Friday, April 28, 2023

The View On Pop Culture: Wendy Carlos, Blind Pig Records 25th Anniversary (2001)


Although not often credited as such, Wendy Carlos was a major innovator in the field of electronic music. Her groundbreaking efforts directly influenced such subsequent genres as ambient music, New Age, techno, and electronica, all of which depend heavily on the synthesizer as a lead instrument. Carlos studied musical composition at Columbia University under Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Leuning. While working as a studio engineer in Manhattan, the young classical music enthusiast met up with Dr. Robert Moog, an innovator himself and the inventor of the Moog Synthesizer.

Carlos recognized the synthesizer’s potential and recorded her first album with the instrument in 1968. Switched-On Bach (East Side Digital) proved to be a remarkable showcase for the largely unknown electronic instrument. Her electronic recreations of fugues and concertos, although scorned by classical purists, was a big hit with the mainstream audience, winning three Grammy™ awards and becoming the first classical recording to be certified Platinum™ for one million units sold. A digital recreation of Bach’s “greatest hits,” Switched-On Bach transfers to compact disc with great clarity and resonance.

Carlos followed her debut with a couple of similar classical reconstructions, which would receive lukewarm response. She would hit a homerun again in 1971 with her original score for the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange. Also reissued by East Side Digital, the project would show the roots of an evolution in Carlos’ sound, the soundtrack mixing electronic interpretations of Beethoven and Rossini with original compositions that sounded like nothing before (or since). These instrumental interludes were the first shots in a musical revolution that would yield such influential electronic artists as Larry Fast, Kraftwerk and Neu. Carlos would also use this album to introduce the Vocoder voice synthesizer into popular usage.

Carlos would continue her sojourn into what would later be called “New Age” music with the brilliantly realized 1972 release Sonic Seasonings (ESD), a two-album set of “environmental” music. Using natural sounds combined with subtle electronic flourishes to compose suites for each of the four seasons, the album paved the way for dozens of musical imitators. This 2-CD reissue also includes Land of the Midnight Sun, a previously unreleased project from 1986 that extends and builds upon the suites composed for Sonic Seasonings, serving as a sort of artistic bookend for this important and often overlooked work.

Wendy Carlos's Clockwork Orange
Better than a decade later, Carlos would again revolutionize electronic music with 1986’s Beauty In the Beast (ESD). A masterful and disturbing hybrid of digital sound, classical composition and traditional music from around the world (Tibet, Bali, Africa and East Europe), the project redefined electronic music as a medium rather than a style. The most difficult Carlos album to listen to, with unusual tunings and cacophonic rhythms, Beauty In the Beast is nevertheless worth the effort, the album a musical revelation that would subsequently inspire artists such as Brian Eno and David Byrne to mix world music with electronic pop.

Carlos continues to record sporadically. A pioneer in sound reproduction, Carlos has worked with various software developers and is well known as a sound engineer. Unlike many artists who have no input over their early work, Carlos was intimately involved with the production of these reissues; her background in engineering and electronics no doubt valuable in coaxing the best sound possible out of tapes created by what is now ancient technology. Other Wendy Carlos titles in the East Side Digital reissue series include 1969’s classical collection The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, 1984’s Digital Moonscapes, and Tales of Heaven & Hell from 1998. All of the reissues feature crystal-clear 20-bit remastering and are enhanced with content available via computer. More information on Wendy Carlos can be found online at

I remember living in Detroit back in 1979, haunting local clubs like the New Miami to hear performances by rockers like Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, Destroy All Monsters, and the Romantics. If you wanted to hear the blues, though there was just one place to go – the basement of the Blind Pig CafĂ© on South First in Ann Arbor. The club drew all the major league heavyweights of the blues world; they put out records too, on their own Blind Pig Records imprint. The first Blind Pig album I remember buying was by roots rocker Steve Nardella and I’ve spent a lot of cash on records from the Blind Pig folks since then.

Blind Pig Records 25th Anniversary Collection
A quick glimpse at the line-up of talent for the double-disc Blind Pig Records 25th Anniversary Collection shows exactly how the label managed to extract so much of my coin during the past quarter-century. The 35-song retrospective of the label’s history includes material from such blues legends as Arthur Adams and B.B.King, Muddy Waters, Snooky Pryor, Johnny Shines, Pinetop Perkins and James Cotton as well as contemporary mainstays like Tommy Castro, Jimmy Thackery, and Mitch Woods.

The collection also includes the contributions of fresh, young blues talents like Popa Chubby, Deborah Coleman, Joanna Connor, and Big Bill Morganfield. A third disc included with the set is a CD-ROM that includes interviews and performance videos that can be watched on your computer screen. Did I mention that the set sells for the price of a single CD? Blind Pig Records has been able to stay atop of the blues game for twenty-five years and this anniversary collection is a fitting tribute to the label’s vision and integrity. (View From The Hill, October 2001)

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