After a Sex Change and Several Eclipses, Wendy Carlos Treads a New Digital Moonscape
It is one of the most bizarre sagas in the history of music. Sixteen years ago Walter Carlos, the acclaimed young composer of the revolutionary electronic recording, Switched-On Bach, was invited to perform on the famed Moog synthesizer with the St. Louis Symphony. The occasion was important for the new musical and technical wizard who, by turning the 18th-century composer’s notes into electronic tones, had transformed the sounds of classical music—and at that point had sold more copies of one album than any other classical musician in history. But in what should have been his most triumphant moment, Carlos, 30, was distraught. In his St. Louis hotel room he began to cry hysterically and told his producer, Rachel Elkind, that he didn’t want to go onstage. Walter Carlos had kept a terrible secret from the world: He suffered from a psychological condition known as gender dysphoria. For nearly two years he had been receiving estrogen treatments to help him become a woman. En route to St. Louis he had dressed in women’s clothes, as he had done habitually in the preceding months.
In his room Carlos, still feeling miserable, touched up his face, which the estrogen had softened. He pasted on sideburns, stuffed his long hair under a man’s wig, ran an eyebrow pencil over his smooth chin to simulate 5 o’clock shadow and went onstage. The performance was acclaimed, but thereafter Walter Carlos refused to perform in public again.
In the fall of 1972 Walter Carlos had a sex change operation but did not publicly reveal her new identity. Until 1979, when Wendy at last told her secret in a Playboy interview, eight successive records came out under Walter’s name. “Unlike Horowitz I was never there to take my bows,” she says. “I was effectively a prisoner in a closet.”
Now with the release of her 15th album, Digital Moonscapes (CBS Masterworks), the 45-year-old Carlos (whose credits include the scores of A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Tron) can rise for an ovation long overdue. The nine-movement Moonscapes suite, inspired by the major moons of the solar system, is performed by what Carlos calls a “digitally synthesized orchestra.” It is technically and musically her most accomplished work. During the last three years she not only composed the score but electronically created more than 500 “voices” that replicate symphonic instruments. “Wendy has built up lyrical sounds nobody ever heard coming out of a digital synthesizer before,” says Robert Moog, inventor of the synthesizer. “Nobody is in her league.”
Digital Moonscapes represents the creative resolution of years of personal misery. Walter Carlos, born in 1939, was the first of two sons of a working-class couple in Pawtucket, R.I. “Inside I had the feeling that I was a little girl,” Carlos says now. “I preferred long hair and girl’s clothes and didn’t understand my parents treating me like a boy. I kept my feelings to myself. It’s a good way to become cuckoo.” Fortunately his hybrid sexuality, which brought abuse from playground bullies, was accompanied by musical precociousness. At 6, he started piano lessons and by 16 had mastered the organ.
Carlos enrolled at Brown University to study physics, trying to act like a college Joe when he really wanted to be a Betty coed. “I remember going out on a date with a girl,” he recalled later. “I was so jealous of her I was beside myself.” Then he discovered electronic music. “I didn’t decide. It chased me,” says Wendy. “I loved all the musical, mechanical and dramatic things about the field.”
After Brown, Carlos moved on to New York and the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center at Columbia University, where he earned his master’s degree in 1965. From 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. nightly, he would sit up creating musical sounds from tape recorders, mixers and other types of sound-modifying devices. He took a job as a tape editor at Gotham Recording and struck up a friendship with Moog, then a music instrument engineer, who was developing his synthesizer. Over coffee shop lunches Carlos would provide Moog with musical insights. “In my entire lifetime I’d only seen a very few people who took so naturally to an instrument as he did to the synthesizer,” recalls Moog. “It was just a God-given gift.” A year later, for a $2,500 advance, Columbia commissioned Carlos to create an all-Bach album on the synthesizer. “Switched-On Bach was the pioneer classical crossover album,” says R. Peter Munves, marketing director at CBS Masterworks.
At the time Carlos was getting counseling from Dr. Harry Benjamin, author of The Transsexual Phenomenon. “I was willing to see if I wouldn’t be happier as a woman than being in the trap I was in,” Carlos says. Instead the 1972 operation only complicated Carlos’ life. Stevie Wonder, George Harrison and Keith Emerson wanted to pay calls on Carlos. But friends convinced her that for the sake of her career, she must not reveal her change of identity. So all visitors were told by Rachel Elkind—Carlos’ producer, collaborator and housemate—that Walter was away. “I would listen to them from upstairs,” says Carlos. “I accepted the sentence, but it was bizarre to have life opening up on the one hand and to be locked away on the other.” When Stanley Kubrick asked Walter to write the score for A Clockwork Orange, Wendy would dress in men’s clothing for their meetings. “I could tell he felt something was strange,” she says. “But he didn’t know what.” In 1970 she even appeared on The Dick Cavett Show disguised as a man. Finally, eluding the limelight, Carlos even took up the esoteric hobby of eclipse chasing. She trekked to Siberia, Bali and Australia. By the end of the 70s—according to Annemarie Franklin, whom Carlos met in New York and who is now her loft-mate and business partner—she had acquired a reputation as a leading eclipse photographer.
After her “coming out” interview in 1979 Carlos hit her stride composing. “The public turned out to be amazingly tolerant or, if you wish, indifferent,” she says. “There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life.”
As Digital Moonscapes suggests, Wendy Carlos may have finally found peace. In the Greenwich Village loft that is her studio and is nicknamed by friends “the Spaceship,” Carlos is creating her next album, Catalyst, on an even more complex synthesizer. “What I’m doing now is very profound,” she says. “A lot of people who drop by get their socks knocked off. I’ve never done that to anybody before.” She is even planning to resume performing regularly in public. “It will be fun,” she says, “to get out into the open again.”