Switched on Bach – Wendy Carlos


Although Switched on Bach was not the first album to make use of the modular synthesizer, it was, by far, the most commercially and critically successful of its kind. The album, which features electronic renditions of ten works by J.S. Bach, ushered in a new era of music production and blurred the lines between the traditional roles of engineer and musician. At a time when electronic music was coming of age in the United States, Switched on Bach provided important influence and direction for emerging musical and engineering talents.

The turbulent 1960s saw many pre-established norms crumble under pressures from a new generation. “Switched on Bach” is not obtrusively a social commentary, but the album does convey an important shift in technological creativity. Created on a Moog synthesizer, Switched on Bach lent itself to a different kind of performance, one that could not be given easily in traditional concert halls or auditoriums. Modern in its rendition of Bach and for its experimentation with a new technology, Switched on Bach was an album for a generation fascinated by cultural and technological novelty.


Vintage Record Collection: Switched-On Bach, Wendy (Walter) Carlos Performing on the Moog Synthesizer, Columbia Masterworks Records, Released in 1968


Biography – Wendy Carlos:

            Wendy Carlos, born on November 14, 1939 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was an engineering and music prodigy from her early childhood. In 1953, Carlos won an award at the prestigious Westinghouse science competition for building a homemade computer. Her technical brilliance took her to Brown University, where she studied music and physics. While earning her masters degree in music composition at Columbia University, she became engaged in the academic debate on the merits of serialism versus traditional orchestral, tonal music. With an aversion for serialism, then the preference of high-minded academic circles, Carlos found a career as a composer to be impossible to undertake. Instead, she reconnected with her interest in electronics, and, after working under Vladimir Ussachevsky at the Columbia-Princeton studio, developed a friendship with Robert Moog, a physicist from Cornell who had pioneered the Moog synthesizer in 1963.

Carlos’ friendship with Moog acquainted her with her future collaborator and producer Rachel Elkind. The Elkind-Carlos relationship was sour at first, with neither recognizing the potential of the other; only when Carlos realized that Elkind could provide a necessary connection to the corporate recording industry did she abandon her intense loathing for Elkind. With Elkind, Carlos began experimenting more heavily with the Moog synthesizer, using it in her version of “What’s New Pussycat.” Elkind provided the critical direction of any good producer, but was only impressed when she heard Carlos’ synthesized rendition of Bach’s “Two-Part Invention in F Major.” The pair would go on to create, produce, and mix Carlos’ 1968 album, Switched on Bach. Elkind’s guidance and Carlos’ brilliance made the album a tremendous commercial success. Upon this album, Carlos built a reputation that would earn her contracts for several blockbuster film soundtracks, including those of The Shining and A Clockwork Orange.

The Album and the Moog Synthesizer

            By the time Williams, a pioneer in the fields of music, electronics, and engineering, had graduated from Columbia University in the early 1960s, other musicians were putting out popular renditions of classical pieces. The venerated works of German composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, were the focus of some important musicians, including Keith Emerson, frontman for British rock outfit The Nice, and Virgil Fox, an independent organist.

Conceived by Williams, produced by Rachel Elkind, and made on Robert Moog’s 1963 Moog synthesizer, Switched on Bach was a painstaking project. Elkind and Williams, along with musicologist Benjamin Folkman, spent the spring and summer of 1968 working on the album, which featured ten pieces by Bach available under public domain. The trio relied on Robert Moog’s newly invented synthesizer, which, unlike its contemporary, the Buchla synthesizer, gave musicians infinite tape loops and repeats. Despite this innovation, the Moog was a complicated piece of analog technology: it systematized the production of electronically generated sound into a number of functional blocks. Each note, therefore, was played individually. Surely Moog’s machine tested the patience of both Carlos and Elkind during the recording process.

Having first bought a Moog synthesizer in 1966, Carlos, despite her technical proficiency, struggled to master the varied tonal nuances of Bach’s pieces, as her analog instrument only had half-a-dozen basic sounds. Carlos brilliantly surpassed the technological limitations of the machine, and, during the recording process, jumped from timbre to timbre on the Moog in order to produce more timbral resources than really existed. Elkind and Carlos worked together to search for certain timbres, to mimic hard-to-produce sounds, like those of a French horn. With parts from Apex, Carlos assembled a special 8-track recording device that she and Elkind used to record Switched on Bach.



Alice Daisy´s Moog Voyager and Yamaha CS Dual Channel Synthesizer



Featured Tracks: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Toccata and “Air on a G-string”

The recording of each track, as aforementioned, was a difficult and long process. Each note had to be played individually, and Elkind and Carlos doubtlessly spent hours trying to correct errors caused by the limitation in the Moog’s timbral facilities. Below are two tracks for Switched on Bach, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (from Cantata no. 147), and “Air on a G-string” (from Suite in D major).


“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”

Originally entitled “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life), this piece was composed in 1716, and then revised in 1723 by Johann Sebastian Bach. In their original iterations, the chorale movements 6 and 10 had been scored for choir, trumpet, violin, viola, and basso continuo. Written during Bach’s Weimar period, this piece includes an opening chorus and four arias.

As with “Air on a G-string” and “Toccata and Fugue in D minor,” “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” was already immensely famous before Carlos’ rendition. Traditionally, the piece had been performed at weddings and on Christian holidays, such as Easter and Christmas. It was pieces like these that contributed to the commercial success of Carlos’ Switched on Bach.


“Air on a G-string”

August Wilhelmj’s arrangement of the second movement in Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, “Air on a G-string” is broken up into two movements. While the first movement is comprised of a French overture, the second movement features an “Air.” Wilhelmj’s arrangement can be played entirely on the G-string of a violin, the instrument’s lowest string. Bach’s original suite is comprised of three trumpets, a timpani, two violin parts, a viola part, and a basso continuo. The melody produced by the strings contrasts with the rhythmic bass, creating a special effect in the suite.

The complexity of this piece is notable, and Elkind and Carlos had difficulty performing it on the Moog (citation). Modifying the machine so that it would produce these complex timbres, Carlos called on her own talents as an engineer, switching from timbre to timbre in order to achieve the desired effect in the second movement.



Commercial Success of Switched on Bach

            Although Carlos was a gifted engineer, the commercial success of her album came as a result of help from Rachel Elkind. Elkind, who had befriended Columbia Records’ Ettore Stratta of the Artists and Repertoire department, saw to the submission of Carlos’ proposal. Upon receiving the proposal and hearing Carlos’ renditions, officials at Columbia offered Carlos a two-album commitment and a multi-thousand dollar signing bonus. At this time, rock-and-roll and electronic experimentation were popular; Columbia, in an attempt to seize the day and compete with Nonesuch Records, a label that had signed Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon in 1967, had spearheaded the Bach to Rock program in an earlier year. This competition between the two labels is ultimately what led to Carlos’ early signing.

Switched on Bach would enjoy tremendous commercial success after its 1968 release by Columbia Records. The album stayed atop the Billboard Classical Charts for over three years, from January 1969 until February 1972. Within a few months of its release the album had been certified gold by the RIAA, for sales exceeding 500,000. Switched on Bach became the first classical album to go platinum in 1986.


Performances and Carlos’ post-Switched on Bach career:


Carlos’ merits as both an engineer and a musician were apparent in the creation and production of Switched on Bach. The question of whether or not artistry and engineering could go hand-in-hand loomed at the time of Switched on Bach’s release. Critics of Carlos cried that it must have been the machine—not Carlos herself—who was responsible for the work. Could an engineer also be a musician? Or were the roles separate? As Carlos proved, making music on a complicated piece of machinery did not preclude one from being a creative artist. Engineers, creative in their own technical ways, were, by Carlo’s testimony, the musicians of the modern age. Devices like the Moog would eventually become omnipresent in popular music, and Carlos’ Switched on Bach brought electronic music to the forefront of popular criticism and discussion in 1968.

Unconventional in many ways, Switched on Bach was not an album that could be easily performed live. Not only was Carlos tremendously uncomfortable in front of large crowds—biologically, Carlos was a man but identified as a woman, and was forced to dress in gender-conforming outfits on stage—but it was also impossible for her to reproduce the album on stage on the Moog. In the same way that the Beatles could not easily perform Sergeant Pepper in an auditorium, Carlos was only able to give a live performance of the album twice. In 1969, following the release of her second studio album, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, Carlos teamed up with the St. Louis Philharmonic to perform Switched on Bach. Then, in 1970, on the Dick Cavett Show, Carlos performed the Switched on Bach once again. This was the last performance of the album, and one of the few of Carlos’ career.

Switched on Bach influenced a number of other artists, including the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. Others, such as Stevie Wonder and Keith Emerson, also owed much to Carlos for her work on Switched on Bach. With so much critical and commercial success already under her belt, Wendy Carlos went on to produce three more studio albums, including The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969), Switched on Bach II (1973), and Switched on Brandenburgs (1979). Carlos’ career also included composing scores for two major Stanley Kubrick blockbusters, A Clockwork Orange (1972) and The Shining (1980).


Works Cited:

  • Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. Pinch, Trevor, Trocco, Frank. Harvard University Press: Print. 2002.
  • Shillito, P. Switched-on Bach – Where it All Started. Classitronic. 21 July 2009. 14 February 2016.
  • “Air on a G-string.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Commons. 14 February 2016. 14 February 2016.
  • “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Commons. 2 February 2016. 14 February 2016.
  • “Switched-on Bach.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Commons. 13 February 2016. 14 February 2016.
  • “Robert Moog.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia Commons. 13 February 2016. 14 February 2016.