clearly a pioneer.