Wendy Carlos

Wendy Carlos studying the score to Tron at her modular Moog system.
15 February, 2014 by Una

Oh, you’ve never heard of Wendy Carlos? Did you see the films The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Tron? If so, you’ve heard her work.

Ms. Carlos is an accomplished American composer and electronic musician who was one of the pioneers of artistic synthesizer work, especially with the Moog 900. Her first fame came in 1968 with an album titled Switched-On Bach, an electronic version of several classical works by the composer. Was it any good? I’ve heard it, and you’ve probably heard some of the songs as incidental music in television programs and films and not known it. And she won three Grammy Awards in 1969 for it as well.

I mentioned the other works which Ms. Carlos may be most recognized for, but she is also an incredible artistic polymath. A review of her website will take you to not only scads of interviews, essays, and photographs about everything from electronic music theory to her beloved Siamese cats, but it also contains artwork by her.

Although Ms. Carlos would have liked to be recognized solely for her contributions to music and art, she is highlighted here because like myself she is a transsexual woman. She first became aware of the potentials of expressing her gender identity in 1962 at Columbia University, and in 1968 she began hormone therapy and began living full-time as a woman. Her first big hit, Switched-On Bach, allowed her to afford her sex reassignment surgery in May 1972.

Ms. Carlos has very much tried to play down her gender transition, and that is highly understandable. But since she came out in the media (the most public manner probably being her interview in the May 1979 Playboy magazine), she well knows as a musician one cannot un-ring that bell. I hope that Ms. Carlos understands how much more awesome her transsexuality makes her though – those of us who are transgender know well the torment, trials, and soul-crushing despair and depression which almost always travel hand-in-hand with gender dysphoria. Now, dear reader, consider the era in which Ms. Carlos transitioned – in terms of acceptance and Civil Rights for transsexuals, it was about the equivalent of what African-Americans faced in the 1920’s. That she survived and prospered as she did is a testament to her strength, intelligence, and character.


The Playboy Interview

Ms. Carlos chose to come out in the mass media in May 1979’s Playboy magazine, and reportedly chose to do so because “The magazine has always been concerned with liberation, and I’m anxious to liberate myself.” Unfortunately that did not work as well as she had hoped – she had wanted to play down her transsexuality, sexual issues, and gender, but instead those became the primary focus of the interview. She now very much regrets the interview.

So why would I link it here? Two reasons – first, I think it’s an important historical document concerning the history of our people, and second, Ms. Carlos does not seem to link to it herself (that I can find). I urge anyone interested in the wonderful Ms. Carlos to have a look at the wealth of material on her website, but if you want to just read the Playboy interview, it is available at the link below.

Playboy Magazine interview with Wendy Carlos, May, 1979 (note – 4.7 MB file)

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