Wendy Carlos' "Beauty in the Beast"
May 21, 2012 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Wendy Carlos is best known for Switched-On Bach, the best-selling album that popularized the Moog synthesizer, and the soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange and Tron. But what she calls her "most important album" is the 1986 recording Beauty in the Beast, whose experiments with instrumentation, tonality, and scaling are described in these two PDF reproductions of contemporary articles from Keyboard magazine.

The title cut of the album, this compact piece whimsically blends two quasi grotesque ideas with a romantic theme in best "Ballet Russe" style. The new scales used for all of this are quite odd the first heard called Beta, splits the perfect fourth into two equal parts (actually eight equal steps of nearly 64 cents each ), the second, Alpha, does the same to the minor third (four equal steps for 78 c. each). While both scales have nearly perfect triads two remarkable coincidences!), neither can build a standard diatonic scale, and so the melodic motion is strange and exotic. The two forces, beast and beauty, shift back and forth, and things are never quite what they seem. - liner notes by Wendy Carlos
posted by Trurl (30 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
I'll plug my favorite Carlos album here, the 1998 "sequel" to the music of Clockwork Orange, "Tales Of Heaven And Hell".
posted by Aquaman at 7:31 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm fascinated to check this out when I get home; those of us steeped in western music largely take the inevitability of the 12-tone scale as a given (I'm well aware of more granular subdivisions and alternative tunings, but I basically think in terms of the 12 tones), but I can't help but wonder if we've exhausted about all that can be done with the equal-tempered scale... and what could be done by creating tonal relations that can't exist easily in a physical instrument.
posted by hincandenza at 7:37 PM on May 21, 2012

I'm fascinated to check this out when I get home; those of us steeped in western music largely take the inevitability of the 12-tone scale as a given

Which is odd, given how wired humanity appears to be for the pentatonic scale.
posted by eriko at 7:49 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there anywhere I can download this album, perhaps for money? iTunes and Amazon are only turning up some hideous imitator.
posted by grobstein at 8:06 PM on May 21, 2012

Is there anywhere I can download this album, perhaps for money? iTunes and Amazon are only turning up some hideous imitator.

Ah, oops -- for clarity, I am asking about Switched-On Bach. But interested in other Carlos selections as well.
posted by grobstein at 8:08 PM on May 21, 2012

Check your MeFi Mail.
posted by Trurl at 8:18 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really think then-Walter Carlos is probably best known for the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange. Maybe some people still don't know Walter and Wendy are the same person.
posted by localroger at 8:21 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is truly an extraordinary album, and one I recommend to anyone remotely capable of deep listening. Twenty-six years down the line, I can still find new treasures buried in the work with any careful listening. It's just spectacular—rich and raw and deep and joyous, and a genuine masterwork for our time, or at least mine.

It's also completely absent online, as either Ms Carlos, her label, or agents thereof, block it with such eagle-eyed vigilance that you'd think she and Prince belong to the same bridge club, and with radio dead and the album drifting in and out of release, it's an uphill battle to win disciples in the church of intonations. In fact, listen to the online versions in the link RIGHT NOW, before someone lets Wendy know that it's time to clamp down on yet another "violation," and find yourself a used copy of the CD or LP.

I've listened to "Just Imaginings" literally thousands of times since I excitedly bought the vinyl back in '86, and it still gives me goosebumps (3:25) and makes my hair stand on end (8:54 and 11:21).

I do my best as an evangelist, but it's a rare and subtle thing, and Wendy's not amenable to the kind of grassroots promotion that this album needs (understandably so, in some regards, but still).

Seriously—listen now, while you can.
posted by sonascope at 8:25 PM on May 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

Also, it's worth noting that the two ambient tracks available on some CD versions of Sonic Seasonings, "Aurora Borealis" and "Midnight Sun," are actually from the recording sessions she was doing around the time of Beast, and are a wonderful complement to the album. I'd recommend Seasonings to anyone interested in Wendy's career beyond the Bach and the clock—as early modern ambient music, it's a wonderful, rich, and textured work, and something that will make you wonder what might have happened if she'd kept on in the vein that Eno ventured into a year later.
posted by sonascope at 8:39 PM on May 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

This is fucking awesome. I had no idea.
posted by basicchannel at 9:04 PM on May 21, 2012

What basicchannel just said. It's like I'm hearing the Residents, but LIKING it. Whereas I WANT to like the Residents, but I can't. It's like the Residents from another continent and without that annoying whining guy.
posted by not_on_display at 9:19 PM on May 21, 2012

I have Sonic Seasonings in all its 2 disc vinyl spendiferousness, and this post has motivated me to transcribe it to digital. Unless I can hunt down a CD copy.

I remember dropping Spring onto the deck, cranking up the volume, and watching the thunderstorm wash in behind my eyelids.
posted by arzakh at 9:33 PM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Holy moly, why is that album so difficult to find? Switched On.. was really important to me when it came out, along with In a Wild Sanctuary by Beaver & Kraus (apparently also hard to find now?). But I never had the opportunity to listen to Beauty in the Beast; the clip sounds fantastic.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:50 PM on May 21, 2012

That article was a great read. Man, that's a lot of calculating, worlds beyond, OK, what's a third up from here kind of stuff I do.

Incidentally, does anyone know of a composer that exploits beats? Beats meaning the pulsing clash between two pitches at a close-but-not-unison (or close-but-not-fifths, etc.) relationship?
posted by ignignokt at 10:23 PM on May 21, 2012

Oh. I must go re-listen to Beauty in the Beast. I had to buy an actual CD (gasp!). The album would be interesting and worthwhile just for the idea of it, but most of the tracks are actually music as well, not just experiments.
posted by R343L at 10:35 PM on May 21, 2012

Just yesterday I looked for Switched-On Bach on rdio, but none of her work is available there. Real bummer.
posted by stilist at 10:37 PM on May 21, 2012

Incidentally, does anyone know of a composer that exploits beats? Beats meaning the pulsing clash between two pitches at a close-but-not-unison (or close-but-not-fifths, etc.) relationship?

Alvin Lucier

posted by neroli at 11:09 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whoa, awesome. Thanks, neroli.
posted by ignignokt at 11:38 PM on May 21, 2012

Boy was I confused. I thought that Wendy Carlos was
Walter Carlos’s wife. Just send your clues my way, I need
all the help I can get.
posted by quazichimp at 12:41 AM on May 22, 2012

I had always hoped that she would complete and release a complete version of Beethoven's Ninth. To do so wouldn't implicate any Clockwork Orange copyright issues.
posted by tesseract420 at 1:17 AM on May 22, 2012

It's too bad that more people don't experiment with the dozens of scales that have been devised.

The first problem is psychological - when you've been brought up with one or three and you have to throw out all you know about using them, along with all that muscle automation, you're likely to sound like a newbie for quite a while. The second is technical; easy as it is to configure e-instruments with different scales, most makers don't, probably because of the first problem.
posted by Twang at 1:26 AM on May 22, 2012

Back in my "composer" days, when I was working on gigantic, fragile, complicated spoken-word set pieces for the stage, I started using alternative tunings partly because I adored Beast and Wendy's eloquent advocacy for stepping outside of tuning scales designed around the limitations of baroque keyboard instruments, but mostly because mainstream music theory confused the hell out of me and ditching normal scales suddenly put me in a realm where there wasn't really much in the way of standard practice.

I was lucky enough to do this in the late eighties/early nineties, when there was a brief flush of manufacturers implementing tuning tables, albeit without much standardization, simplicity, or platform interoperability. My beloved Ensoniq EPS, an instrument so prone to random ERROR 144 REBOOT? crashes in mid-set that I took up looping and systems music so that the stage wouldn't go silent while I was frantically rebooting, had a great system for setting up tuning tables, though it used an odd interval for breaking up semi-tones, so I had to do a fair amount of math and contact academic composers using the same instrument for help. There was so much texture in things as simple as two sustained notes in a pelog tuning, for instance, and I loved the Korean golden pentatonic scale, which seemed to make dissonance impossible.

Beauty in the Beast was made possible by the Crumar GDS and DK Synergy synthesizers, which were additive digital synthesizers with immense potential locked behind horrendous human interfaces, but they were some of the first that allowed for breaking out of equal temperament. The later Kurzweil machines, like the 150 and the K2000 series, had great tuning setups, which Wendy used for Switched On Bach 2000, another worthy album of Bach interpretations, but rendered in lush just intonation and other tuning arrangements.

Sadly, when we broke away from the godawful misery of LCD & button interfaces to get back to knobs and physical controls, the industry sort of shrugged and let the more wonderful things go, like tuning tables and polyphonic aftertouch, in favor of retro-Moog after retro-Moog after retro-Moog analogue subtractive blandness. Microtonal music sort of came and went as an academic fad, with composers churning out Csound pieces utterly divorced from anything but math and novelty, and "microtonal" became a way of describing self-indulgent saxophone squeakfests in tiny urban venues where the modus operandi is "I dare you to listen to this," and what was briefly a very cool new toy got relegated to a menu behind a menu behind a three hundred page PDF manual.

I stopped using tuning tables around the time my EPS became a "vintage" instrument from a dead manufacturer, dependent on an irreplaceable floppy drive and a handful of ASICs that can't ever be replaced, after more than my share of sudden mid-show meltdowns. I moved up to the E-mu Emulator IV series, but the tuning tables there were awkward for me, and eventually I slipped into Reason, which really doesn't do tunings, except with intricate workarounds.

In my case, I was never really smart or talented enough to get the life out of alternative scales that they deserved, and it turns out I'm really more of a texture guy than a tone guy, happier convoluting my waves on a cycle-by-cycle basis, so it's all loopers and nord micromodular for me on stage and Reason in the studio, but I'm sad that there aren't more people taking advantage of what's out there to explore the endless universe outside equal temperament.

I hold a deep, if unrealistic, faith that the reason Wendy's website hasn't been updated in three years is that she's fired up the boilers for another run, and isn't just revisiting old scores and familiar landscapes. There's still beauty in the beast, just waiting for someone to give it a prod and set the nostrils blazing and the scales bristling.
posted by sonascope at 6:06 AM on May 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm sad that there aren't more people taking advantage of what's out there to explore the endless universe outside equal temperament

I always wondered why BitB hadn't launched a flourishing genre of electronic music devoted to such explorations. From my utterly lay perspective, it seemed as if an entire virgin continent had been thrown open for homesteading. So where was the land rush?

I thought that - perhaps like the emancipation of dissonance, only many times more so - the arrival of so much creative freedom at once might paradoxically prove inhibiting. But from what you say, it sounds as if, for all the advances in computing over the last quarter-century, the hardware barriers to this kind of music making have not been significantly lowered. That would be tragic.
posted by Trurl at 6:41 AM on May 22, 2012

Seconding the love for Tales Of Heaven And Hell. So good.
posted by Theta States at 6:47 AM on May 22, 2012

. I'd recommend Seasonings to anyone interested in Wendy's career beyond the Bach and the clock—as early modern ambient music, it's a wonderful, rich, and textured work, and something that will make you wonder what might have happened if she'd kept on in the vein that Eno ventured into a year later.

Just wanted to second what sonascope said; I've been listening to both Beauty in the Beast and Sonic Seasonings on vinyl lately and Sonic Seasonings has very quickly risen in my personal ranks of favorite ambient recordings. Like the musical explorations in Beauty, she uses these really interesting "detuned" schemes (I don't know if that's the proper way to describe it) that give the whole thing a very psychedelic / mystical / sublime feel. Hard to explain correctly but the best way I can relate it is by comparing it to Gamelan tuning schemes, but on a much slower, droney scale. Here's an excerpt from wikipedia about the sublime "shimmery" feel (emphasis mine):

"Balinese gamelan instruments are commonly played in pairs which are tuned slightly apart to produce interference beats, ideally at a consistent speed for all pairs of notes in all registers. It is thought that this contributes to the very "busy" and "shimmering" sound of gamelan ensembles. In the religious ceremonies that contain gamelan, these interference beats are meant to give the listener a feeling of a god's presence or a stepping stone to a meditative state."
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 7:04 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for the ultimate weird album, this collaboration between Carlos and none other than Weird Al is a largely unknown gem, and rather rare. Yes, I own the CD. And I ran into this while searching YouTube to see if any of it was there. Too funny.
posted by dbiedny at 7:22 AM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

And for anyone looking for a great tool to explore scales, ThumbJam includes a vast encyclopedia of musical scales from around the world. Too much fun.
posted by dbiedny at 7:47 AM on May 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

I tend to think that the reason Beast didn't fire up a revolution, beyond the basic technical issues and the fact that the album just didn't get promoted very well, thanks to the pig-headed conservatism of listeners in the classical or "serious" music field, was the very nature of the gift that Wendy has.

When she recorded SOB, the press and general public loved to repeat the hackneyed cliches about the Moog, that it was unlimited and magical and so on, when the reality was that even very large modular systems were just difficult, complicated machines with a narrow timbral range and hardly any control over the sounds they could make. Her musicianship was and is just brilliant, and as one retrospective reviewer pointed out, the sound was all Carlos—she could have made SOB with wax paper and a comb.

Likewise, when you look at the writing she did about the process of creating Beast, there's just a stunning amount of math and planning and thought to it. The four hour process of calculating a four-bar bit in "Just Imaginings" is typical. When you step outside the realm of existing theory, it means that you're having to build your own theory as you go, and if you just wing it without the kind of savant winging-it talents that such things take, you never leave the plateau of novelty. I'm always a little sad, listening to my own work from my tuning days, to hear how random it is—the sense that I'm just fooling around never quite goes away. You can also venture down the Harry Partch avenue, with just astonishing tunings, mostly played on instruments that didn't really give them the timbral justice they needed (not that Partch isn't just amazing, nonetheless).

There's a methodical, meticulous level of detail in Wendy's work and in the way she works, which used to be examined with great care by the musical press while we still had a vital musical press. She approached the design and continuing evolution of her studio, from ergonomics to workflow to cat-accommodation, with as much rigor as she employed in the music she made. Just such a diligent composer of the big C, for-the-ages variety, but she never gets her due because the realm of serious music is mired in endless reiteration of the same fifty "great" works, because she hit big early on with SOB and A Clockwork Orange, because everyone's stupidly obsessed about her being transgender, and because she just sort of...stopped some time back for no readily apparent reason. Eno's better known, by far, and she's prickly and opinionated in ways that make her a difficult distant mentor, but man, the depth of what she knows and the tools in her head—she's really one of the best of our time.

Novelty is easy. Wild waving aimless airy whoopfests on a theremin get attention. The one trick pony of granular synthesis sounds distinct and special for a while. Hearing a song played by arcing discharges lashing out of the secondary of a big Tesla coil, buzzed out by dead floppy drives, or bleep-bleeped on hacked Atari consoles is fun, but it comes and it goes. Beauty in the Beast just gets better, play after play, long after you stop thinking how odd or dissonant it sounds. When we're ready to take up the challenge of doing it with conviction, we'll see something special.
posted by sonascope at 7:48 AM on May 22, 2012 [9 favorites]

Plugging a friend of a friend's music: Randy Gibson's Apparitions of The Four Pillars incorporates just intonation and beats.
posted by turbodog at 2:05 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

@sonascope (You may already know this, but I'll just mention it anyway.) If you can get the software, you can set up alternate tunings using MIDI. (That really helps keep the price down.) The basic concept is that MIDI pitchbend is 14-bit (16,384 divisions). The software needs to let you assign a fixed PB to the note values you want to use.

Then the tunings can be saved/loaded with SYSEX. That method can work with any MIDI synth that responds to PB. Think it's possible using Logic, for one, as this page suggests.
posted by Twang at 10:30 PM on May 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older Dont destroy research! vs Take the flour back!   |   Comin like a ghost town Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments