In the ever-growing world of electronic music, veteran synthesist and composer Wendy Carlos has achieved greater glory than most. Although newer techno-buffs may not know her name, many are indebted to her. In the ’60s and into the ’70s, Carlos gave the notion of music performed on a synthesizer popular appeal through her Baroque albums, Switched-On Bach, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer and Switched-On Brandenburgs. She created one of the first ambient records (the double-LP Sonic Seasonings) years before the genre was supposedly christened by Brian Eno. She also composed one of the first major electronic film scores, for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
Excluding the Switched-On Bach 25th anniversary tribute in 1992 and her Peter & The Wolf album with Weird Al Yankovic, Carlos’ last release of all new material was Beauty in the Beast in 1986. Now she has broken that long silence with the dramatic new Tales of Heaven and Hell. It’s an epic record that nicely blurs the distinctions between ambient, orchestral and gothic sensibilities and that, as the title implies, balances light and dark musical motifs. It even contains an ominous-sounding “sequel” to the Clockwork Orange score. She says that “Clockwork Black” is a further examination of how our society has gradually become more like the violent and frightening world depicted in Anthony Burgess’ novel and Kubrick’s film. The new CD definitely leans toward the dark side. It even comes with a warning on the front: “Contains genuinely scary material. Use caution when listening alone or in the dark.”
Tales of Heaven and Hell took the composer nearly three years to make because “the technology fought me tooth and claw,” she remarks. Because her PowerMac 8500 frequently froze up or crashed, the composer found herself hitting “Command-S” almost constantly, which was “a very disturbing way to work,” she says. She has her Mac loaded with a Digidesign AudioMedia III card with a customized MIDIMan 20-bit A/D feeding it via SPDIF, using Sound Designer II and Digital Performer, Arboretum’s HyperEngine and plug-ins, and a Yamaha CDR4260 burner running Toast and Jam. She also has an older Mac IIfx with the original Pro Tools. “It’s often handy to have a second computer and DAW, even a slower one, on some complex projects,” she notes. In creating Heaven and Hell, Carlos’ primary composing tools were a pair of Kurzweil K2000s, one used as a rack and one as a keyboard unit.
“Then there are two of the Kurzweil K150Fs,” she says. “That’s one of the things I hope we get back on-having a machine that lets you move every overtone from moment to moment, in amplitude and in position; but that hasn’t happened. Right now I use the old ones-I’ve got a Yamaha SY77. For this project, I didn’t use any of my older Synergys; I didn’t need them. So all of the sounds were either from digital audio hard disk or MIDI playing those Kurzweil devices.” Her synths were fed by two MOTU MTPs and an original Kurzweil Midiboard, plus several of JL Cooper’s fine MIDI boxes.
“This project has a lot of musique concrete-which means things that were performed live-and most of the voices were done live,” she explains. “For those that weren’t, I built some very crafty, clever voice patches in the Kurzweils, that if you don’t know what to listen for, you will probably think those are live as well. It’s a nice way to work-you can put the notes in when you’re composing and doing things that you didn’t have before, and when you write out notes and put a final score together and have people come and perform it, you can capture that. It has all of the flavor and liveness of a good performance group. In fact, even the MIDI is performed live; there’s no quantizing. It’s a very human process, and I’ve had a few people comment on how acoustic Tales of Heaven and Hell sounds, how much more acoustic than any of the older records I did. That’s something I feel very proud and pleased about.”
When Carlos’ new label, ESD (Minneapolis-based indie East Side Digital), approached her about the new record, they were also interested in reissuing her back catalog. So Carlos set about digitally remastering the albums and writing new liner notes. Just a couple of weeks following the release of Heaven and Hell came a revamped Clockwork Orange soundtrack, which includes both her electronic score and pieces not used in the film. Some of those outtakes originally made it onto a follow-up LP released months after the soundtrack came out, but others have never been heard before.
The centerpiece of Carlos’ Clockwork Orange score is the 14-minute “Timesteps,” which she composed after reading the Burgess book but before knowing about the film. Kubrick used an excerpt in the movie, but Carlos wants people to hear the entire work: “Like hearing any excerpt of a piece of music, it isn’t a good accounting for the whole thing unless you hear the whole thing. And so we did have the original LP which contained the full ‘Timesteps,’ but it didn’t sound very good. It sounds much better on the new CD. I spent a lot of time on that, trying to get it cleaned up. I went back to the [analog] submasters and had to restore a lot of the edits and the level changes and the reverberation and the EQ. It had to be redone again, but it made for a much cleaner sound. A lot of tiny sounds-clicks, pops, thumps and splices-you wouldn’t have heard in the old days, but you could definitely hear now. So I spent a lot of hours in front of a hot DAW, as they call it, trying to make those sound clean.”
Alongside Clockwork Orange, another important reissue through ESD is the double-CD update of Sonic Seasonings, which also includes passages of unreleased music. “There was one extensive outtake on ‘Winter,’ the hardest movement in that suite, and that is something that has never been heard before,” says Carlos. “I had to go and locate that tape and make a clean copy of it. And then I had a piece in 1986, which was an attempt to do something with the new digital tape machines we had. The project is called ‘The Land of the Midnight Sun,’ and it is in a very similar mode and mood to Sonic Seasonings. It all fits nicely. It makes a very good, coherent whole.”
Expect to see more Wendy Carlos reissues this year. A Switched-On Box set, uniting many of her Baroque works, is slated to come out this year, as are other catalog releases, such as Beauty in the Beast. Aside from these endeavors, Carlos recently scored an independent film called Woundings, and a soundtrack from that film should be forthcoming. In the meantime, Carlos plans to work on a sequel to Tales of Heaven and Hell.