This is one time that I can honestly say I was reading a Playboy magazine for the articles. I came across this post about Wendy Carlos, which mentioned a 1979 article in Playboy magazine about her. It just so happens that my father was an avid collector of Playboy magazines which I’ve kept tidily boxed up since he passed away a couple of years ago, so I dug out the May, 1979 issue and looked up the actual article. The tagline on the magazine’s cover simply reads “A Surprise Playboy Interview,” but the article, based on interviews that author and columnist Arthur Bell had with Carlos during December 1978 and January 1979, is substantial, beginning on page 75 and continuing through to page 109. Not counting full-page ads within those pages, the interview is 16 pages in all. Best of all, it includes some great information about Carlos’ music career and views on synthesizers and electronic music.
The lengthy preface to the interview is something of a history chapter in and of itself:
Carlos was born on November 14, 1939, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He took up the piano at six, went on to study music and physics at Brown University and earned a masters in music at Columbia. One of his teachers there was the pioneer electronic composer Vladimir Ussachevsky. A year before graduation, Carlos began collaborating with engineer Robert Moog. Their vision was to produce an instrument whose sound was as expressive as the piano’s: It was to be an instrument that grew out of what had gone before, much as the piano grew out of the clavichord. The synthesizer was the result. Unlike the piano or the electric organ, one had to perform a single note at a time on the synthesizer, searching for the right timbre and its right adjustment, then combine many performances of the individual colors and musical lines, using multitrack studio practices. To work it most effectively, one had to be a conductor, performer, composer, acoustician and instrument builder. Carlos was all of those.
Designer Moog, who manufactured the synthesizer, gives Carlos all the credit. “Walter used techniques that had been available for years–but used them better.”
In 1967, Carlos met Rachel Elkind, a former singer and secretary to the late Goddard Lieberson, head of Columbia Records. Elkind was a kind of Gertrude Stein to talented musicians, on Earth Mother, a constructive force. Columbia had just launched a “Bach to Rock” campaign without having a single recording of Bach with a contemporary sound in its library. So Elkind and Carlos put together their “virtuoso electronic performances” of the best of Bach. Rachel took the master cut to Columbia. Shortly after, an artist designed a record jacket with a slapstick portrait of the great composer, foppishly clad, a pair of earphones in one hand. Behind Bach was Carlos’ synthesizer.
The album was called “Switched-On Bach” and it became a commercial success. Over 1,000,000 copies were sold, making it the largest-selling classical album of the decade. Newsweek devoted a full page to Carlos, running a photograph of him at his instrument and captioning it, “Plugging into the Steinway of the future.”
“SOB,” as the album came to be known, was followed in 1969 by “The Well-Tempered Synthesizer,” containing more Bach, plus commentary by Elkid, “engineered” by Carlos. By 1971, Carlos had abandoned his tiny Moog-dominated apartment on New York’s West End Avenue and moved into Elkind’s roomy brownstone. The house had been almost completely renovated, with an entire floor transformed into a superb recording studio containing perhaps the most elaborate and sophisticated electronic-music laboratory in the country. Carlos could produce his albums at home. All he had to do was walk down two flights of stairs from his bedroom to the basement. And his producer–Rachel Elkind–was always there, though their friendship was–and continues to be–strictly platonic.
Columbia, meanwhile, signed them both to an exclusive record contract. On “Walter Carlos by Request,” Carlos tackled Lennon, McCartney, Tchaikovsky and Bacharach. His rendition of “What’s New, Pussycat?” meowed and screeched: The synthesizer, it seemed, could emulate almost any sound, including the whisperings of an alley cat. With each record, the popularity of the synthesizer increased. Gradually, it was replacing the electric guitar as the most widely used electronic instrument in recording studios.
The next logical step was films.
In 1971, Elkind heard that Stanley Kubrick was planning to direct “A Clockwork Orange,” based on Anthony Burgess’ bizarre, violent, futuristic novel. She called Kubrick’s attorney and suggested that Kubrick consider the synthesizer as a novel way of scoring his movie. “The attorney said he’d get our stuff to Kubrick via air freight,” recalls Elkind. “I sent him “Switched-On Bach” and “The Well-Tempered Synthesizer.” Kubrick’s assistant called a few days later. He asked if we could come to England immediately. Two days later, we were on a flight.”
What eventually resulted was a sound track that The New York Times lauded. “As sheer music,” its critic wrote, “it is a giant step boast the banalities of most contemporary film tracks.”
Excerpts from the interview that follows:
Playboy: Did [Vladimir Ussachevsky] encourage you?
Carlos: Yes, I’d been experimenting with taped music, multiple tracks, that sort of thing, and he made the suggestion that I get a job in a recording studio. I was already beginning to compose, but it was he who suggested I support myself by working on the technical, engineering side of music. A year or two later, I made some demos of some of the electronic stuff I was composing and even moved into the area of pop music, jingles.
Playboy: Is that when you began to work with the Moog synthesizer?
Carlos: Yes. By 1966, I was working with my own small Moog. There were several companies that did sound effects and music for TV commercials, and I was helping them on a free-lance basis, earning anywhere from $100 to $1000 a job. It wasn’t until I met my friend Rachel that someone had the courage to tell me I should be doing more than fooling around with pop songs and commercials.
Playboy: Was Rachel [Elkind] the one who urged you to apply your electronic skills to serious music?
Carlos: Yes. I’m afraid pop music lost some really bad potential hits. But it was the beginning of the best period of pop music in America–I’m talking about ’65 through ’67. Even though I worked on electronic versions of classical music, I collected a lot of albums from that period–the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, the Association, Simon and Garfunkel. In those creative times, the synthesizer was a rare thing. To my knowledge, there were only three practitioners of the Moog synthesizer when I began. People couldn’t even pronounce the word–synthesizer. I remember when we were putting together my Switched-On-Bach album, some of the producers didn’t want us to use the word.
Playboy: You imitated human voices with the synthesizer in your score of A Clockwork Orange. Was that the first time it was done?
Carlos: We did some vocal electronic music back in 1970–for the choral parts of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony–and, again, we got a lot of uncomfortable reactions. People looked at us and said, “Oh, my goodness, what is this?” They were scared by it. They were scared of hearing a chorus of artificial voices. We were using a thing called a vocoder. It’s an instrument that takes apart speech and then allows you to reassemble, using, in that case, the synthesizer as the original source.
Playboy: Are vocoders still in use?
Carlos: All over the place. They’re becoming cliches. You hear the Star Wars sounds, the Battlestar Galactica music: The aliens usually talk with a vocoder. So, once again, I think we were a little too early.
Bert Whyte, who was a great pioneer in audio, said to Rachel and me, “Do you know what pioneers get? They get arrows in the ass.” I’ve gotten my share of arrows, maybe rightly deserved. But it’s still fun to know you were there first and you’ve got the trophies.
Playboy: You’ve also shot off some arrows yourself. You’ve been very critical of the way the synthesizer is used on disco records. But hasn’t disco popularized the instrument?
Carlos: The synthesizer became well known when advertisers used it to sell products on TV, such as the commercials for ailing cars and the cat sounds to advertise cat food. Pop artists such as Keith Emerson used it rather flamboyantly. Emerson, Lake & Palmer were among the first pop groups to play with it. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the sounds came from a synthesizer. And it’s the background on almost every Donna Summer record. But to get back to your question, it’s nice to know that it’s used on disco, but it would have been healthier for the industry had it not been.
Carlos: If you’re asking me to name the hit disco singles, I can’t, since I generally flee from anything that repeats the same sequence more than 16 times. I mean, if somebody wants to say, “Once upon a time, once upon a time,” I’ve got it after the fourth time. Let us not confuse it with music. But now I sound scholarly and tight-assed and pompous and–fuck it all. This may sound like sour grapes, but I’m putting down almost all of the records that have used the synthesizer this past decade.
Playboy: Would you like the instrument to be used less?
Carlos: I don’t want to stop them. I’m only saddened to see that it isn’t further advanced. I’ve got a right to my opinion and I’m going to continue to be angry. If not an angry young man, at least an angry middle-aged woman.
Playboy: What are you doing to advance the use of the instrument?
Carlos: I’m in the process of designing and having a new machine refined. It is to have a minicomputer, with special controlling devices and lots of knobs and dials and keyboards of various kinds. It’ll be a digital synthesizer and it’ll be a one-note instrument.
Playboy: What will it do that other synthesizers can’t
Carlos: I feel almost embarrassed to say that this will truthfully be the first time that an instrument will be able to imitate any sound that the mind of man can conceive and that the ear is able to hear.
Playboy: Can you see yourself marketing this instrument?
Carlos: Certainly not. I’ve never thought of myself as having a whole lot of business acumen.
Playboy: How does what you’re doing compare to what other musicians are doing?
Carlos: A better comparison would be the way I make electronic music and the way the Walt Disney studio made its animated motion pictures. I construct in sound what Disney did in visuals. He worked frame by frame, drawing by drawing. The synthesizer is a one-note instrument and, consequently, I work more note by note, color by color. Disney used special optical processes to give depth and perspective to his drawings. I also work with foreground elements overlaying background elements.
Playboy: Was there music in your family growing up?
Carlos: My mother plays the piano and sings. I have an uncle who plays trombone and another who plays trumpet and drums.