Love Synth Pop? Thank Wendy Carlos, the Trans Woman Who Invented It.

The Grammy winner's pioneering music in the 1960s helped pave the way for new wave, EDM, and Kim Petras.

It’s impossible to imagine contemporary popular music without the synthesizer. The instrument, which generates audio signals that are then converted to sound, pervades almost every modern musical genre. Pop, dance pop, hip-hop, EDM, experimental—if it’s based in electronica, it can be traced back to the invention of the commercial synthesizer. And yes, that includes most of the LGBTQ artists who comprise your going-out (or broody staying-in) playlists (Kim Petras or Sophie, anyone?)

But behind its familiar (though still seemingly out-of-this-world) sounds is a name you may not recognize: Wendy Carlos, an accomplished musician, recording engineer, and transgender woman whose forward-thinking use of synths helped make them ubiquitous.

Carlos, now almost 80 years old, has two Ivy League degrees, three Grammy Awards (all for her 1968 classic Switched-On Bach), and a handful of critically acclaimed film scores (for 1971’s A Clockwork Orange and 1980’s The Shining, among others) under her belt. Her rise to fame in the music industry began in New York City. After graduating from Columbia University with a master’s degree in music composition in the 1960s, a 20-something Carlos worked alongside electronic music innovators and Columbia professors like Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening.

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Carlos in her NYC recording studio circa 1979.

There, she also met Robert “Bob” Moog, a fellow audio engineer and the namesake of the Moog synthesizer, a classic analog version of the instrument. The two became fast friends, and their working relationship spanned some 40 years.

“It was a perfect fit,” Carlos recalled in a blog post dedicated to Moog in 2005, after the 71-year-old synth pioneer died of cancer. “He was a creative engineer who spoke music; I was a musician who spoke science. It felt like a meeting of simpatico minds, like he were my older brother, perhaps.”

In 1964, Moog debuted his bespoke synthesizer—a smaller, more portable version of the hulking wall-to-wall synths that most audio technicians and recording engineers used—at NYC’s annual Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention. It would graduate to become the world’s first commercial synthesizer, and Carlos would use it to record Switched-On Bach, an electronic reimagining of Johann Sebastian Bach’s classical compositions. The triple-Grammy-winning classical music record—which sold a record-breaking 1,000,000 copies—is widely credited with meshing popular music and synths together. (Before Switched-On Bach, the instruments were mostly relegated to more experimental, less commercially successful music.)

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A Moog synthesizer from 1968.

Her prestigious honors aside, Carlos was struggling. In fact, she’d been struggling with gender dysphoria since childhood, and she began to feel hopeless and suicidal in college.

It wasn’t until 1979—10 years after she’d swept the Classical Musical categories at the 1969 Grammys—that she came out publicly as transgender in a Playboy magazine interview. Carlos recalled how she’d felt too anxious to perform live once she began hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and had initiated her physical transition in secret. But she could no longer deny who she was. When Playboy asked if she “had any idea” what would’ve happened if she hadn’t begun to live her life as a woman, Carlos was frank: “Yes. I’d be dead.”

The magnitude of her announcement then is difficult to overstate. In 2019, in an era when trans issues are addressed explicitly by presidential hopefuls on the Democratic Party debate stage, an industry pioneer coming out in a mainstream magazine is cause for celebration. In 1970s America, it was not only unheard-of, but a potentially career-ending move (not to mention dangerous). The cultural conversation around transgender acceptance, much less transgender equality, was still burgeoning in LGBTQ spaces; it barely existed in cisgender, heterosexual circles.

Since her initial coming out, Carlos has rarely addressed her gender identity in interviews. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.) That may have something to do with the way her story has been told. In 1979, Playboy asked her some pretty invasive, if not genuinely curious, questions. Even after she discussed her transition in great detail, reporters and editors continued to print her deadname. But in one 1985 article in People, Carlos said she hit her stride in composing new music after opening up publicly about who she really was. The burden had been lifted; it was time to create.

“The public turned out to be amazingly tolerant or, if you wish, indifferent,” she told the magazine. “There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life.”

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Carlos in 1979.

Carlos’ candor at a time when transness or gender nonconformity wasn’t even on most Americans’ radars paved the way for a generation of LGBTQ electronic artists to come. Decades after Switched-On Bach, the Tron soundtrack, and her other contributions to ’70s and ’80s synth music, a new wave of queer musicians can make the kind of songs and albums they envision and love without their identities holding them back.

One of those artists is Kiran Gandhi, a.k.a. Madame Gandhi, a Los Angeles–based electronic music artist and activist who credits Carlos with changing the game for marginalized people in electronic music.

“Usually, we imagine the analog synth community as a very homogenous community,” she tells NewNowNext. But for Gandhi—a queer woman of color whose songs like “The Future is Female” and “Top Knot Turn Up” are meant to empower marginalized people—discovering Carlos’ pivotal role in the popularization of synth music was “so inspiring, and such a relief.” It made her want to pick up the instrument that much more.
 

In 2018, Gandhi performed at Moogfest, an annual gathering for synth enthusiasts and music industry professionals that takes place in North Carolina, where Bob Moog spent the last 30 years of his life. She was joined onstage by a lineup of other electronic musicians—all women or gender-nonconforming people—in honor of Carlos and Switched-On Bach’s 50th anniversary.

Gandhi was thrilled that Moogfest’s organizers hosted a tribute to Carlos, but she was especially grateful that they paid homage to her transness—a fact she was unaware of before the event.

“[Wendy Carlos] made folks who are booking festivals more intentional about reaching out to gender-nonconforming folks and queer folks and women in a way that I don’t think would have happened had she not been one of the biggest contributors to electronic music,” she says. “So this shift—actually putting Wendy Carlos on the map—made us musicians more open-minded to say, ’Oh, wow, this genre is actually not what we thought it was. It’s something else.’ And that’s really freaking cool.”

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella