Wendy Carlos: A Biography

Oxford Univ. Apr. 2020. 272p. ISBN 9780190053468. $34.95. MUSIC
Released in 1968 to great acclaim, huge sales, a long stay on the Billboard charts, and three Grammy awards, Switched-on Bach, a collection of Johann Sebastian Bach recordings performed on a Moog synthesizer, inspired many imitators and provided a giant shot in the arm for electronic music. The world wanted more, and it wanted to see the artist. But Wendy Carlos (b. 1939), then known as Walter Carlos, wanted to be left alone. Sewell (music director, Interlochen Public Radio) tells the story of this pivotal album’s elusive creator. Carlos, a transgender woman, underwent hormone treatments before the release of the album and had gender reassignment surgery in 1972. Firm in her belief that music should be judged by its own merits, Carlos has avoided interviews and intrusions into her personal life. Even with limited secondary sources to rely on, Sewell has written a long-overdue scholarly work that sheds light on Carlos’s creative process while never sensationalizing her private life.
VERDICT Sewell’s nuanced biography of an overlooked composer is our best look yet at this groundbreaking artist, and a reminder that art can and should speak for itself.

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