Updated: Feb 10
Without a doubt, her participation in "A Clockwork Orange" (1971), and "The Shining" (1980) - two of the most important successful works of American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick - greatly contributed to the success of the films. It can even be argued that without her, they might have never become the classics that they are to this day, up until 2020. Welcome to the empowering story of Wendy Carlos, a pioneer of revelatory ambient sounds in film.
From its very first second on, "The Shining" (1980) creates one of the most thrilling atmospheres to be experienced in any horror movie, with its electrifying score majorly contributing to its impact. Without the suspense generated by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind, the film would be unrecognizable. The role that the music plays within the film is above any acting performance - essentially, the music is the main narrator. However, beyond being an excellent and innovative composer, Wendy Carlos also broke absolutely all the social paradigms and prejudices of the United States. In the early 1970s, she became one of the first public figures to undergo gender reassignment surgery, a rare visionary of an era when transgender consciousness was not yet ready to be the center of attention.
Born as Walter Carlos (Pawtucket, Rhode Island, 1939), since childhood, her attitude towards life was one of constant optimism. She never gave up on what she believed in, nor was she afraid of social obstacles. Born into a humble family, her first connection to music was made through a piano that her father drew for her on a piece of paper when she was 6 years old so that she could practice. However, Carlos did not need the superficiality of an instrument to immediately fall in love with music, and the possibility of building her own instruments. It was then that the path began to form that years later would turn Wendy, then-referred to as Walter, into a talented young engineer and classical composer, receiving a prestigious education at renowned universities such as Brown and Columbia. It was at the latter that Carlos first met Robert Moog, a pioneer in the field of synthesizers. This artistic connection built the base of the incredible story of how Carlos became one of the first famous performers to use synthesizers. While working at the university, she began learning about transgender issues for the first time and sought the advice of a sexologist, Harry Benjamin, now widely known in the field for his pioneering work with transsexuality.
"No one is in your league".
Robert Moog about Wendy Carlos - 1985
In 1968, her first album "Switched-On Bach" (winner of three Grammy awards in 1969) became the first classical music album to reach platinum sales, an absolutely innovative album for the time being, as it would be the first album to attempt the use of synthesizers as an alternative to the orchestra. That same year, she began hormone replacement therapy. Initially, the transition period made her very vulnerable. Transitioning in the public eye was really very difficult: Carlos was already an outstanding composer, and the possible reactions of the people were something that affected her greatly, beyond her optimism and positivism before life. Her fears made her very lonely. However, it was also during this transition phase that she met Stanley Kubrick - and her immediate connection with the cinematic universe was conceived. Her contributions to A Clockwork Orange and The Shining are indispensable in creating the dread and horror that carry through these cinematic masterpieces. As you can hear in the opening title music for both films, at the top and below, Carlos’ synth scores set up the near-unbearable tensions in Kubrick’s worlds. Also, she worked on the soundtrack of the Disney movie "TRON".
"I had always been concerned about liberation and was anxious to get free".
In 1978, Playboy magazine published an interview with Carlos, in which she revealed her transgender status. The commercial and financial success of Switched on Bach, allowed her to undergo sex reassignment surgery in 1972. "I had always been concerned about liberation and I was anxious to get free," she told the magazine. The article had a significant impact on readers and listeners. Later, she recalled that the public reaction had been surprising and "incredibly tolerant or, if you will, indifferent...There was never any need for this charade. It had resulted in a monstrous loss of years of my life".
Now 80 years old, Wendy spends her days exploring solar eclipses. Her work as a photographer has been published by NASA, and she continues to use her expertise in physics to develop various techniques in eclipse photography. She has kept a low profile in the midst of the transgender community since her interview with Playboy, but what Wendy Carlos' story demonstrates once again is that gender need not define who we are. She relied on her art, intelligence, skill, and dedication to get where she wanted in life and did it all with grace and dignity, making her an excellent role model for all those that want to break loose of social shackles in pursuit of their dreams.