Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind: Switched-On Bach (1968)

Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind: Switched-On Bach (1968)

On top of being the first classic record to earn a platinum disc, Switched-On Bach would eventually change pop music, rock and traditional music forever. It started a huge line of imitators and delighted an audience that since then looked at the electronic music with suspicious eyes. Before S-OB electronic avant-garde was barely considered and deemed not interesting economically. Wendy Carlos fixed this problem:

“I thought that if I offered people a little bit of traditional music, and they could clearly hear the melody, harmony, rhythm and all the older values, they’d finally see that this was really a pretty net new medium”

Walter Carlos studies piano, shows interest in physics and has experience as a sound engineer. He graduates in music composition at Columbia with Otto Luening and Ussachevsky. In 1966 Bob himself deliver her first Moog; thanks to Bob Shwartz help, a colleague at Gotham Recording Studios, Walter's apartment in West End Avenue became a small recording studio. Bob spends a whole weekend in the West End controlling the rig functioning of the instrument, it is the start of a log and productive union: Carlos suggests a few changes and this would lead to the creation of portamento and switch. During these ears Moog travels between Trumansburg and New York with his prototypes, listening to Walter's advices. At Gotham Studios Carlos meets Rachel Elkind, arrived from San Francisco aspiring to become a jazz singer and ended up working as an assistant and eventually a music producer in the music industry. Rachel describes her first encounter with Wendy:

“loathe at fist sight. We didn’t care for each other at all. It took us about a year before I started bugging her to collaborate with me or produce me”

When Rachel listens to a version of a Bach's Sonata she rapidly understands the potential of the work. Wendy does not think about realizing a Bach's cover album yet: it is Rachel's idea. The two of them start writing the first movement of the Third Concert of Brandenburg: Wendy works with the Moog and Rachel advises for sound that are non too similar to the ones used by an orchestra. The pitch should be familiar albeit different. By the end of summer '68, S-OB is finally ready and Columbia offers a contract. Success is finally at reach, but Walter is in that period starting the transformation in Wendy with hormonal therapies and a following pioneering procedure in 1969. Carlos has no social life at this point, has no public appearances and doesn't see other musicians. After the tragic concert with St.Louis Orchestra in 1969, Wendy will refuse forever to play in public. As a Mirror of Carlos' personality, S-OB is not fit to be played live. Rachel too is going trough rough time, the public does not acknowledge her work:

“Having built up Walter Carlos, I also got tired of people thinking that I was there serving tea”.

The huge effect of S-OB will create some problems even to others that it's composers; the record worries orchestra musicians that think their work is no longer needed due to the use of synths. Avant-garde composers and musicians are also concerned about the popularization of their projects in Carlos' works. For all these reasons the American Federation of Musicians and producers sign a contract that bans the use of Moog from the production of commercial jingles. The debacle finds closure with the intervention of lobbyist Walter Sear that explains to the AFM that a Moog needs a musician to be played… After changing the history of music, Wendy and Rachel will continue to work together. After the storm they realize: The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969), Switched-on Bach II (1973), Switched-On Brandenburg (1979) Orange Clockwork OST (1972) and The Shining OST (1980).

Bob Moog describes the audience reaction at the AES meeting in New York (1968)after the Third Concert of Brandenburg:

“I put the tape on, and I wanted to let it run. So I just walked off the stage into the back of the room. And I can remember people’s mouths dropping open. I swear I could see a couple of those cynical old bastards starting to cry. At the end, she got a standing ovation, you know, those cynical, experienced New York engineers had had their minds blown”