is part 2 of an essay which so far has glanced at the fascinating links
between three celebrities —
Virgil, Edmund Hillary and Jan Morris.)
confronted with the story of a male-to-female transsexual, some men can be
relied upon make scornful and uninformed remarks about "queers" and
"transvestites". Even those more sympathetic to the psychological trauma
involved getting to the surgery decision unconsciously cross their legs.
This latter wry observation was made by another celebrated transsexual
musician — Wendy Carlos (b. 1939 as Walter Carlos), whose secret
story was revealed in a "surprise Playboy interview" in May 1979.
She is our next port of call.
Carlos had his surgery in the same year as James Morris, in New York,
after just as much internal hell as a child, adolescent and young man. He
began medical consultations in 1967, and a year later began the required
period of hormone treatment that always precedes a sex-change operation.
Another year on and he was living as a woman, though the operation itself
would not take place for a further three years. During those three years
only a tiny handful of close friends were in the know; to all others
Walter Carlos was incommunicado, some sort of eccentric recluse.
was, from 1968 his music was becoming world famous. That was the year
Columbia Records released Switched-On Bach — for a long time the
best selling classical album ever made (over a million copies). Other
Carlos releases quickly followed: The Well-Tempered Synthesizer,
A Clockwork Orange, Sonic Seasonings — all recorded before the
the publicity, including requests to appear on stage and on TV, Carlos
became very anxious. How do you drop out of sight when the world is trying
to beat a path to your home studio door? With great difficulty, and in
Carlos' case always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Well protected by
her closest friend Rachel Elkind, she resorted to all sorts of
subterfuges, pretending to be out of town on a visit to her parents or on
tour, or overseas. She appeared as Walter on TV once or twice, very
reluctantly — complete with pasted-on sideburns, a wig and simulated five
years after her operation the pretence was kept up, with Walter Carlos in
early 1979 still being referred to in the music press with cryptic phrases
like "he died for us in a very underground way . . . without publicity."
Finally, on Valentine's Day 1979 Walter Carlos became Wendy Carlos in law,
and waited in trepidation for the publication of the "coming-out"
despite the fears she expressed in Playboy that she might never
again be taken seriously as a musician, Wendy Carlos' career has
prospered. This year it's 30 years since Switched-On Bach appeared,
and she already has over 14 meticulously crafted albums to her name. And
with today's general acceptance of the music synthesizer in its many
forms, I find it quite salutary sometimes to cast the mind back and
remember what a watershed that one LP was.
people who do not like electronic music of any kind would no doubt like
someone to blame for today's bleeps and wows, so for them Carlos and her
Moog synthesizer would fit the scapegoat bill perfectly. But even if
they've heard of SOB (as it is affectionately called, even by
Carlos herself), I’ll bet you that few such grouches will remember the
name Walter, let alone Wendy Carlos. After all, the reason for SOB's
success was obviously the Moog that played the Bach pieces, wasn't it? Who
cares about the musician involved? Quick! Let's make fun of those weird
going to blame anyone, you can sheet home the culpability to the
cash-in-quick mentality exhibited by those imitators who tried (and
failed) with their dozens of inferior synthesizer albums to recapture the
incontestable success of Switched-On Bach.
were looking for of course was the material success. Not only did they pay
little heed to Switched-On Bach’s creator, they also ignored that
minor issue of musicality.
Those readers who know me and my tastes, from time to time will have heard
me say that there are two groups of electronic musicians, the first group
consisting of Carlos alone, the other all the rest. Every album she's
released, whether of transcriptions of other people's works or of her own
compositions, has added something extraordinary to my musical enjoyment,
and in some cases to my understanding of the great composers. Here is not
the place to wax too eloquent upon all I love about Wendy Carlos, but I
may be persuaded — it won't take much — to prepare a dedicated article on
my electronic hero-become-heroine in a separate Bikwil article at
some future date.
Bikwil could well do something on the next extraordinary person we're
about to visit, too.
man's oddities, as numerous and well documented as they’ve been, have
thankfully failed to overshadow his purely musical reputation. Of interest
to us here is the fact that he was one of Wendy Carlos' greatest fans:
. . .
with Carlos, there is a sense of musicality that so overrides the
techniques involved that I find myself sitting there and laughing which I
mean as the highest compliment I could pay. There's a sense of humor about
Carlos's work that appeals to me very much. A lot of other records done on
synthesizer . . . have sounded as though they were intended to amaze you —
and they do — by the sheer virtuosity of the effects that can be achieved.
But the really welcome thing about the Carlos recordings . . . is that
they go beyond amazing you. They don't even set out to amaze you, it seems
to me; they set out to move you. And that, over and above the virtuosity,
is what makes them so remarkable.
we are in Canada, dropping in on keyboard prodigy, music philosopher,
eccentric and cult hero Glenn Gould (1932-82).
let's get those idiosyncrasies pinned down. This is Bikwil, after
but Glenn Gould would have
heavy pullovers or overcoats, plus fingerless gloves, even in warm
invigorated himself with a variety of pills?
his hands before and during recording sessions?
along ecstatically as he played, on stage and recordings alike?
with one hand when the other was playing unaccompanied?
sat on a
batttered, squeaky kitchen-type chair, hunched over the keyboard, to
perform on the concert platform?
began displaying perfect pitch and reading music by the age of three, and
two years later he began composing. At the age of 12 he graduated from the
Toronto Royal Conservatory, and by 14 was giving recitals, first on the
organ in Canada then as a pianist there and in the U.S.A.
his first record at the age of 22. Overnight it became a best seller and
Gould world famous. The main feature of the disc was his performance of
the long-ignored Goldberg Variations of Bach, a work he would
return to in an even more satisfying recording he made 18 months before he
early thirties, he suddenly and permanently withdrew from live
performances, and for the rest of his short life concentrated on making
records, doing offbeat TV, radio and video projects and writing incisive
magazine articles on musical matters.
there's one composer whose name will forever be associated with the work
of Glenn Gould it's J.S. Bach. But Bach on the piano? Hadn't dear old
Wanda Landowska worked hard and long since early in the twentieth century
to revive the harpsichord and its music? Surely, railed her purist
followers, she hadn't laboured in vain? What would this iconoclastic
Canadian upstart know?
Glenn Gould knew a lot, and made a good case for performing Bach "unauthentically"
on the piano, so his eccentric interpretations were always taken seriously
even by those who disagreed with them, like Leonard Bernstein.
in 1972 he did make one harpsichord record, literally by accident, of some
Handel and Bach, saying typically, "I'll pretend that I'm not playing the
harpsichord at all."
detrimental for his reputation was his failure to include any Chopin,
Liszt or Rachmaninov in his repertoire. Who ever heard of a pianist who
wouldn't play the Romantics? Couldn't he play difficult music? Had he no
there's no doubt he could play with feeling, and his records prove that.
That second Goldberg Variations recording of 1981 is pure genius,
and for me one of the most special interpretations of any music ever
preserved on disk.
addition to J.S. Bach, Gould performed composers as diverse and
challenging as Gibbons, Sweelinck, Handel, Scarlatti, C.P.E. Bach, Brahms,
Beethoven, Strauss, Scriabin, Schoenberg, Wagner, Webern, Sibelius and
(In the next issue of
Bikwil we will present the
conclusion to this discourse of