This record has a few essays on the back cover, starting with an essay by Rachel Elkind, who has the title of “producer,” but who Wendy Carlos describes on her website, as a silent and creative partner with Carlos. Rachel writes: “Something went wrong. ‘Switched-On Bach’ was meant to be an artistic experiment, a learning and testing vehicle, an example of a contemporary composer trying to find himself- not the marked commercial success it has so clearly become.”
Thomas Frost, the music director of Columbia Masterworks also writes, “Young people everywhere-college students, teenagers- many of whom ordinarily buy nothing but Rock and Folk, passed the word that here was a record with a new contemporary sound.” I just love that part about buying nothing but rock and folk music. I just watched The Source Family documentary that is streaming on Netflix right now, and am feeling pretty fascinated with the teenagers of the late 60’s and early 70s. I can’t believe there were runaway 12 year old girls living in the Source Family, most likely only buying rock and folk music. It’s a good documentary, but spoiler alert - by the end you will hate “Father Yod” or whatever the hell his name is. At least I did. 12 year old girls have a lot to do with it.
The record sleeve also has this awesome list “Here’s How Records Give You More of What You Want.” I particularly like #4 and #8.
Okay, lets listen to some more Wendy Carlos, shall we?
The first song, “Monteverdi: ‘Orfeo’ Suite,” sounds like something that should be played when astronauts graduate from astronaut training. It is very regal and feels celebratory yet serious, and of course the synthesizer makes it feel super space aged. Let’s not forget Bach flying through space with his Moog synthesizer on the last Wendy Carlos cover!
This might also work if two astronauts were marrying each other. It could be played at their wedding ceremony, right before the ceremony was about to begin.
The next songs, “Sonata in E Major and D Major,” have me picturing a classic ensemble scene for a space aged ballet. You know, your typical space aged village with some children running around playing games and pantomiming whispers into each others’ ears. A group of young men show of their brawn on one side of the stage and a group of young women giggling behind ornate fans on the other. But all with an outer space/ tomorrowland twist. I would go see that ballet.
Not really knowing that much about synthesizers, even though Alex loves them, I’m having a hard time picturing how this music would look performed live. Is it all played by Wendy at different times, or the same time, or different people on different synthesizers? Alex and I just had a conversation about it where he drew this diagram to help explain. Alex likes to draw it out when he’s explaining stuff. It usually helps. (The computer part on the bottom is a MIDI, which was not invented yet in 1969. The half completed heart shaped spacecraft in the middle is a doodle.)
So, I get that if this was done live, there’d have to be a bunch of people on different synthesizers. But the way Wendy did it was by herself with one crazy looking synthesizers with a bunch of wires, and recorded each part separately before putting it all together. Pretty amazing.
I think Wendy tries to explain it in her essay on the back cover but I still wouldn’t have gotten it without Alex’s diagram, and also, still don’t totally get what she’s talking about. Here’s an excerpt:
The four Scarlatti Sonatas are quite different from anything I have done. Since they consist of two-part counterpoint with rarely more than three or four voices, I thought a straight performance of one color different or related, on each voice might not be particularly effective musically. So I tried to fragment each part among many colors, quasi-pointillistically, but with an over-all integral ‘feeling’ of the various phrasings and voice leadings.
Either way, it mainly sounds like enjoyable classical music, good for when you’re in the mood for classical music, with a little bit of a space aged feel. The synthesizer makes this very old music feel modern, and yet it also dates it. It kind of sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place in the 70’s or 80’s. It’s an interesting thing to listen to in 2014, especially on vinyl, because “remember… it always happens first on records!” (I’m referring to the fabulous liner notes list here.)
PS- I lovely reader made me aware of the fact that I made a mistake in my last post in crediting Ned Washington with writing the Disney Electric Light Parade music. It was actually Gershon Kingsley. Who, with a quick google search I’m seeing wrote the Popcorn song! Oh man, music is wonderful! And so is the internet!
Thank you Dan from Doom Dong for letting me know! Here’s the email he sent me:
I’m a big fan of the blog! I’d like to offer you a correction for your record review of Wendy Carlos - Switched on Bach II. You refer to the Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade song, one of my favorites. However, I feel obligated to point out that the main motif of the song was NOT written by Ned Washington, but rather by Gershon Kingsley (his original version, often credited along with Jean-Jaques Perrey, is titled “Baroque Hoedown”). Ned Washington is listed as a writer because he co-wrote “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which, I’m sure you know, is one of the song’s medley parts.