Wendy Carlos: The Well-Tempered Synthesizer

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I was not familiar with Wendy Carlos until my girlfriend procured a copy of this fantastic 1969 record, “The Well-Tempered Synthesizer,” for a dollar from a thrift store. Or I didn’t think I was. As it turned out, Carlos composed the eerie, cacophonous soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

“The Well-Tempered Synthesizer” consists of a smorgasbord of short excerpts from Classical composers Bach, Handel, Monteverdi, and Scarlatti. The name is a reference to Bach’s collection of keyboard compositions, “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” But far from being yet another record with a smattering of classical pieces, Wendy Carlos’s album is more a re-envisioning: the entire album was composed on a Moog synthesizer. It has a modern sound to it with clearly electronic notes. The reverberation of piano notes is absent. Instead, the Moog conveys tinny highs and plinky lows, breathing new life into old compositions.

The albums opens with Monteverdi’s “Orfeo Suite.” Initially, the track begins slow, but soon moves to a faster pace which is carried for much of the album. Scarlatti’s Sonatas in G and D Major respectively, follow the “Orfeo Suite,” with fast paces and high pitches. On the syth, the two Sonatas almost sound as though they were preformed on a steel drum. The result is a contemporary sound. Emanating from the floor-standing speakers connected to my Yamaha receiver, Carlos’ creation has a distinctly updated feel. With its steel drum, electronic vibe, it seems more appropriate than listening to a traditional recording, especially over modern stereo equipment.

Even the cover of the album, which features impersonators dressed up as the composers in a mirrored hallway, screams contemporary. It almost looks as if Stanley Kubrick set up the shot for the album cover, which is something of an almost-70’s, pseudo-futuristic portrait. “The Well-Tempered Synthesizer” is a fusion of past classical music pieces and then-new technology, the Moog synthesizer. The album appeals to classical music lovers as well as those unacquainted with classical composers. While the longest track clocks in at 8:06, the rest of the songs averaged 2-4 minutes. This makes it perfect for those familiar with the given pieces as well as listeners who want a change from their preferred genre.

Although there isn’t a (legal) digital copy, “The Well-Tempered Synthesizer” is available for purchase on vinyl and CD, as well as free for streaming on Grooveshark, no signup necessary. Interestingly, the vinyl is significantly cheaper than the CD on Amazon. And apparently one dollar copies pop up in thrift stores occasionally, so you too could get lucky. Keep digging through crates- it pays off.

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