Carlos and Gould
[ Issue 17 ]

Emily Bronto clearly approves of Carlos and Gould

Bikwil is proud to feature Carlos and Gould

Carlos and Gould

Tony Rogers here presents Carlos and Gould, part two of From Virgil to Velikovsky, the first in our "connection essays" known as Stepping Stones.  If you haven't yet done so, you might well begin with Part One.

Quick! Let's make fun of those weird sounds

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From Virgil to Velikovsky — Tony Rogers


(This is part 2 of an essay which so far has glanced at the fascinating links between three celebrities —
Virgil, Edmund Hillary and Jan Morris.)

When 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.

Walter 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.

Trouble 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 sex-change operation.

With all 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 o'clock shadow.

For seven 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" interview.

Nevertheless, 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.

Mind you, 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 sounds.

If you're 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.

What they 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.

And Bikwil could well do something on the next extraordinary person we're about to visit, too.

This 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.

Ok, here we are in Canada, dropping in on keyboard prodigy, music philosopher, eccentric and cult hero Glenn Gould (1932-82).

Firstly, let's get those idiosyncrasies pinned down. This is Bikwil, after all.

Who else but Glenn Gould would have

worn heavy pullovers or overcoats, plus fingerless gloves, even in warm weather?
regularly invigorated himself with a variety of pills?
soaked his hands before and during recording sessions?
hummed along ecstatically as he played, on stage and recordings alike?
conducted 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?

Gould 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.

He made 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 died.

In his 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.

If 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?

In fact, 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.

Incidentally, 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."

Almost as 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 soul?

Well, 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.

And in 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 Hindemith.

(In the next issue of Bikwil we will present the conclusion to this discourse of associations.)

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