Art via Re-Appropriation: Wendy Carlos, Bach, and the Moog Synth

13 02 2010

Our society seems to be more comfortable with art re-appropriation when the art in question was created a long time ago. People don’t seem to mind when Baz Luhrmann updates Romeo and Juliet, but throws some firearms in for good measure. It’s fine for authors to water down and sissify Greek mythology. We find it more than acceptable for musical virtuosos to perform and even re-interpret the works of classical composers like Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. Nobody refuses to sing the Star Spangled Banner just because we stole the tune from an old drinking song. But if you wanted to re-imagine the work of a more contemporary artists, (just picking two names out of the air) say The Beatles or Jay-Z, people will start accusing you of making ironic hipster music without a trace of originality.

Wendy Carlos is perhaps best known for composing the iconic score for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, noteworthy for it’s use of Moog synthesizers. Carlos is an icon and a pioneer in the world of electronic music, helping to cement the synthesizer’s status as a legitimate musical instrument. Carlos first demanded that the synthesizer be treated with respect following her 1968 album Switched on Bach, released under the name Walter Carlos (She underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1972). The album won the Grammy for Classical Album of the Year, Best Classical Solo Performance, and Best Engineered Classical Album. You’ll never hear Bach the same way again, and it’s a fun listen to boot.

Carlos went on to release multiple albums of classical music performed on synthesizer. Carlos’s work not only stands as a testament to the legitimacy of electronic music, but also serves as a great example of the fantastic art that can result when talented people take artistic license with another’s work. I never knew the woman personally, but I doubt Bach would be offended.

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