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Wendy Carlos: Trans Woman, Kubrick Collaborator, and Synth-Music Pioneer



Wendy Carlos

***Author’s note: Wendy Carlos: Trans Woman, Kubrick Collaborator, and Synth-Music Pioneer is a part of iHorror’s Horror Pride Month series which seeks to inform, educate, and shine a spotlight on the LGBTQ creatives who have helped shape the genre.***

Wendy Carlos was destined to be a musician. Her mother was a piano teacher, and her uncles played a variety of instruments. By the age of six, she had begun studying piano and at ten composed her first piece of music, “A Trio for Clarinet, Accordion, and Piano.”

In her teenage years, Wendy branched out and became interested in the growing world of electronics and computers, winning a competition for a home-built computer in high school, but music was still in her soul and she continued to play and compose.

She entered Brown University and emerged with degrees in music and physics and later attained a Master’s Degree in Music Composition from Columbia University. During her studies, she had begun teaching lessons in electronic music, a decision that would play a role in shaping her future career and the rest of her life.

It was during her time at Columbia, that Carlos met Robert Moog, a pioneer in electronic music who was developing an analog music synthesizer. Carlos was fascinated with Moog’s work and joined him in his project, developing the first Moog synthesizer and the many iterations that would follow.

Carlos began using one of these synthesizers to compose advertising jingles and was soon making a name for herself in the field when she met Rachel Elkind, a former singer who was working as a secretary for the head of Columbia Records.

The two became instant friends and collaborators and in 1968, the first album from that collaboration was released upon the world. It was called Switched-On Bach, and it became an unexpected success in the world of music. The album sold over one million copies and Carlos’ days of anonymity were over and it was little surprise that the film world came calling.

It seems that Stanley Kubrick had been a fan of Carlos’ work and asked her to compose music for his upcoming film, A Clockwork Orange. Carlos and Elkind began work and had soon produced a number of pieces pairing synthesized tracks with the work of classical composers. The score was heralded as a masterpiece and it seemed the Carlos’ reputation was assured.

Suddenly, however, she completely fell of the map. No one knew why, though stories and rumors abounded.

The truth was that Wendy had been known her entire life as Walter, and she could no longer live the lie of her birth-assigned gender. She had already begun hormone replacement therapy by the time she was working on A Clockwork Orange, and her physical appearance had begun to change. For her, it was time to take the steps to transform her outer form to the person she’d been inside her entire life.

To say that this process was shocking in the 1970s would be putting it mildly. Even today, society at large pushes back daily against the transgender community. When Walter re-emerged as Wendy, tongues wagged and former professional acquaintances distanced themselves.

Photos of Wendy Carlos that accompanied the 1979 Playboy Interview. (Photos by Vernon Wells)

To set the record straight, the somewhat reclusive Carlos gave an in depth series of interviews with Playboy magazine which would be assembled and published in 1979. It was the first time Wendy had fully and publicly told her story and she had a lot to say.

“Well, I’m scared. I’m very frightened,” Carlos told interviewer Arthur Bell. “I don’t know what effect this is going to have. I fear for my friends; we’re going to become targets of those who judge what I’ve done as, in moral terms, evil, and in medical terms, sick–an assault on the human body.”

Carlos seemed to overcome some of those fears even as she discussed them with her interviewer, however. She explained her early dypshoria with her body which began at five or six years old, and expressed her unhappiness with the term “transsexual,” the common terminology at the time for her identity.

“I wish the word transsexual hadn’t become current,” she explained. “Transgender is a better description because sexuality per se is only one factor in the spectrum of feelings and needs that let me to this step.”

What is perhaps most telling in that interview, however, is when Carlos digs deep into the secrecy that had shrouded her life before, even while she was working with Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange. She had already been on HRT for three years at the time and she admits that she became a mystery to the enigmatic and demanding director.

“It was no big deal in the beginning,” she pointed out. “Later on he began to notice it a little more, and he would talk about somebody he knew who was gay, trying to feel out if I were gay. I’d give him an enigmatic answer suggesting I wasn’t, and he’d be even more disturbed. On the last couple of days he shot a lot of pictures of me with his little Minox camera. He must have found me an interesting person to say the least.”

Regardless of what Kubrick thought of Carlos at the time, he appreciated her music. Several months after the interview was published, Carlos found herself working again on a Kubrick production. This time, it was The Shining.

Kubrick cobbled together the music of several avant-garde composers for the film, but it was Carlos who composed its haunting title theme based on Berlioz’s “Dies Irae” from the Symphonie Fantastique.

The piece is one of the most recognizable and iconic horror themes to this day. It’s ambient strains and mysterious sounds are chilling and evocative, coaxing us into the cold journey of the film with alacrity.

Soon after, she found herself working on the score for Walt Disney’s Tron which seemed a perfect fit for her exceptional talent and hybrid compositions.

Throughout the 80s, she would continue to compose, releasing three albums during the decade though her film work began to diminish during this time. She collaborated with Weird Al Yankovic on a re-imagining of Peter and the Wolf which won a Grammy Award and continued to push the limits of what synthesized music could achieve.

By the 90s, her film work was almost non-existent, and while she continued to compose her interests expanded to other arts. She became an eclipse chaser and has become well-known for her photography of solar eclipses with some of her work appearing on NASA’s official websites.

Today, at almost 80 years old, Carlos is still recognized as the innovator she has always been. Her music has chilled us to our core, her photography has set our sights upon the heavens, and her personal story of coming out and transition is an inspiration to the LGBTQ community.

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