Few of the people we’ve discussed have been celebrated by NASA. If you go to her delightfully ’90s webpage, you can read what Wendy Carlos has to say about her history of eclipse photography. Indeed, the website appears to be as much about science and her personal philosophy as about how she shaped the world of music. There is nothing at all about her connection to film. To be fair, she hasn’t done many films, though the ones she’s done are iconic.
Wendy Carlos wrote her first composition at age ten and build a computer at fourteen. She attended Brown University to study music, and she was already giving lessons in electronic music. She received her Masters in music composition from Columbia University; while she was a student there, she worked with Leonard Bernstein to present a concert of electronic music. She was an incredibly pioneer in the field; there weren’t a lot of people making electronic music in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
One of the most important connections she made in those years was with Robert Moog. She was one of the contributors toward developing his synthesizer. She’d worked with others before, of course, but Moog’s was the first to use a keyboard. Carlos’s first commercial recording was a demonstration album of the synthesizer’s technical abilities. From there, she released several highly acclaimed albums; her Switched-On Bach was one of the first real electronic recordings and had to be done one note at a time, due to the synthesizer’s limitations.
As I said, she hasn’t done many movies, but she worked twice with Kubrick, on Clockwork Orange and The Shining. She worked for Disney to score the original TRON. (My friends and I joked last night that for all we knew, she worked on the second one as well and is secretly in Daft Punk.) She scored a movie I’ve never heard of called Woundings. And that’s pretty much it. To be perfectly honest, I kind of thought she was dead until I looked her up for Attention Must Be Paid a while back. She’s only 79; that’s almost a full decade younger than John Williams. But she seems to have settled into a mellow lifestyle with her photography.
She also considers about a decade of her life to have been wasted by hiding her transition. When she came out as transgendered and revealed her gender reassignment surgery, she says she was pretty well met with indifference—she thought people would be angry or horrified, but instead, they mostly didn’t care. She’d been so determined to keep it secret that she disguised herself as a man, even drawing on a moustache, and continued to release albums under the name of Walter Carlos. Being open about her identity was a considerable relief.