Interview with Wendy Carlos – June 1984

This article appeared in Polyphony magazine, June 1984. Although this article gives great insight in the way of composing and producing by Wendy Carlos, the original article did not have any pictures. So we decided to include some pictures that could add to the value of this story. Please note that all (c) are with Polyphony Magazine and the Author. Not familiar with Polyphony magazine? Read more at the bottom of this page.

An Interview with Wendy Carlos, by John K. Diliberto

In every art form there are dividing lines, points of demarcation that illuminate the shift from one style to the next. Charlie Parker neatly divided Be-Bop from Swing. Jack Kerouac clearly set off the Beat generation and Delacroix etched the cut from Romanticism to Impressionism. In the brief history of electronic music, Wendy Carlos is such a divider. Her importance approaches that of Robert Moog, with whom she is inextricably intwined.

Carlos’s 1968 hit record, Switched-On Bach, propelled electronic music into popular consciousness. While many electronic purists cringe at the thought of imitative synthesis and the now cliched “Switched-On” approach, there can be little doubt that electronic synthesis would not be where it is now without it. Her Switched-On albums were master- works of electronic craft, forcing the synthesizer into the rigorous terrain of Baroque and Classical masters (especially Bach). Breaking the rules is an important statement, but doing it after you’ve shown that you can play by them is profound. After proving that the synthesizer could be musical, Carlos wrenched the classical standards into the electronic age with her horrifying score to Stanley Kubrick’s equally horrifying movie, A Clockwork Orange. The vocoded voices of Beethoven1s 9th and the metallic decay of Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary (The Clockwork Orange Theme) signalled Carlos’s and electronic music’s shift from the past into the future, whether Tomita wanted to come along or not. Her own composition, Timesteps, proved that no further questions needed to be asked about the validity of electronic music.

Unfortunately, few of Wendy Carlos’s own compositions have been committed to vinyl, so the general public is still unaware of how far-reaching her conception of making music electronically stretches. A hint was gleamed from Kubrick’s The Shining, but he only used two pieces from what was to be an entire film score.

Then there was the soundtrack to Tron, Disney’s science-fiction computer epic. Here, Carlos alloyed electronic and acoustic sounds in a merger as complete as chromium. Using the digital synthesis of the GDS (General Development System) synthesizer, Carlos had the orchestra and synthesizer reinforcing each other. To the casual listener, it sounded orchestral; and in fact, many Carlos fans were disappointed that it wasn’t an overtly electronic score. To be sure, the Tron soundtrack was not as striking musically as other works by Carlos, but it did open up the possibilities of electronic sound for her. She could make it sound electronic, acoustic, or like sounds you’ve never heard, and she could do it with a full orchestra or the most advanced computer synthesis. As she showed on her Sonic Seasonings LP, the possibilities of music are as wide as nature permits.

Carlos employs the GDS synthesizer not only to make music but to create the basic sounds, the actual “clay” from which she forms her compositions. She eschews the pre-programmed approach of most synthesists, instead seeking out new sounds and forms that offer her the timbral richness and texture that she loves in acoustic instruments. Her modular Moog system, custom designed and modified by Robert Moog, still occupies a prominent spot in her multi-track recording studio; yet one suspects that it will occupy less space in her future work.

John Diliberto: When did you first start playing electronic instruments?

Wendy Carlos: I think a fair date would be ’56, ’57. By ’57 I was already playing around with my own home-brewed stereo tape machine, and by ’61 my own home-brewed quad machine. Usually the things that I would put on those machines were some form of musique concrete with a few oscillators added in. So it’s the real American way of combining both the German and the French classic styles that eventually led to the traditional synthesizer, which seems to be more of an American invention in its own way.

JD: What inspired you to go in that direction?

WC: Records! The Brown University music department had collections of quite a few records. There were also silly myths going around that Brown had an audioresearch laboratory, which now they do have, but at that time it was a hoax. I was naive enough to believe that they did have something like that, and that I was going to do something which would convince them that maybe they’d want me as a student when the time came for me to look for a college. The impetus was that funny turn-on to find ways of making sounds that would be exciting, using the new technology of stereo taping.

JD: So you were just in high school and doing this on your own with no academic background.

WC: Nothing in this field, although I’d been studying piano since first grade and went through organ lessons as well. I had read a lot of books on counterpoint and harmony, so I suppose in one sense my background is almost stuffily academic, yet my attitude is antiacademic, maybe as a reaction.

JD: In 1958, all of your friends must have been listening to Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.

WC: Oh yes indeed! Were they ever! Funny thing is that music in the popular side of things during that particular period couldn’t have bored me more. I just loathed 1-4-5 harmonies, even in other forms of music, or the simple chugga-chugga-chugga of a 4/4 beat. I was just simply intolerant as you are best able to do when you’re that age. You can never quite pull it off as well later on.

Then when pop music shifted and became filled with all kinds of meaty things I suddenly was fascinated and wanted to make a hit in that area. Then when it reverted back in the mid-seventies to that same chugga-chugga, once again I said “Oh that’s right! I used to hate that stuff then and I hate it now.” So this (electronic music) was my way of making something that was more timely than Beethoven or Mozart, and yet was not a part of this boring stuff that all my friends listened to. JD: When did you get involved in an academic sense?

WC: When I was going for my Bachelors Degree in music composition, I talked the faculty advisors at Brown University into allowing me to do a special research seminar as one of my music courses. I put together a couple of more or less serious works, limited very greatly by the available technology. If you want to talk about composition in a more serious manner you’d have to talk about when I got involved with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. I came here (New York) in 1962 and did my first serious composition with the technology they had there. It involved an awful lot of splicing, but it allowed you to compose in a sense that was composition and not improvisation.

JD: As you look back on that whole era from the late 50s and the 60s with your music, Otto Luening’s and Vladimir Ussachev- sky’s, do you see it as people experimenting and trying to find something or do you see these works as fully realized compositions and performances?

WC: I’d say the latter. There was experimentation, for sure. Even those who had been working at it for years, and had their techniques more or less perfected, still had some elements of experimentation going on. The process itself was unremovable from that, in the same way that a jazz musician is always experimenting. But more than in traditional composition, there was a great deal of experimentation that went on in all of these works. They color the way you look at it now. You see them as something that arose from that period of history that cannot be removed, as well from that period as music that came both before and after, at least in other styles.

JD: When I listen to your early works like “Music For Flute and Magnetic Tape” and “Dialogue For Piano and Two Loudspeakers”, there’s a clear distinction between the electronic sound and the live musician. But with the Tron soundtrack, the acoustic and electronic sounds are much more inter- meshed.

WC: Yeah, they came out of different things. Are you aware that at that time it was a deadly thing to play a tape at a concert? We all had our four-track tapes and we thought we’d just dim the house lights and leave a little light on the stage, announce the piece, step back and hit the start button and play the tape. It was horrible. No audience was ever able to get through more than a couple of minutes with feeling uncomfortable and you could feel it for them if you sat out there. We had to find something to do to focus the attention, which you get automatically with a live performance. So we just put the two together. With Tron, it didn’t matter one wit how you obtained any particular sound. It was the final product that counted. I was looking for the gradation of color that you can get by going from the most synthesized sounding electronic effects to the most orchestral and everything in between. In those earlier pieces you’d play up the contrast between the two — the mechanistic portions of the rhythm that you would get from the tape, v.ersus the live performer who could be more rhapsodic feeling and improvisatory. I simply wrote a score with two lines for the left loudspeaker, two lines for the right, two lines for the solo instrument or in a four- channel piece, a few more lines as well. And then I’d tediously realize that portion on tape until I had all the notes and timbres and everything was specified on the score. The performer would practice and synchronize with the tape and invent techniques to allow some freedom between where the synchronization points were. It was experimental in the execution, but the music was less experimental than the pure electronic music.

JD: How have multi-tracking techniques affected your music?

WC: The kind of control you get with multi-tracking is that of a live performer. You can actually spend the time worrying about each individual note, as a performer does on the cello. You’re turning knobs and moving and shaping sound as you play it. You actually perform in your best performance of each line, line-byline, note-by-note. With some of today’s devices where you’re hitting chords you’re more like an organist. There’s less of this (individual sound-shaping) and in my opinion the music suffers. It doesn’t have quite the human side of it that I was excited about hearing in multi-track music, be it electronic, rock and roll of the time in the 60s which pushed the music from two, to four to sixteen tracks and upwards, adding on tracks ad infinitum.

JD: I notice that you have a modified quadraphonic set-up in your studio, and that a lot of your music is also concerned with the placement of sound in space.

WC: Yes, antiphony. It’s an important parameter and the truth is there hasn’t been that much done, although they fooled around with it years ago. The most recent example is Bartok’s “Music For Strings, Percussion and Celeste.” Antiphony is another axis of freedom. The idea is that part of the excitement of the electronic medium is that it gives you possibilities that you couldn’t have before. Distributing the sounds all around you is a nice way of making it clear what’s happening in a piece of music. You could repeat a sound exactly except place it in a different location, which would create a different reaction in you than it would if it were all collapsed down to a couple of musicians sitting on stage a couple of hundred feet away from you. So much of classical music doesn’t explore this other color on the palette.

JD: Do you think this is because your music is of a recorded medium instead of live performance?

WC: No, I don’t think so. If I did a live performance, I’d do what a lot of avant-garde composers do — I would request that certain instrumentalists sit in certain locations. In fact, in the orchestra for Tron, we had a reseating to pull off an antiphonal effect, which got ruined because of an ignorant engineer who collapsed it all down to mono. But it’s nice, as long as you have two ears and a good acoustic environment, to be able to pull things apart that might otherwise blur together.

JD: Do you think that electronic instrument sounds are not as rich as acoustic ones?

WC: Yeah! If you look on a graph, they look like a computer plot. Live instruments look like someone tied a pen to a kitty’s tail and it scrawled this plot while playing with a ball or something. Acoustic instruments have a wealth of detail, some of which is unimportant to the ear, but a lot of it is subtle stuff that important to the ear and produces a little friction in the ear that spices up what you’re hearing. To me, synthesizers are like eating bland food like most Americans eat. Once you get turned on to ethnic food it’s like acoustic instruments. You start blending all kinds of exotic spices and herbs, and you miss that when suddenly you don’t have it. It is important and it does make a difference. Until the GDS came along there was nothing on the market to allow you to cook with exotic herbs and spices. The GDS is the only instrument built that allows you to do things with the subtlety, precision and nuance — and the complexity — that exists in acoustic instruments. But no one has been able to fully realize that yet, including me. It’s a ton and ton of work and specification to get the instrument to be able to do that. Again, this recalls my old rule that for every parameter you can control, you must control. A lot of people aren’t willing to get into that amount of work.

JD: With Tron, there’s a merger of electronic and acoustic sounds.

WC: Well don’t you think that’s kind of the reason for continuing in this direction? If you’re going to make instrumental colors on a digital synthesizer that sound more and more acoustic and if you keep your finger in the pie of all the contemporary things one can do with orchestras that sound more and more electronic, I think the two overlap and start blurring very violently. You’re ending up with something that, as a composer, you need to face honestly and say, “OK, I’ve got two regions now that used to sit apart, but now they’re two circles that are overlapping.” I have to face that I’m working in this double range of possibilities in which some of my colors can be done with either the orchestra or an electronic device and no one will tell the difference, even me. Other colors could only be done by the orchestra and yet others by only the electronic device. It’s like a multi-media event. You’ve got performers on stage, motion picture film, and you can do things by causing the two to interact. Tron was the first score to my knowledge that blurs the distinction with such a vengeance. I wanted a score where you couldn’t tell one from the other and Tron was a perfect vehicle, being a film that explores the ambiguity between the real world and the electronic world.

JD: The music released from The Shining was mostly electronic, wasn’t it?

WC; No, much of that was musique concrete. That’s one of the things I miss about not working with Rachel Elkind. The other thing that can be added into the melting pot is musique concrete; it hasn’t died. Because it seemed that electronic music grew up and forgot about it doesn’t mean that we still can’t go in with microphones and take a bow with rosin and rub it against a trumpet mouthpiece or something and get a squeak and record it, process it and do something with it. You might come up with sounds that we can’t presently make.

JD: When you use the GDS, is it like you’re creating a whole new instrument, or do you create a line note-by-note?

WC: You’re creating a note at the moment. You try and make it so it’s broad enough to be several notes at least, so you try to create an octave out of it if you can. Then in a compositional sense you don’t want to think about that. So you put those down on a floppy disk and call up the sounds that you’ve worked on hours, days, weeks, or maybe years ago*, and start playing with them the way a composer plays with flute, oboe, sine-wave oscillator, it doesn’t matter. So there are two hats you have to wear. It’s hard doing a composing step and a digital synthesis step at the same time. When you’re making sounds on the GDS, very often it’s both intuitive and logical. You’re using the full brain pretty completely — just as when you’re composing you’re involved with the drama, the tempo, the moment, the loudness and the line.

JD: Do you think, that even on the GDS, you can get the freedom of spontaneous expression you would obtain with a conventional instrument?

WC: At the moment that you’re performing, you’re likely to do things that you can’t specify. It’s a spontaneous natural reaction. In fact, as a performer you train yourself to depend on that seat-of-the-pants instinctive way of working; if you had to think about every muscle you were moving, you’d never get anywhere. It’s like driving an automobile. That kind of thing has got to be instinctive. Could you write a program to drive the car the way you do, or walk? It’s why I’ve come down hard on the artificial intelligensia. I just don’t believe that we can describe what we embody as a performer. I embody a human being that took years of practice and training and feedback with other human beings as part of something that has been passed from generations over centuries. But you don’t really know what that “thing” underneath me on which I’m standing really consists of. So how can you specify it with the thoroughness and the rigor that these devices, like the digital computers of today, require. You can do it for an accounting job because you can teach somebody how to calculate an extrapolated regression, but it’s hard to teach a task that you can’t describe very well, namely, the tasks that you do more from muscular, physical things, or audible feedback tactile things ing on the touch sensitive keyboard like the GDS or the Moog keyboard that Bob (Moog) custom built for me. These allow you to stop thinking about the expressivity a little bit and stait just feeling it. I think the problem with most electronic music is that the instruments don’t allow you to express: they require that you concoct the expressiveness in your head where it doesn’t belong, in the left hemisphere. The verbal, descriptive side of your brain is now doing a right hemisphere task, and it isn’t capable of doing that very well. It will try its best, and some people come out with things that sound okay. It’s sort of like the dancing dog; it’s a miracle that it happens at all, not how well it happens.

Your question suggests that I should be able to craft together all of the nuance and performance value I might want with these instruments. And I’m saying to you that I can’t do that. I challenge anyone to do that. You can’t program the art. But you can program the craft and right now the field is depending more on craft and less on art, let’s be honest.

JD: Do you think that the technology will date the music?

WC: Music is always that way. Beethoven would not have written quite the same music had he been born a hundred years later. His music is stylistically dated. Mozart is particularly so. He wrote very much in the accepted style of the time and he did it brilliantly. But the style is still there. These instruments are definitely dating when they were done and so is the music that was done in those years, because it was done at a particular time in history. You’re probably getting yourself into big trouble if you think you can get away from the dateability and try to write in a more cosmological sense. I doubt that that can be done since we’re calling upon resources within our humanness and our humanness is very much more temporal, very non- cosmological.

JD: Where is it all going?

WC: It’s obvious that the technology is moving in directions due to a lot of things like NASA — specifically, more and more micro- circuits that are allowing us to do things cheaply that were difficult to do earlier. So, instruments like the GDS will be on one chip and you’ll be able to have eight GDSs on one little inexpensive machine. If I had my way, there will be people who will do it with wonderful keyboard-type controllers for people like me or guitar-like controllers for guitarists, or wind-type controllers in order to allow musicians who have spend many years learning their skills and art form to run this fancy new way of making sounds with nuance and subtlety.

This interview with Wendy Carlos is taken from TOTALLY WIRED: ARTISTS IN ELECTRONIC SOUND, a 26-part radio documentary examining the artistic development of electronic music through interviews and music of the artists. The series is currently running in most major markets on public radio stations through the fall and winter of ’83 – ’84. TOTALLY WIRED was produced by John Diliberto and Kimberly Haas. It was funded by Sequential Circuits, Inc., Yamaha Corp., the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts. For more information about TOTALLY WIRED, or to obtain cassettes of the programs, write to: TOTALLY WIRED, Box 5426, Philadelphia, PA 19143.

Polyphony magazine was a leading magazine on Electronic Music during the years 1975-1985, when electronic music realised the promise of the previous decades as monophonic voltage controlled synthesizers evolved into the polyphonic, multi-timbral music workstations of today.  The pages of Polyphony magazine documented this time of great change with innovative DIY and theory articles, interviews with the artists and engineers who helped shape the future and much more.

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