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Classic Tracks: Wendy Carlos’ “March From a Clockwork Orange”

When director Stanley Kubrick made his landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, he not only revolutionized the art of space special effects, laying

When director Stanley Kubrick made his landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, he not only revolutionized the art of space special effects, laying the foundation for the Star Wars trilogy in the late ’70s, but he also changed the nature of popular film soundtracks by serving up an incredible potpourri that included Johann Strauss waltzes side by side with avant-garde soundings by the Transylvanian composer Gyorgy Ligeti and, of course, the famous main theme by Richard Strauss. The sheer incongruity of the musical choices — the past and future juxtaposed so beautifully; the romantic and the dissonant colliding — added so much to the film-going experience. It was precisely those kind of brilliant contrasts that made 2001 one of the first great “head” films embraced by the ’60s counterculture. It was, literally, a trip.

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Kubrick’s next film, released in 1971, couldn’t have been more different in look and tone. Though set in a not-too-distant future, A Clockwork Orange, about a young British hooligan named Alex whose wanton hedonism is transformed by a maniacal and fascistic social engineer, is filled with the decay of our contemporary culture — it’s a grim future that didn’t quite arrive as we’d all hoped and expected. Yes, there’s the sleek, curving lines, the gleaming plastic, the bright primary colors, but it can’t quite hide the world of depressing, dilapidated housing projects and the “ultra-violence” ingrained in Alex and his “droogs” (cronies). Written originally by novelist Anthony Burgess and realized by Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange is a very black comedy; sick and horrific like Alex himself. Naturally, it called for a much different kind of soundtrack than 2001, but once again, Kubrick turned to a unique fusion of classical music themes and contemporary renderings that fit the film perfectly. And once again, he produced a hit soundtrack in the process.

Dominating the Clockwork Orange soundtrack are Moog synthesizer versions of a variety of classical pieces, including works by Henry Purcell (the movie’s main theme is from his “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary”), Gioacchino Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” and “William Tell Overture,” and this month’s Classic Track, the “March from A Clockwork Orange,” which is actually a chunk of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the choral movement that includes the famous “Ode to Joy”). Beethoven’s music figures prominently in the story: Alex loves “Ludwig van,” as he calls him, particularly the glorious Ninth, and Alex’s nemesis in the film, who is trying to reprogram him against his will, away from the path of degradation and ultra-violence, at one point has Alex strapped in a chair, his eyelids held open by steel clamps, and forces him to watch films of Nazi atrocities while his beloved Beethoven blares over humongous loudspeakers. Alex is more offended at this abuse of Beethoven than of the content of the film, so great is his love of the music. The film uses some actual symphonic Beethoven, but it mainly relies on the Moog synthesizer interpretations of the music by Wendy Carlos and her producer/musical partner Rachel Elkind, giving the music a strange, haunting, futuristic quality.

Of course, synth scores are commonplace these days, and any kid who wants a synth can buy one — cheap! — preprogrammed with hundreds of sounds. But in the late ’60s and early ’70s, there were only a handful of synths in existence; they were huge, cumbersome beasts that were very difficult to operate, and relatively few people had heard — let alone appreciated — their variegated electronic tonalities. Not surprisingly, some classical music purists were outraged and offended by Carlos’ radical reinterpretation of Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange. But then again, this was nothing new for Carlos: The same folks had become apoplectic in 1968 when Carlos produced the million-selling album Switched-On Bach, the record that single-handedly brought synth textures to the masses and made them (somewhat) acceptable.

A native of Rhode Island, Wendy (nee Walter) Carlos became interested in electronics at a very young age, even winning a Westinghouse Science Fair scholarship for building a computer at home. She went to Brown University, where she majored in a hybrid of physics and music. She did her Master’s work at Columbia in the early ’60s, and studied at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, which was the first of its kind in the U.S. “I thought what ought to be done was obvious, to use the new technology for appealing music you could really listen to,” she said in an interview with the magazine New Age Voice. “Why wasn’t it being used for anything but the academy-approved ‘ugly’ [electronic] music? You know, the more-avant-garde-than-thouers, atonal or formally serious 12-tone strait-jacket.” In another interview, she noted, “The typical electronic music setup of the ’60s was a cluttered lab bench and a technician wearing a lab coat. It was hard to make music — melody, rhythm, orchestration, harmony, counterpoint — with these setups. Many of these technicians were not trained musicians, so we heard funky sound effects…So what was the public to think of electronic music? Ugh!”

But Robert Moog’s synthesizer changed that. “Bob Moog combined many of these devices into a cabinet with a touch-sensitive keyboard,” Carlos said. “A composer or pianist who knew something about electronics and the properties of sound could create real music.

“Synthesizing sound was almost like sculpting — you’d adjust the dials to make it sound better. To polish my craft, I tried to synthesize known instruments like the violin, drum or oboe. My producer, Rachel Elkind, and I noted dial settings for each instrument, then I’d clack away on Bob’s keyboard, recording only a measure or two of one ‘instrument’ before the oscilloscope would drift out of tune. We recorded track upon track in this laborious manner, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how spirited it sounds, considering the tediousness.”

She further explained: “The Moog wasn’t all that elaborate. There were a couple of oscillators, and you adjusted them to track the octaves. You would pick a wave shape from the four available — sine, triangle, pulse wave and sawtooth. There was a white noise source and a filter to reduce the high end of the wave, to make it sound more mellow, to add resonance or take out the bottom. Then there were envelopers that came from Ussachvsky’s ideas: attack time, delay, sustain and release. Set the thing to ramp up at some rate: slow for an organ or fast for a plucked string. Make it decay immediately for a harpsichord, or sustain for a piano…

“Rachel helped me nail the tempo by putting down a click track. If, when I put the notes down against it, it sounded too fast, too bad — I did it over again! I had to clatter away slower than actual speed; you could never play faster than moderato. Sixteenth notes at a good clip? Forget it! If the tonal quality didn’t change much over a phrase, you could get down a measure or two. To create a chord, you’d play the second line, then the third. With counterpoint, you’d play the melodies that wove together [one at a time].”

Beginning in 1966, Carlos built her own recording studio in her apartment on West End Avenue and 79th Street in Manhattan; one of the first true project studios. It was centered around a giant custom Moog — which looked a little like an old telephone switchboard — and Ampex tape machines: She started with a 350 stereo recorder, replaced it with the “much better Ampex 440B,” and then constructed an Ampex 8-track herself. She also built a large power amp, a custom 10-in, 2-out mixer, a pair of 8-inch ducted-port speakers, a patchbay and VFO (varispeed) unit. Despite the technological limitations, Carlos and Elkind managed the miraculous when they made Switched-On Bach in 1968. It was a huge success, becoming the first classical album to go Platinum, and even earned a Grammy for Classical Album of the Year — a controversial decision, to say the least.

Over the next couple of years, Carlos and Elkind continued their pioneering work with synths, composing original pieces for the instrument (some of which became the 1972 album Sonic Seasonings) as well as interpreting existing ones — The Well-Tempered Synthesizer was a popular follow-up to Switched-On Bach. They also developed a new piece of gear themselves: a “spectrum follower,” which converted the human voice into electronic signals. They used this “vocoder,” as it became known, to create an electronic translation of the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, though they did not release it commercially at that time. The piece combined layers of spirited synth lines, a la the Switched-On album, with stirring electronic vocalizations, most by Elkind. “As a singer, [Elkind] has much better control and vocal quality than do I,” Carlos noted. “Also, her formants are of a lower pitch than mine, thus easier to pitch and process. A few shorter chorus parts in the last movement of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony performance were with my articulations, so they wouldn’t merge with Rachel’s important articulation of the tenor solo.”

Meanwhile, Stanley Kubrick was working on A Clockwork Orange in England. Carlos had loved the Burgess book and was a fan of Kubrick’s work, and fantasized aloud that she’d love to get some of her music into the film; she thought it would fit well. When word filtered back to New York that principal filming had been completed, Elkind managed to get a tape of their version of the choral movement, as well as a stunning original composition by Carlos called “Timesteps,” into the hands of the director. Kubrick was bowled over by what he heard and summoned Carlos and Elkind to England. He agreed to use both pieces in the film and also arranged to have the team synthesize some other classical themes he was planning to use in the film and to create some background cues from scratch.

“Since this was in the days before SMPTE was popular,” Carlos wrote on her tremendously informative and educational Website (, “we used a 60Hz tone, put on one track of eight, so Kubrick’s engineers could maintain synchronization, once the start ‘beep’ had been located properly. It worked pretty well for a simple system. That 60 Hz, by the way, was gotten most expediently: a couple of alligator clips on the VU meter lights, to a patch chord, and right into the Ampex.

“[A] 16-track 3M tape recorder captured most of the master elements, again with a 60Hz sync track…We borrowed a 35mm mono audio dubber from our friend, the composer Eric Siday, to play back the dialog track in sync and help us locate each sync point. Wherever there was a cue to hit, we glued a teeny snip of loud sine tone onto the tape onto that spot on the film’s audio mag track, so the audio output provided a ‘blip’ at these spots. We bought a small, used Moviola to watch scenes we were about to score.”

A Clockwork Orange was an artistic and commercial triumph for both Kubrick and Carlos. The album made it up to Number 34 on the Billboard charts, and a few months later, Carlos’ Sonic Seasonings became her first album of original music to come out; it too, was well-received. Since then, Carlos has made numerous albums of her synth compositions and interpretations of others’ music. A few years ago, her four major Bach works were compiled into the fabulous Switched-On Box Set. Other major releases include Digital Moonscapes (1983), Beauty in the Beast (1987) and Tales of Heaven and Hell (1998). On the film front, she scored Tron, the groundbreaking mixture of computer animation and live action, and contributed music to Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, The Shining. In 1998, the East Side Digital label put out a newly remastered version of her music for A Clockwork Orange, including the full version of “Timesteps” and a couple of cues that were either shortened or eliminated from the original film. It’s a wonderful CD from beginning to end.

Naturally, Carlos’ studio setup has evolved through the years (and moved around Manhattan a few times), and she still faithfully checks out advances in recording and instrument technology. She is, and has always been, open to The New. “The musicians working in the medium now have these advanced tools,” she said, “but they should not be stuck using only MIDI and prerecorded sounds. If they want to learn how the medium ticks, they should open the hood, get inside and get dirty. And they’ll be grateful for everything they learn, for every discovery. It’s wonderful, but damn, you have to have the motivation! And the curiosity.”