Why Wendy Carlos’ scores were so revolutionary
Wendy carlos is a musician, physicist and engineer best known for her work on the Moog synthesizer and the soundtracks of Tron, A clockwork orange, and The brilliant. Sometimes referred to as the ‘mother of the Moog’, she worked alongside Robert moog (whom she met in college) to develop the original Moog commercially available synthesizer in the early 1970s. Although she only worked on three soundtracks, her work achieved iconic status and its influence is evident through contemporary scores. Let’s take a look at what makes her work and collaborations so special, and why she is such an important figure in screen composition.
Early in Carlos’ career, she created a series of re-imaginations of classic compositions on a modular synthesizer. The nature of the synthesizers she used meant that only one note could be played at a time, which made this quite difficult. The result of this project was the album “Switched-On-Bach”, released in 1968. Carlos’s intention, as mentioned in an interview with Carol Wright, with this album was to create something accessible on the early synth technology, as opposed to the dense, avant-garde music that was typically created with modular synthesizers at the time. “Switched-On-Bach” led to the start of a long collaboration with producer and singer Rachel elkind, which will prove to be fundamental for the creation of the partition of the two Stanley kubrick titles Carlos worked on: A clockwork orange and The brilliant.
A clockwork orange was Carlos’ first foray into film music. The soundtrack featured electronic interpretations of classic compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven, in particular a number of his choral and scherzo movements. The use of relatively famous pieces creates an interesting effect against the backdrop of the film’s soundtrack. Carlos’s score takes the familiar – Beethoven – and transforms it into something unusual and new, with the use of an (at the time) unusual instrument. It almost creates a sense of ‘weird valley’ effect, in musical form, meaning he’s almost human, but not as we know him or in any sense we would recognize. Hearing something familiar being used in a new and inhuman way can be unsettling, making it the perfect soundtrack for such a disturbing horror film as A clockwork orange.
The Moog synthesizer that Carlos works with works by creating sound from scratch in the same sense that an acoustic instrument like a guitar would. However, the haunting use of early acoustic technologies does not end with sound synthesis. Carlos also worked a lot with sampling in his scores. Namely, she and Elkind used an early version of a vocoder on the soundtrack to A clockwork orange. Vocoder technology made it possible to manipulate a sample of Elkind’s vocals with spellbinding effects. This interplay between the human and the inhuman, the expected and the unexpected, is part of what makes Carlos’s scores not only so incredibly special, but also so deeply haunting at times.
His two soundtracks for Kubrick both featured the use of ambient sounds as samples, borrowing from a French technique of musical creation called “concrete music”. It really allows the scores she creates to capture feeling perfectly, creating a complete scene in a sonic way. If this technique is of course not limited to the works of Carlos (other composers like Hans zimmer also used the practice), she adopted the film music technique quite early on. What’s else interesting is that his soundtrack for Tron did not use ambient samples. This means that when creating these three-dimensional soundscapes, his vision was specifically focused on his idea of how a horror movie, or perhaps, these stories, in particular, should sound.
His influence on subsequent soundtracks is also easy to follow. From X files‘classic opening (Marc Snow) at Strange things‘weird retro-styles synthwave (Kyle Dixon and Michael stein), Carlos’ synth sounds seem to echo everywhere. There are also more direct examples of its influence. In 2010, French musicians, Daft punk, have released their version of his original score for Tron track by track for Tron legacy. Its impact is not limited to film and television music either. Without his work on developing a commercially viable version of the Moog synthesizer, it’s likely that contemporary rock and pop music wouldn’t be the same either. Not only has this specific synthesizer been adopted by so many musicians in a variety of genres, it has also been developed into different models on several occasions since, reaching new audiences each time. It’s amazing to think of the “butterfly effect” that these recreations of classic compositions and a handful of film scores have had through popular culture.
The worlds Carlos creates in his scores are alive and encompassing even when listened to on their own, drawing the listener into a world of his own sound creation. When paired with equally captivating movies, it’s a perfect match. This element of collaboration when creating film music is magical. The filmmaker creates a visual world in which to invite the viewer, and the composer creates an auditory world to accompany him. Carlos is no exception to this rule. His work greatly values the fictional worlds he touches. Can you imagine The brilliant without the menacing drones of Carlos’ Moog? Much of the beauty of her work is in other wonderful collaborations as well. No Woman is an Island: From Elkind’s hands-on production style and vocal contributions to Carlos co-developing Moog’s eponymous synthesizer, it’s easy to see Carlos’s magic might not have happened. the same way without these creative partnerships.
Carlos and Elkind both had an immeasurable impact on the composition for the screen. They also both broke down social, musical and acoustic barriers. Even today, there is a proven gender gap among film composers in the United States. In 2020, only around 5% of Hollywood composers are women, according to media researcher José Gabriel Navarro. Additionally, in an interview with Arthur Bell for Playboy in 1979, Carlos revealed himself publicly as a transgender woman, with Elkind as an ally and supporter in making that statement. The scores Carlos and Elkind created together and the influence the two women had on notation, alongside their powerful working and interpersonal relationship, are truly essential pieces of social history – for women’s history. , Black History and LGBTQIA + History. There are other amazing women who pioneered composition and electronic music at the time – Laurie Spiegel and Daphne Oram name a couple – and other immensely talented women have developed the field since, such as SOPHIE, Pamela z, Gavilán Rayna Russom, and Nancy whang, and each story is vitally important to breaking the glass ceiling of composition and sound design.
While Carlos is far from the only composer to have made excellent use of synthesizers, created classic scores, and built exceptional soundscapes over the years, it is remarkable how much his legacy has shaped the climate of music for the cinema since the beginning of his work in the 60s and 70s. Carlos is regularly called a pioneer, and it is a well deserved label. His songs often play with pre-existing ideas or compositions, turning them into something entirely innovative and groundbreaking with his own musical signatures and inventions in acoustic science. In many ways, although his sheet music discography is limited, it’s no surprise that his influence is so deep through film soundtracks, popular music, and overall musical innovation.
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