Early this year, Wendy Carlos was in the middle of scoring a film project when she received two boxes in the mail. Inside were the master tapes to all her Columbia recordings, including the million-selling, groundbreaking “Switched-On Bach” and the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s chilling 1971 film “A Clockwork Orange.”
“It was nostalgic for me,” Carlos said recently. “I didn’t cry about it, but it was very sweet. It’s like seeing pictures you hadn’t seen of some trip you had taken many years ago.”
The boxes arrived after Carlos acted quickly when, according to her label deal, she had a small window of opportunity to acquire the masters. She then went to work remastering the albums for their first appearances on CD.
“From there, after having that experience of being with a large company, it’s as bad as being with the government, I really wanted to try a smaller company,” Carlos said. “I didn’t know how we were going to find one, and in fact, it did take a while.”
Minneapolis-based indie label East Side Digital soon signed the Grammy-winning classical synthesizer pioneer and released “Tales of Heaven and Hell,” Carlos’ first album of new material in 12 years, on Oct. 13 and reissued “A Clockwork Orange” and the double-disc “Sonic Seasonings” (considered a precursor to ambient music) on Nov. 3. Other Carlos reissues, including a “Switched-On Bach” box set, will follow next year.
“Now we’re with a smaller company, in which the president writes me a letter to tell me what an emotional thrill he got out of hearing the masters that came in for ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ ” Carlos said, “and that he was just transported away from this planet for an hour. I never got mail like that before. I know they’re small and they don’t have a big staff, but I can deal with this, this is fine.”
Thirty years ago, the classically trained Carlos finished her “Switched-On Bach” project, using the Moog synthesizer to interpret Bach’s works in a popular setting. The album was released in January 1969 and, much to her surprise, rocketed to the Top 10 on Billboard’s pop Top 200 and stayed on the chart for more than a year, becoming the first classical album to sell more than 1 million copies.
“We had expected that the record would do moderately well,” Carlos said. “We knew it wasn’t sliced bologna, but it was definitely a decently done record and it sounded different and it was a novelty to some people, although we tried to invest it with a lot of real good musicality.
“It wasn’t a throwaway. It was a real sincere project that we wanted to say, ‘Hey, this is a decent way to make music, and now we’re going to do our own original stuff, but this is just to put you on notice that when you see the name Moog synthesizer, you will know that we’re musical people, not just doing a lot of bleeps and farts. This is something that you can buy knowing it’s going to be musical. There will be harmony and rhythm, motifs and even melody.’ ”
“Switched-On Bach” was treated with two attitudes and there was nothing in between the two, Carlos said.
“One was those who said, ‘Wow,’ and they were really enthusiastic about it,” she said. “Then there were those who just wanted it to go away and some of them just made fun of it. Stereo Review called it a campy, silly fantasy, a travesty and ‘Isn’t this weird and wild?’ They made off like we were just a junky, funny, splashy, sensationalized thing that doesn’t have a whit of music behind it. I thought, ‘Gee, this is a rather cheeky, ugly way to do this.’ They were clever enough to keep it so they could still celebrate it if it actually did well.”
Carlos had the last laugh.
“The fact that it exploded like it did was just one of those grabbing the brass ring in your life, a piece of luck,” she said. “It had all the right things going for it, at the same time, so it wasn’t like it was a stroke of lightning and Charlton Heston appeared on a mountain.
“Certainly I do not claim to be the first person to have gotten and used a Moog synthesizer. Most of the people you would’ve heard of through pop music did it because they had heard ‘Switched-On Bach.’ It was the thing that sold the name Moog synthesizer to the public at large, and I’m very proud of that.”
BWF (before we forget): Get switched on Wendy Carlos on the Web @ www.wendycarlos.com.