Wendy Carlos: 6 things you probably didn't know about the composer and electronic pioneer

Wendy Carlos is shown in her home studio in 1988.Ebet Roberts/Getty Images

November 11, 2020

Editor's note: With Wendy Carlos celebrating her 81st birthday Saturday, we asked the author of a new biography about the pioneering composer and musician to share her insights. Amanda Sewell is the music director of Interlochen (Mich.) Public Radio and a musicologist who holds a Ph.D. in musicology from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

Most people know American composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos for her 1968 debut album, Switched-On Bach, where she used the Moog modular synthesizer to render the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. No less a musician than Glenn Gould called Switched-On Bach "the record of the decade." Carlos also is famous for the music she contributed to director Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange. In 1979, Carlos disclosed that she was transgender, one of the first public figures to do so.

There are a lot of fascinating things about Carlos that many people might not know. You can find out more about her in my new book, Wendy Carlos: A Biography (Oxford University Press), but here are six to start:

1. Carlos knows the orchestra, not just electronic instruments

Carlos studied music composition with Ron Nelson at Brown University, so she knows her way around the orchestra as well as the synthesizer. For the 1982 film TRON, she composed the entire score — both the electronic music and the music that was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and UCLA Chorus. Her 1984 album, Digital Moonscapes, was scored for an orchestra, and she used a digitally synthesized orchestra to play it on the album.

2. You can't hear most of Carlos' music online

Carlos now owns all of her recorded catalog, and she has not made any of it available online through streaming or download platforms. In fact, anyone who posts her music on YouTube will likely receive a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice. If you want to hear her music — with the exception of some original soundtrack selections — you'll probably need to visit a library or a used-record store.

3. Carlos wrote a complete score for Kubrick's The Shining, and the director hardly used any of it

Carlos and Kubrick's second collaboration (1980's The Shining) didn't go nearly as well as their first (1972's A Clockwork Orange). Carlos composed an entire score for the film, and Kubrick only used a small part of it: the music heard right at the beginning of the film, as the Torrance family is driving to the Overlook Hotel. Luckily, you can hear most of this music on her 2005 album, Rediscovering Lost Scores.

4. Carlos is an avid and accomplished eclipse photographer

She began chasing solar eclipses in 1963 and has seen and photographed dozens of them. Her solar eclipse photography has been featured by Sky & Telescope magazine, Astronomy magazine and NASA!

5. Carlos once collaborated with "Weird Al" Yankovic

In 1988, Carlos worked with Yankovic to create a lively version of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. It included new characters like Bob the Janitor (represented by the accordion). The album's B-side was Carnival of the Animals, Part 2, where Carlos and Yankovic made new musical and poetic contributions to Saint-Saëns' menagerie, including iguanas, cockroaches and poodles.

6. Carlos really doesn't like people writing about her

Carlos is a notoriously reclusive person. She gives few interviews — in fact, she didn't respond to my requests to be interviewed for the new biography. (Instead, I relied on previous interviews she's given, letters and other documents from archives, and what she's written on her website.) She's also critical of journalists and scholars who write about her; she recently lambasted my biography of her, calling it "fiction," "bogus" and a "personal attack."