With an unblinking stare into the camera, the killer absently sips from a glass of pharmaceutically-enhanced milk, his right eye dressed in a stark false eyelash. The soundtrack swells with the foreboding sound of synthesizers, reanimating a centuries old funeral march. The present perverts the past, changing the mournful into something cold and sinister.
The iconic moments in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 A Clockwork Orange are virtually continuous: Alex and his droogs in the Korovo Milk Bar prior their nightly round of ultra-violence. The reckless ride in the Durango ’95 into the “real country dark.” Murder via giant ceramic sexual organ. The eyelid clamping torture of the Ludovico technique. Alex’s final ecstatic dream.
And underscoring these scenes of madness is a predominantly classical score exacted not only through traditional means of symphony orchestra, but also through breakthrough advancements in synthesizer technology, arranged and performed by Wendy Carlos. Though used sparingly, this ingenious re-purposing of classical themes through multi-layered analog synthesizers remains as powerful today as it did over four decades years ago. But like Kubrick’s brutal and graphic imagery, Carlos’ contribution to electronic music was not without controversy.
Music For a Funeral
The title music of A Clockwork Orange is adapted from Henry Purcell’s “Music For the Funeral of Queen Mary,” a processional march that dates from 1695. In the company of Alex and his droogs, the music sounds ominous, a portent of the evil to come. Kubrick’s suggestion of the piece derived from instinct:
In thinking about the music for the scene, the Purcell piece occurred to me and, after I listened to it several times in conjunction with the film, there was simply no question in regards to using it.
In a recent interview with NPR, Jonny Greenwood—Radiohead guitarist and composer for P.T. Anderson’s The Master—stated,
What I really enjoy about writing for orchestras is realizing that—and it’s kind of self-evident—but the fact that they are 48 individuals. It’s not, you know, a preset on a keyboard. It’s all these people who have opinions and who are making decisions about how to play.
Reverence for organic collectivism is at the heart of orchestral music. The composer assigns parts, the musicians interpret, the music coalesces into a living, breathing piece of art.
Wendy Carlos—credited as Walter prior to her gender reassignment—turned this paradigm on its ear with Switched-On Bach (1968), a canny reworking of classical themes by an electronic symphony of one. Expanding upon the work of pioneers Bob Moog and Raymond Scott, Carlos crafted an album’s worth of pieces composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, drawing upon the latest in modular synthesis and recording consoles modified by Carlos herself.
Due to the limitations of the monophonic Moog synthesizer—an imposing contraption marrying a keyboard and mammoth switchboard—Carlos could only track a single note at a time. Woodwind, string, brass, and percussive elements were recreated through the manipulation of oscillators, and recorded piecemeal to a click-track to ensure the correct tempo. Carlos outlined the laborious process in a 1999 interview with New Age Voice,
If, when I put the notes down against it, it sounded too fast—too bad! I did it over again. Then we’d want a ritardando. Who thinks of a ritard when you’re making a click track? So we would adjust for that. And that keyboard? Amazingly clunky with all those touch-sensing mechanical gadgets in it. I had to clatter away slower than actual speed; you could never play faster than moderato. Sixteenth notes at a good clip? Forget it!
Carlos zealously guards her copyright; hence, actual performances from Switched-On Bach cannot be found online. To get an idea of what Bach sounds like on monophonic synthesizer, it’s possible to turn to one of Carlos’ many musical descendents, as with this recording of the Sinfonia to Cantata 35:
Switched-On Bach sounds delightfully antiquated, an entertaining album of retro-futurism on par with science fiction cinema from the seventies. Despite its enduring charm, it’s hard to believe that such an idiosyncratic album could attain anything greater than cult status. But when originally released in 1968, a dumbfounded CBS Records found themselves with a commercial smash. Carlos had unwittingly tapped into a zeitgeist of mind expansion, space exploration, and the refurbishing of the fussy old with the exciting new. (The Beatles, of course, were masters of this, having released Sgt. Pepper’s the previous year.) Switched-On Bach would be the first classical album to sell a million copies, and would later be awarded three Grammy awards, including Best Classical Recording.
Not all were enchanted. Purists feared that Carlos had stripped the humanity from one of their sacred cows. Moreover, the crossover appeal of Carlos’ work might lead listeners astray from “true” classical music, performed through acoustical means, in favor of electronic rehashes. Record labels sought to capitalize on this precise worry, flooding record shops with copycat albums, many of which sacrificed the meticulous attention to detail of Carlos’ work. The astounding success of Switched-On Bach served to pigeonhole its creator, who observed,
I am not Spock. I think I know what Leonard Nimoy must have gone through; it must have become irritating for him later on. Well, it’s not so much that you’re irritated about it, it’s that there is a certain kind of mindless mantra that is intoned by people who may not really be your fans or who have no curiosity and so they never perceive past that one idea they have of you.
Director Stanley Kubrick would collaborate with Carlos on A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. A string of circumstances led to this fortuitous pairing of director and composer. Having completed a version of the Choral Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which showcases the first electronic vocal of its kind, Carlos set to create a “kind of introduction, something to ease the listener into this new sound of a well-known piece.”
While working on the alternately discordant, frantic, and gloomy “Timesteps”, Carlos began reading Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange. Immediately struck by how the music she’d been writing seemed to echo the events of the book, Carlos would soon contact Stanley Kubrick, then busy prepping his film adaptation. Upon meeting face to face, scoring duties were awarded to Carlos.
A Clockwork Orange follows Alex, a charismatic young adult obsessed with sex, violence, and the majesty of Ludwig Van Beethoven. After bludgeoning a woman with a ceramic (ahem) organ, Alex is betrayed by his gang and sent to prison, where he learns of the Ludovico technique, a form of aversion therapy. Sensing a ticket to freedom, he signs up, unaware of its brutal application.
In terms of indelible scenes of torment, few can top that of Alex, straight-jacketed, eyelids clamped, unable to look away from images of violence. But what brings Alex to submission is the inclusion of his beloved “Ludwig Van.”
Though unexplored in the movie, some interpret the title A Clockwork Orange as a play on the phrase “a clockwork man,” the end result of the Ludovico technique. Tellingly, Alex doesn’t initially recognize the melody – but when he does, the empathy welling in his soul is exploited and turned against him. The mechanical interpretation of Beethoven thus “cures” Alex of his base desires, creating in its wake a mechanical man, sickened by that which formerly gave pleasure, sex and violence. Critics who found Carlos’ interpretations lacking humanity may thus have found their arguments bolstered.
Alex leaves prison and embarks on a poetic series of run-ins with characters from the first half of the film, winding up at the home of one of those he had tortured. Tables turned, Alex is locked in a room and again forced to listen to Carlos’ version of the Ninth Symphony. In 1972, Kubrick told Sight & Sound,
I think [Wendy] Carlos has done something completely unique in the field of electronic realisation of music—that’s the phrase that they use… I think that [her] version of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony rivals hearing a full orchestra playing it, and that is saying an awful lot.
Wendy Carlos continues to tinker and create. Leery of the spotlight, she sporadically maintains an endearingly simple website. While it may be hyperbole to state that all electronic musicians owe a debt of thanks to Wendy Carlos, it’s impossible to overstate the effect of her contribution to music. Experimental, ambient, and especially progressive rock would not have blossomed in the same way without her. Carlos legitimized an unruly, difficult instrument while shedding new light on the great composers of the past. And with A Clockwork Orange, synthesizers moved beyond spooky theremin theatrics and into fully realized compositional counterpoint.