[BELATED] Transgender Day of Visibility – Wendy Carlos

I became aware I missed the Transgender Day of Visibility recently. Pretty ashamed I did so since gender identity is becoming a more visible part of the actually autistic community and also because several respectable chiptuners I know (including some C4A contributors and performers) identify as transgender! Which led me to realize that I forgot to mention one of my favorite musicians, and the musician who turned me on to electronic music all the way back in the late 1990’s when I heard her synthesizer compositions for A Clockwork Orange. That woman would be Wendy Carlos.


While born Walter Carlos, Wendy considered herself female long before her gender reassignment in the early 1970’s and I was sad to hear that she even had to wear fake sideburns and draw eyebrows on herself before meetings with Stanley Kubrick and TV appearances. She was terrified of people learning the truth, and still recorded under the name Walter Carlos for several years before coming out into the open about her real self, the skin she was comfortable in.

This woman’s contributions to electronic music are profound. She collaborated with Robert Moog on his early synthesizers and gave him ideas to make his instrument more intuitive. The next time you see a beautiful vintage Moog and marvel at that warm analog sound, especially its touch-sensitive device for greater musical expression, you may want to thank her. She even got paid for early gigs in Moog equipment. I will stifle my burning jealousy for now.

She recorded a multitude of works throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, but she is known for a few works in particular. She composed Switched-On Bach in 1968, a dazzling array of Bach compositions but performed on monophonic synthesizers, a task that was unbelievable at the time with the limitations of single notes playable at one time on analog synths and the limitations of recording equipment in that era.

I am the proud owner of her follow-up, the Well-Tempered Synthesizer, on vinyl. carlos2

She is also well known for the synthesized scores she composed for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and later, the theme for The Shining. She also did the music for the original Tron as well. Often times she would record much more music for these soundtracks than her employers would actually use. If you hunt down her lost scores, you will find much more than you heard in those films. I can’t imagine Kubrick’s Orange with one of the more orchestrated compositions at the time. I don’t think Mantovani-style orchestras would have made the film have the same atmosphere. And that theme to the Shining? I don’t think anyone could have made Hector Berlioz’s take on the Dies Irae any more menacing.

And while Brian Eno is often credited for ambient music’s creation, Wendy Carlos was recording soft synths and nature sounds together several years before him in 1972 with Sonic Seasonings. The album was meant to be soundscapes composed of minimal synth melodies and recorded nature tracks to create ambient moods, with each of the four tracks dedicated to each of the four seasons. So if you enjoy ambient music? You can thank her too.

She also released an album called Beauty and the Beast in 1986 where, amongst other things, she invented her own scales. Yes, that is NOT a typo. Harmonic, Alpha, Beta and Gamma scales were her INVENTIONS. Part of the reason why was because these scales could be played with a free hand while allowing her other hand to modulate the synth as she played. Now THAT is ingenuity. Not to mention the first recording of a 35-note octave! But she wasn’t all scientific, all the time. She also helped Weird Al Yankovic compose his comical take on Peter and the Wolf, showing that she also had a much lighter side!

It was not until the late 1970’s that Carlos came out about being female, though she was aware of her gender dysphoria at an early age. She feared what fans and record labels would think and what would become of her career. So what happened? Turns out, no one even blinked when revealed her secret. In a People magazine article in 1985, she said of it: “The public turned out to be amazingly tolerant or, if you wish, indifferent … There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life.”

This is power of acceptance and empowerment, no matter who you are, how you identify or what have you. I hope to feel like this someday and not be afraid to tell people I am autistic, as I hope other autistics do too. Anyone can find hope in Wendy’s story. Sometimes it just takes being brave to know who you are. People had heard who she was for a long time, and no pair of fake sideburns could change that.


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