Synthesizing Sound and Self

Synthesizing Sound and Self

The vexed legacy of electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos.


Wendy Carlos would hate the way I’ve written about her. For decades, the pioneering electronic music composer has deflected suggestions that her identity as a transgender woman has any bearing on the inventive, playful, and often surreal electronic music she has made on the instrument she helped develop, the synthesizer. She worked with Robert Moog closely and rigorously during the development of early commercial synths; she’s in part responsible for the way these now ubiquitous machines sound and feel, helping usher in the synthesizer’s transformation from a huge, awkward computer housed in academic laboratories to a lithe, flexible instrument that plays like a futuristic piano.

Carlos also made history as one of the first publicly known figures to transition between genders. Though a handful of trans celebrities existed when she embarked on her medical transition in the late 1960s, most of them were known just for the taboo at the time of being trans, their lives the subject of tabloid stories and pulpy autobiographies. With the release of her 1968 album Switched-On Bach, Carlos became famous, under her deadname, for her music.

The album boasted 12 Bach compositions painstakingly rendered on the then-cutting-edge Moog synth. The combination of familiar classical compositions and novel electronic sounds proved a hit: Sales of the album and the kind of synthesizer on which it was made soared after its release. Soon after Switched-On Bach, Carlos and her long-term collaborator Rachel Elkind began working on further electronic interpretations of classical music. Their use of the vocoder, a voice compression technology developed for military telecommunications, in a rendition of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony introduced a startling and androgynous cyborg voice to popular music, one that would prove instrumental in the works of Kraftwerk, Laurie Anderson, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Jonzun Crew, Afrika Bambaataa, and many other envelope-pushing artists.

Amanda Sewell’s new biography of Carlos documents the half-century since the composer established the sound of electronic music as a viable popular form. It also takes on the difficult job of reckoning with Carlos’s recent silence. Though she once communicated regularly with fans and journalists via her website, she has settled into silence in the past decade, only surfacing this year to add an acidic note to her homepage contesting the accuracy of Sewell’s book. “It belongs on the fiction shelf,” Carlos wrote. “No one ever interviewed me, nor anyone I know. There’s zero fact-checking. Don’t recognize myself anywhere in there—weird.” In the biography’s introduction, Sewell claims that “Carlos did not respond to repeated requests for interviews for this book,” and that the musician’s friends and contemporaries similarly declined to speak on the record about her. Sewell fills that gap by turning to Carlos’s archives, sifting through published and unpublished interviews, articles, and personal letters to draw on as much of her voice and thinking as possible.

Throughout the biography, Sewell respectfully reiterates Carlos’s firmly held belief that the composer’s gender identity and her music career dwell on entirely separate planes. Many cis journalists and critics, especially those who worked in the decades that Carlos rose to prominence, often appended the modifier “trans” to everything trans people made, pigeonholing their work as art made by individuals on a peculiar margin that colored their entire output. Carlos has expressed her desire for her work to be taken on its own terms, divorced from the particulars of her story.

More than many other art forms, music is inextricably linked to the body. Singing issues directly from the diaphragm, lungs, throat, and mouth, and intermediaries like guitar and piano respond expressively to subtle variations in touch. Music, pop music especially, has historically served as an active staging ground for the reproduction and reinvention of gender. For cis musicians as well as trans ones, a stage or a recording studio can be a dream space where fantasy or deeply held personal truth can be acted out, surfacing in the timbre of a vocal take or the futuristic trill of a keyboard line. As a critic, I struggle to isolate provocative music like Carlos’s from the sociopolitical contexts in which she created it. As her biographer, Sewell generally refrains from theorizing against her subject’s interpretation of herself and her music. She does her best to tell Carlos’s story plainly, amalgamating primary sources and offering historical context where appropriate.

Some of Sewell’s decisions are baffling, like the choice to reprint slurs wielded against Carlos by anonymous trolls in online forums and comment sections, apparently to make the obvious point that the Internet is not always kind to trans women. But her biography is otherwise measured and thorough, a careful, sympathetic, and detailed portrait of a figure who changed the course of electronic music and then, just as it began to proliferate at an unprecedented pace in the 21st century, disappeared.

There is one way that Carlos still communicates to the public: through Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedowns of unauthorized uploads of her music to YouTube and other streaming platforms. As much as her work seemed a beacon of futurity in the 1960s and ’70s, Carlos has unequivocally resisted the state of contemporary music distribution. The only legal way to hear her work is to buy her CDs and LPs, many of which are out of print. She stands as a defiant counterpoint to the common false claim that any recorded music in history can be heard within seconds on the Internet.

Carlos has good reasons for her resistance to streaming music. Even before Spotify accounts became commonplace, she predicted that digital music distribution would devastate musicians’ ability to earn income from selling their work. “To Carlos, when the consumers, the record companies, and the artists couldn’t come to a fair agreement about compensation, everyone would lose,” writes Sewell, citing an article Carlos wrote in 1988 what she saw as the dangerous potential of digital distribution and illegal file sharing. Two decades later, the composer extrapolated on the effects of streaming and incidentally foreshadowed the Patreon model of selling music directly to listeners. “I don’t know if many record labels are going to be around much longer,” she said in a 2007 interview for New Music USA. “I guess blame/credit streaming audio, and a change in listening habits. So what is music distribution going to become, individual artists only?” The current state of the music industry—for musicians, at least—is as dire as she warned.

Her reasons for ignoring all interview requests in the past decade are less clear, though she has spoken repeatedly about her frustrations with journalists and critics. Carlos came out as trans in the pages of Playboy in 1979, after extensive vetting to make sure she would be portrayed sympathetically. She agreed to speak with Arthur Bell, a Village Voice columnist and gay liberationist, with the expectation that the published piece with the expectation that the published piece would focus primarily on her music and career, not her gender.

After multiple interviews, Bell whittled down his final piece from 800 pages of transcriptions. To Carlos’s chagrin, much of what Playboy published focused on her transition, down to the medical details, rather than her career as a composer. The interview was the first of many to pose the question about the relationship between Carlos’s identity and her work. “Has your transsexuality personally affected your own music?” Bell asked. “I would think not at all,” Carlos replied. “Can you imagine writing The Transsexual Symphony?”

When pressed, Carlos did concede this:

Switched-On Bach in 1969 was a good musical barometer, while transsexuality in 1979 is a fairly good sexual and attitudinal social barometer. When Switched-On Bach was new, it stimulated strong reactions. Those who were comfortable in all forms of music, those who were open to novel variations, loved it. Transsexuality, too, is an emotional, action-prone situation, in that it tends to polarize people, depending on the attitudes one brings to sexuality and human rights. In both cases, there’s no middle ground.

Since her Playboy interview, Carlos has soundly rejected all suggestions that her transition influenced her music, or vice versa. A “hall of shame” page on her website lists writers and publication who she says “have tried to turn me into a cliché, to treat me as an object for potential scorn, ridicule, or even physical violence by bigots”; she ranks “Playboy Magazine Editors” among them.

In the past five years alone, an increasing number of electronic musicians known for their provocative and thrilling synthesizer playing have come out as trans (or at least started using a new set of pronouns)—Sophie, Arca, Angel-Ho, Lotic, Planningtorock, Yatta, and Fever Ray, among others. The mainstreaming of trans identity has coincided with a surge in adventurous sound, much of it produced by trans musicians. To deny any correlation seems to impoverish thinking about the ways music acts as an extension of the self, an experimental space to test new and frightening ways of being. Carlos and Elkind’s rendition of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was used on the soundtrack of the 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, and voice processing has since become a staple of electronic music produced by this growing group of trans artists.

I don’t mean to suggest that Carlos is wrong about her interpretation of her music. But music has meaning beyond that assigned to it by its creator. Synthesizers sound the way they do because of the way Carlos used and developed them, and now their development continues in the hands of these trans producers. The ways she tested and expanded social boundaries, both around music and around gender, hold profound meaning for other trans people, even if she considers their affinity reductive.

Though she began transitioning near the start of the gay rights movement, Carlos apparently never sought community with other trans or queer people. She pursued transition in isolation, a path largely determined by the gatekeeping tendencies of trans-sympathetic medical practitioners at the time. As Sewell notes, the most famous doctor working with trans patients in the United States, Harry Benjamin, advocated for trans people’s self-determination yet required that they keep their transitions quiet. He and his contemporaries “chose as their patients people who would blend into society and not draw attention to themselves,” Sewell writes. “They did not treat patients who had any kind of diagnosed mental illness. Benjamin and his colleagues also limited access to surgery and other treatment to people who could convincingly ‘pass’ as their identified gender and who promised to avoid any kind of publicity or notoriety.”

Because Carlos was slight and spoke in a higher register before transition, she easily fit the criteria for Benjamin’s clinic. Other trans women in New York City at the time did not. Many, like the gay rights activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, were Black or Latinx and did not conform to the white-coded passing standards enforced by doctors like Benjamin. Many were homeless, lacking the financial stability needed for institutionalized transition, and did sex work, which formally disqualified them from treatment. Instead of gender clinics, these women had one another, creating ad hoc networks of social, medical, and financial support as they fought for the right to survive in public. In the same city at the same time, two modes of transition emerged: one pursued individually and quietly, with institutional permission and supervision, and one pursued collectively and visibly in direct opposition to legal institutions like police.

In her comments about her gender, Carlos has treated her transition as a medical detour buried deep in her past. She has been resentful of those writers who keep mentioning it half a century later, as if they were demanding she comment on a 50-year-old appendectomy scar. But she has not been able to extract herself from the history through which she lived. Despite her disidentification with the trans rights movement, her story is still contained in its history. She was the first trans person I learned of as a child, the woman whose name I heard at the same time I discovered that gender transition was possible.

When I listen to Carlos’s early music, I hear a composer forging previously unimaginable sounds through the confusing interface of a novel machine. In Elkind’s processed and distorted singing, I hear an ambiguity that suggests the presence of a changing and disruptive body. I sympathize with Carlos’s desire to keep these two facets of her life separate; the ways cis people tokenize and objectify trans people can be infuriating, as she saw in the media treatment she received throughout her life. But as someone who found the seeds of my own transness in Carlos’s music and the music she influenced, I fail to isolate the work from its creator. I hear in her music both a brilliantly inventive composer and a person who could not live in the world as it was presented to her and so set about dreaming up one she could call home.

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