Wendy Carlos by @SebastianNavasF

Wendy Carlos — Electronic Music Pioneer

Florencia Grattarola
A Computer of One’s Own
4 min readDec 12, 2018


Computing is more that ones and zeroes, computing is a culture that permeates different areas of human expression. In today’s article we tell the story of a trans pioneer who helped build that culture via films like Tron. Meet Wendy Carlos.

After graduating in physics and music, Wendy trained as a music composer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre, where she had the opportunity to learn from several forerunners of electronic music. One of them, Vladimir Ussachevsky, advised her to go after the creative engineer Robert ‘Bob’ Moog who was designing an analog synthesizer to create sounds by connecting modules with electric wires and turning knobs.

“Bob Moog and I were of similar minds — he was the engineering brilliance behind that and I had more of the composer’s orchestra’s performance skills, but we both spoke each other’s languages.”

Bob and Wendy came across at a perfect time, while he was trying to build a more compact synthesizer that would appeal to musicians she was after liberating the medium. So, Carlos assisted the design of the Moog synthesiser and worked with Moog to incorporate a touch-sensitive keyboard into the electronic musical instrument.

Front of the 1967 Moog Catalog

Today, synthesizers are simply part of our contemporary sound fabric. Yet, back then, the system only allowed to play one note at a time (no chords!) and to make the next note start you had to release the note you were playing first. Also, the synthesizer had the tendency to go out of tune easily, so it was an awfully exhausting process to record a piece of music.

Bach in Electronic

In 1968 with help of Moog and the producer Rachel Elkind, Carlos released the album Switched-On Bach in which she used fragments of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music performed on a Moog modular synthesizer. Until that day, these tools were being used mostly in the confines of experimental music. Carlos’s masterpiece brought Moog synthesizers to public awareness, showed that the medium was far more flexible and laid the ground of electronic music with synthesizers.

“I was lucky enough to be there when electronic music was still an infant, and I was there to help it take some of the steps needed to mature into a real medium”.

“You don’t feel the authorship; you just know that you’re part of the process and you’re glad of it.”

Switched-On Bach became an immediate success. It was numer one on the Billboard Classical Albums chart for 3 years in a row, turned into the second classical music record in history to sell over one million copies and won 3 Grammy Awards.

Wendy Carlos at work in her New York City recording studio, October 1979. (Photo by Leonard M. DeLessio/Corbis via Getty Images)

Getting Famous

By popularizing the Moog Wendy Carlos brought synthesisers out of electronics laboratories and into the musical mainstream. Bands such as the Doors, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles adopted this technology and its later portable model, the Minimoog, actualy became the most famous and influential synthesizer in history.

After reaching the top she adventured into film music composition. Part of the notable work of Carlos includes making the soundtracks for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), where she introduced the vocoder (a voice synthesizer) and arranged music composed by Beethoven, Rossini and Schiller, and the horror movie The Shining (1980). Later she went for the Disney’s film Tron (1982), the first hacking film to hit theaters, where she combined symphonic orchestra with digital and analog synthesizers.

Overall, Wendy Carlos put melody, harmony and orchestration into electronic music. Thanks to her seek for musicians and composers to catch up with technology she contributed to the development of Moog synthesizers and changed music forever.

Advent Calendar — Help us make it a book!

From December 1st until December 24th we plan to release one article each day, highlighting the life of one of the many women that have made today’s computing industry as amazing as it is: From early compilers to computer games, from chip design to distributed systems, we will revisit the lives of these pioneers.

Each article will come with an amazing illustration by @SebastianNavasF

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