Switched-on Bach, exploring the potential of electronic music in 1968
November 10, 2019 9:55 AM   Subscribe

This ground-breaking album seems to not be available for sale or streaming anywhere. So I’d purchased a used LP and digitized it for all to enjoy! Switched-On Bach by Wendy Carlos on Internet Archive (via Sarah Wallin Huff on MltShp). The first classical music LP ever to be certified for a Platinum Record Award, by selling to hundreds of thousands of mostly younger listeners who didn't normally buy classical recordings. Carlos saw the Moog voice as valid on its own terms, which may be one reason why this album still stands out today, when compared with some of the more flamboyant work that followed from others (AllMusic review). More on the album from Wendy herself.
posted by filthy light thief (53 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
 
My father played this for me a lot as a kid and that fact has entertained me almost as much as his having a cassette of Jean Luc Ponty's Mystical Adventure, in that both seem so out of character and yet...perfect. Thanks for the reminded and context...
posted by freebird at 10:02 AM on November 10, 2019 [3 favorites]


Related: Where is Wendy Carlos? (Esra Soraya Padgett for Cultured Magazine, Oct. 2, 2019)
Ever groundbreaking, Carlos has remained devoted to education about electronic music alongside innovation. Her transparency about her own musical techniques demonstrated the collaborative instinct that ran through her work at the same time that it modeled her creative prowess. This is most evident in the album Secrets of Synthesis (1987), in which Carlos explains, with the charm of her Rhode Island accent, the possibilities of electronic music from orchestral sounds and choral tones to musique concrète, hybrid timbres and the alternative tunings she believed would represent “the future” of music.

Yet in the past decade or so, Carlos has gone underground. She became increasingly silent over the years, refusing interviews or even an acknowledgement of her whereabouts, but it was in 2009 that her website, once an active interface between Carlos and her fans, stopped updating (it still remains the most reliable source of information on her life and work and is worth a visit—it even features an Escher-style germinating tile pattern made out of the word “Wendy”). At the same time, her music has become increasingly difficult to find: digital copies are hard to come by even for purchase, and videos attempting to stream Carlos’s music on YouTube or elsewhere are quickly taken down. In fact, this is the one space where traces of Carlos’s activity can still be found: as recently as 2016, she was represented in a lawsuit against individuals who had used her music in their own YouTube videos, often for humorous ends.

Though her wishes for privacy today should certainly be respected, it is her disappearance from the public in tandem with the increasing inaccessibility of her music (especially as we have become much more of a streaming culture in the years since Carlos has dropped out of view) that raises questions not only about personal legacy but about how music should be cared for. Though often the question of the separation between an artist and their work hinges on the value of an artwork in light of its maker’s choices, Carlos offers a powerful counterpoint: are we allowed to go on appreciating an artwork despite the artist’s wishes to have it buried? Are we allowed to remember what the artist wishes forgotten? Can we even know what she wants anyway? To use one of Carlos’s favorite phrases: “Quo vadis,” or “Where do we go from here?”
While you can still buy her albums (via 3rd party sellers), as linked to Amazon pages from her site, it's true that the audio isn't available on streaming platforms, something of the modern standard for "availability" of music.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:03 AM on November 10, 2019 [8 favorites]


Back in high school, I was sitting in the school library at lunch looking at Time magazine. In there was a review of this album. I had not heard it anywhere but from the review I knew I had to hear it. I went out that weekend and bought it. The sound of the record clicked in my mind and from that point on I wanted a modular synth. But back then a Moog cost as much as a house so I pretty much gave up on the idea. But I still wanted to make that sound. Now fifty years later I finally have a modular synth, real knobs, real patch cords, and those electronic sounds from fifty years ago are coming out of my speakers. I’m no Wendy Carlos, but the desire invoked by her album long ago stayed with me and now it’s finally realized. I can’t thank her enough for opening up a new sound world to create within, listen to, and explore.
posted by njohnson23 at 10:14 AM on November 10, 2019 [13 favorites]


While there has been a huge resurgence in all things modular in the last decade you can play around with modular synthesis for free with VCV Rack. Make your own Hooked on Bach or Popcorn and learn how modular works.

While Moogs back then (and again now) cost as much a small house there was a time when they were more or less giving them away. I bought an Arp 2600 with keyboard for $50 in ‘85. No one wanted them, it was all about DX7’s and digital.
posted by misterpatrick at 10:22 AM on November 10, 2019 [8 favorites]


Oh, if you’re in the Los Angeles area, there’s a lecture/demonstration coming up: “ Switched-On Bach Lecture & Performance With Roshanak Kheshti.” at Perfect Circuit, which is a cool synth store in Burbank. Kheshti just had a book published about Switched on Bach, I haven read it, I just noticed the lecture last week and thought it sounded cool.
posted by hapticactionnetwork at 10:52 AM on November 10, 2019 [3 favorites]


Wendy was the first time I understood that composers have whimsy. Bach, Bramhs (they're all named Johann). Wendy Carlos was the first to delight me and compel me to think about music. Her insane By Request left me in stitches. But, after her, I thought about music more seriously. It's not "pop", disgusting word. Here is someone who wants to be heard. Before Wendy Carlos, I had never thought of that.
posted by SPrintF at 10:52 AM on November 10, 2019 [4 favorites]


Don’t sleep on her original music! Beauty in the Beast is her masterpiece, and is as groundbreaking in its digital additive synthesis as S-OB was in modular analog synthesis. More, perhaps—there’s still nothing else that sounds like it.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:53 AM on November 10, 2019 [5 favorites]


Wendy Carlos is amazing - I think I've listened to Secrets of Synthesis as much as any other favorite record. Also, having read her website back when she still updated it, I'm fairly certain she'd blow a gasket at the thought of her work being made freely available on the Internet Archive.
posted by factory123 at 10:54 AM on November 10, 2019


First heard her work in the library of my junior high school, where I'd put on that or another synth-version-of-classical-music record whose name escapes me (it featured Carmen, which is all I can remember of it). I've got Switched On Bach 200 and the soundtrack to TRON, which has her and other artists (e.g. Journey), and just ordered the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:27 AM on November 10, 2019


When I use my synthesizers, I can't help feeling like I'm just like that dog with the 26-button soundboard compared to Carlos. I read some of her discussions on musical theory and, well, she's playing 4D chess.

Still waiting for Switched-on P. D. Q. Bach, though.
posted by zaixfeep at 11:30 AM on November 10, 2019 [5 favorites]


digital copies are hard to come by even for purchase

Really? The CD is on Amazon, but only 3 copies left. Maybe check your local library (but give Switched On Bach 2000 a pass if you're familiar with the original - Wendy may think it sounds better, but her newer version hurts my ears.)

I'd put on .. another synth-version-of-classical-music record whose name escapes me (it featured Carmen, which is all I can remember of it)

That would be Everything You Always Wanted To Hear On The Moog (But Were Afraid To Ask For).
posted by Rash at 11:46 AM on November 10, 2019 [2 favorites]


There's a Jimmy Page interview from a while back where he enthuses about Switched On Bach, lists it as one of his all time faves. In particular, I guess it blew his mind for its single-minded commitment to delivering on its concept. Because this was before polyphonic synthesizers. So all those complex chords you hear: they were played one note at a time, then multi-tracked for the desired effect ... and all of this was analogue, so no tweaking the speed of things. It was perfection or failure.

Mindblowing indeed.

Don’t sleep on her original music! Beauty in the Beast is her masterpiece,

Damn. I used to have this CD. One of the hundred plus that got stolen in the great break-in of 1999.
posted by philip-random at 11:50 AM on November 10, 2019 [4 favorites]


I have this on vinyl! I pretty much bought it for the cover photo alone, not even knowing how great the music was.
posted by gnutron at 12:24 PM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


While Moogs back then (and again now) cost as much a small house there was a time when they were more or less giving them away. I bought an Arp 2600 with keyboard for $50 in ‘85. No one wanted them, it was all about DX7’s and digital.

Heh. I bought a DX-7 for $1400 in 1987 and sold it for $700 maybe three years later. That was more than it was worth. I suspect that the buyer was going to use it to create a gizmo to flush his toilet on voice command or something.

Electronics do not age well, is I guess what I am saying.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:42 PM on November 10, 2019


Heh. I bought a DX-7 for $1400 in 1987 and sold it for $700 maybe three years later. That was more than it was worth. I suspect that the buyer was going to use it to create a gizmo to flush his toilet on voice command or something.

Apparently they are hard to find now, because Nine Inch Nails bought them all up to smash on stage
posted by thelonius at 12:44 PM on November 10, 2019 [6 favorites]


I had Switched-on Bach on cassette when I was a kid. Only my copy was kind of weird. Some of the tracks I recognised, and others didn't sound much like any Bach I new. Also, the recording was really quiet. On the whole though, I liked the bits I knew.

After a couple of months of not being quite sure why my friend has recommended this recording, I had a minor Eureka moment. Whoever had assembled it in the factory had wound the tape onto the spools with the wrong side facing the play head, so it was playing backwards, through the wrong side of the tape.

And that was how I learned that a lot of Bach music has parts that play backwards the same as forwards, something that would only really catch you out if you were listening to the Wendy Carlos version made up of electronic beeps and boops.
posted by pipeski at 1:06 PM on November 10, 2019 [9 favorites]


I have a copy of her The Well Tempered Synthesizer on vinyl somewhere. I’ve barely listened to it, I’ll have to give it a spin.
posted by snuffleupagus at 1:48 PM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


That one contains Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #4... at some point she completed the recording of all six, and then released them all as Switched-On Brandenburgs, which also seems to have gone missing.

I'd guess she's been forced to go underground due to harassment -- she's probably one of the best-known members of the trans community.
posted by Rash at 2:35 PM on November 10, 2019 [2 favorites]


How much of a direct line is this to Hooked On Classics? When I was a preteen in the early 80s I loved HoC and kept asking for a copy but my dad was a Deutchegramophonen classical vinyl snob and wouldn't let it in the house. I've turned into a bit of an orchestral snob since, I don't know if I'd like HoC all that much now.
posted by hearthpig at 2:38 PM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


A dotted line, at best -- those "Hooked On..." recordings are all schlock, and your father was doing you a favor by keeping 'em out of the house and off his turntable.
posted by Rash at 2:40 PM on November 10, 2019 [2 favorites]


Rash clearly you and my dad would have gotten along very well.

I am now remembering we had an 8 track that we kept in the car called Mozartmania that was somewhat synthy versions of some Wolfy standards (Figaro overture etc), and another bach one that had a lot of these (esp the brandenburg bits) but was not this recording. Huh, I wonder why my dad tolerated those? [actually I suspect it's because he had an 8 track equipped car at a time when 8 tracks were getting scarce and he didn't have many choices...]
posted by hearthpig at 2:43 PM on November 10, 2019


Curiously, as this thread came up, YouTube suggested this short interview with Wendy from 1989.

It's quite difficult to overstate how important Switched On Bach is to me. As my first introduction to Bach himself (and that Brandenburg 3 is the great classic of Baroque-and-roll); As one of the pantheon of ubiquitous instrumental albums of the 70s (along with Oxygene and Tubular Bells); As a manifesto for synthesiser music (my parents had the Electronic Music EP by Tom Disseveldt and Kid Baltan and of course my life was permanently haunted by Delia Derbyshire's realization of the Dr Who theme, and we had the Everything You Ever Wanted To Hear... album, too). It's probably one of the most ... significant? ... records ever made. And as a synth record, it's so subtle.

I also had the Clockwork Orange album (which includes Timesteps), The Well Tempered Synthesizer and Sonic Seasonings, which bitterly disappointed me at first (I was thirteen, give me a break), as it must have been the very first ambient record, but then when I got it, it blew my mind.

Wendy used to have a web site, back in the days when we still thought the web was going to be full of nice people, and she interacted with people. Anyway, I hope she's happy and well. The records will out eventually.
posted by Grangousier at 3:10 PM on November 10, 2019 [7 favorites]


The friend who introduced me to Wendy Carlos also tried to get me to listen to Kitaro, Tomita and Vangelis. Despite all of them being a step further on than Carlos in a technical sense, Wendy Carlos is the one I come back to. It's the way she gets so much nuance from a very limited acoustic palette, I think.
posted by pipeski at 3:48 PM on November 10, 2019 [3 favorites]


At the same time, her music has become increasingly difficult to find: digital copies are hard to come by even for purchase, and videos attempting to stream Carlos’s music on YouTube or elsewhere are quickly taken down.

Rash: Really? The CD is on Amazon, but only 3 copies left.

I think the focus is digital distribution, as downloadable or streaming audio, including on YouTube.


hearthpig: How much of a direct line is this to Hooked On Classics?

I could have sworn Carlos wrote about the collection of similar Moog-based covers that followed, stating that they were all inferior works.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:49 PM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oh, and Tangerine Dream, naturally.
posted by pipeski at 3:49 PM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


the soundtrack to TRON

On that note (heheh), Stemage's cover of that score is absolutely brilliant.

I always favored Tomita over Carlos, but the two of them were basically what drove my lifelong interest in electronic music and are why I'm a synth nerd now. I always loved the TRON score, and there was a place in my heart for Switched-On Bach and Switched-On Brandenburgs as well.

And I was fond of Carlos' Digital Moonscapes in the mid-late 80s. It definitely shows its age today, but still has some magic in it.
posted by Foosnark at 4:09 PM on November 10, 2019 [2 favorites]


Baroque was a good choice something as limited as Moog at the time. My initial impression of the Brandenburg was as if it was being played on bed springs, kazoos, a toy piano, tin pots and a calliope...
posted by jim in austin at 4:19 PM on November 10, 2019


I hadn't realized her stuff was so hard to find now. I think I have most of it on vinyl or CD, thank goodness.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 4:35 PM on November 10, 2019


Switched On Bach was awesome. But the album that really blew my young mind was The Copper Plated Integrated Circuit - Plugged In Pop. If this were done today, it would almost certainly use a drum machine and digital drums, but the acoustic drums sound good. A bit off-topic, but I always think of these two records together as an introduction to what the Moog was capable of.

Here's a little more background on the odd credits: https://www.discogs.com/The-Copper-Plated-Integrated-Circuit-Plugged-In-Pop/release/879786

I think both albums are still back home.
posted by AppleSeed at 7:18 PM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


the collection of similar Moog-based covers that followed

The one which hasn't been mentioned yet was by Hans Wurman, The Moog Strikes Bach (to Say Nothing of Chopin, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Paganini And Prokofief) from 1970. Worthwhile just to hear his version of "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" (which starts at about 30:00).
posted by Rash at 7:19 PM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


This album was played frequently by my parents on our living room stereo in the 1970s. I love it.
posted by sundrop at 7:39 PM on November 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


In ’69; for some unexplained reason, Mom and Dad gave me the second album by Wendy… A Well Tempered Synthesizer. On our Fisher mono console… even the test tone at the beginning sounded amazing. I like Switched on… but AWTS is one of my all time favorite albums.
posted by jabo at 9:42 PM on November 10, 2019 [3 favorites]


In case anyone was wondering, this is the same Wendy Carlos who was the composer and keyboardist for a version of Peter and the Wolf with Weird Al Yankovic. The Internet Archive has it for your audio pleasure.

Much like the rest of Carlos' discography, the LP is long out of print and is a collector's item with fans of both musicians looking for copies of it. On one of his tours, Yankovic sold what he called the "last remaining original copies" of this album from a box he found "in a corner of the garage."
posted by fireoyster at 12:48 AM on November 11, 2019 [5 favorites]


Thank you so much for sharing this, I've been meaning to listen to it for a long time.

Was this really released with the surtitle "Trans-Electronic Music Productions, Inc. presents," before she came out?
posted by Glier's Goetta at 7:18 AM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


My brother bought this album when it first came out (I now have his copy), and it was constantly playing in our house. For him, it was part stepping stone to getting serious about classical music in general. It was also why I knew how to pronounce Moog, despite my later boyfriend's insistence that he taught me.

For another take on classical music using the Moog synthesizer, try Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's Pictures at an Exhibition.
posted by FencingGal at 8:41 AM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Glier's Goetta: Was this really released with the surtitle "Trans-Electronic Music Productions, Inc. presents," before she came out?

I remember that being on the original release. Columbia Records insisted on identifying her as "Walter", and the album cover included a really old mugshot of her pre-transistion. People wondered why they didn't get a better photo of "him". It was some years before they finally started listing her correctly as Wendy.
posted by Surely This at 9:05 AM on November 11, 2019 [3 favorites]


Searching for the chronology of "TEMPI" I found this nice concise summary by Louis Niebur on the Library of Congress site (pdf).
According to the record jacket, this album-length Columbia Masterworks collection of
some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most popular works interpreted on the new Moog
synthesizer was produced by an anonymous, corporate sounding “Trans-Electronic Music
Productions, Inc,” or “TEMPI.” In actual fact, this project was a collaboration between
electronic music pioneer Walter (now Wendy) Carlos and jazz singer-turned producer
Rachel Elkind, with contributions made from musicologist and musician Benjamin
Folkman.
posted by Surely This at 9:20 AM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


I bought an Arp 2600 with keyboard for $50 in ‘85. No one wanted them, it was all about DX7’s and digital.

One of the things I adore about Wendy, right up until she went silent online, is that she's absolutely not bound up in nostalgia. She tossed a single Moog note onto Switched-On Back 2000 as friendly fanservice, but her masterwork, Beauty In The Beast was all digital, using digital synthesis to do what analogue just couldn't (The tunings alone, might be double in eurorack today, but back in the mid-eighties? No way.), and she was an enthusiastic convert to the Kurzweil VAST architecture for her remaining published work. Her synthesis was never wild and advanced (folks like John Chowning and Michael McNabb, to name a couple, were kicking ass on that front), but she did fantastic nuance and orchestration for the tunings she worked out and always seemed to be more interested in what the machines could do to extend her reach rather than the other way 'round.

She's a cranky treasure. I hope we hear more work from her one of these days.
posted by sonascope at 10:31 AM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


archive.org reviewer:
"My YouTube account with these uploads got copyright strikes as expected. I will be uploading my own version from the CD which I believe falls under fair use. "

NARRATOR: It does not.
posted by thelonius at 11:17 AM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


So the big dumb question I don't think I've ever been able to figure out is how these polyphonic recordings were produced with monophonic Moogs. Just a bank of monophonic Moogs driven by a CV keyboard to meet the required polyphony? Multitrack tape and carefully playing each note in a chord at just the right time in a very tedious manner? Some form of CV tape click track controlling subsequent tracks? I mean, if I'm reading my history right, Moogs weren't polyphonic until the Polymoog in '75, right? Or is there a terminology / technology slip here and it was much easier than all that.
posted by Kyol at 1:07 PM on November 11, 2019


Multitrack tape and carefully playing each note in a chord at just the right time in a very tedious manner?

Exactly that. Switched-On Bach wasn't played on a keyboard, it was painstakingly assembled note by note.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:45 PM on November 11, 2019 [6 favorites]


Yep, Kyol, the Polymoog was the first polyphonic Moog synth. When they work well, they're awesome. :)

misterpatrick, do you still have the 2600? That's my favorite non-modular vintage synth!

Old anigif made by my late husband on a whim.
posted by luckynerd at 2:23 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oh damn I left out 'recorded the moog notes to a mellotron' in an edit, but sheesh that's nuts.
posted by Kyol at 2:23 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Switched-On Bach wasn't played on a keyboard, it was painstakingly assembled note by note.

It was played on a keyboard, recorded to a custom-built Ampex 8-track tape recorder.

http://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/Switched-OnBach-Niebur.pdf

In another interview she talked about having to teach herself a different keyboard technique than she was used to.
posted by Foosnark at 5:25 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


I've loved her music since I was a child, and I'm going to get some of the less common tracks mentioned here. But I feel compelled to just leave this tender elegy for an elysian, imaginary past.
posted by meehawl at 6:32 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


An older brother received Switched-On Bach as a Christmas present when it came out. I can almost guarantee that this album was the first classical music I ever heard, and played a part in eventually shaping my musical taste for classical. I probably have the album somewhere, too, and I eventually bought it on CD.

Weirdly enough, looking at that LOC PDF Foosnark linked to, that "original album cover" looked wrong to me. I swear that Bach was standing next to the synth, not sitting. A Google Image Search turns up both versions. Wikipedia sayeth:
Switched-On Bach was released with two different covers. The most common features a man dressed as Bach standing before a Moog synthesizer. Early pressings feature the same man seated. Carlos and Elkind objected to the original cover and had it replaced, finding it "was a clownish, trivializing image of a mugging Bach, supposedly hearing some absurd sound from his earphones". They also objected to the fact that the synthesizer was incorrectly set up: "[The earphones] were plugged into the input, not output, of a 914 Filter module, which in turn was connected to nothing, [assuring] that silence is all that would have greeted Johann Sebastian's ears."
posted by pmurray63 at 7:24 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Stanley Kubrick's film soundtrack A Clockwork Orange Wendy plays Beethoven .
posted by hortense at 8:37 PM on November 11, 2019 [2 favorites]


Sonic Seasonings... must have been the very first ambient record, but then when I got it, it blew my mind.

It's true, this came out two years before Eno's Discrete Music. "Fall" is one of my all-time favorite recordings, and I wish I could link to it, to share with you; but nowhere on YouTube...
posted by Rash at 9:41 PM on November 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


It does not [fall under fair use]. - posted by thelonius

So I'm confused: what is the legality of this music upload?
posted by splitpeasoup at 10:14 PM on November 11, 2019


The record company and performer are unlikely to be happy about it. On the upside, the composer probably won't sue.
posted by Grangousier at 3:50 AM on November 12, 2019


So I'm confused: what is the legality of this music upload?

"Not"
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:00 AM on November 12, 2019


Rash: Arguably, 1964's Soothing Sounds For Baby by Raymond Scott was the first ambient album, but Wendy's release is up there, too.
posted by SansPoint at 7:15 AM on November 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


This just in: Reverb magazine, Just How Pioneering was Wandy Carlos' Switched-on Bach?
posted by Rash at 9:28 PM on November 15, 2019 [5 favorites]


« Older On bringing something more to the table in D.C....   |   Bloomberg’s run makes no sense- for him or for... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments