Wendy Carlos, Beethoven, and Kubrick

How Wendy Carlos created the groundbreaking soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange

Electronic Music and the Moog Synthesizer

Wendy Carlos is an electronic music pioneer, champion of the Moog synthesizer and composer/arranger of the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, yet the work she and collaborator Rachel Elkind doesn’t receive the attention it deserves.

Electronic music and the instruments that generate it are so much a part of popular culture these days that we take it all for granted. In the digital age, pretty much anyone with some feel for modern music can generate a reasonable facsimile of it with a computer, Pro Tools, and an inexpensive keyboard. But electronic music has been around long enough that there is a sense of nostalgia for the days when synthesized sounds were generated via analog means, with oscillators.

Electronic music had been developed and defined by experiments in the classical avant-garde before Robert Moog came along. The theremin, invented by Professor Leon Theremin, is generally acknowledged as the first practical electronic instrument, and Robert Moog originally set himself up as a builder and seller of theremin kits. The 1940s and ‘50s were dominated by experiments with tape recorders, found sounds, and musique concrete, with composers such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Moog began to experiment with electronic music production utilizing a keyboard as the controlling element. This gave the Moog a base with which most composers of popular music were familiar and helped push its popularity above the pure modular electronic box developed by Don Buchla.

Enter Wendy Carlos

One of the biggest breakthroughs for the Moog, which cannot be overemphasized, was the recording of Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach. Carlos intended to highlight the Moog as a serious instrument and used Bach’s somewhat familiar music to do so, but no one could have predicted the unusual popularity of this recording and its successors, Switched-On Bach II, The Well Tempered Synthesizer, and Switched-On Brandenburgs. 

But Wendy Carlos’ most important influence may well have been her work on the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange. Classical music, particularly Beethoven, is an important element in the narrative of Burgess’ story. His protagonist, the young delinquent Alex, takes great pleasure and solace in the music of ‘Ludwig van’, but that is not the only classical music that Kubrick uses. He also uses the work of Henry Purcell and a few others to great effect. These classical pieces are presented both in synthesized form by Carlos and in symphonic recordings. 

Wendy Carlos’ synthesizer version of Purcell’s “Funeral of Queen Mary” was utilized as the film’s theme music and underlines the opening sequence where Alex and his droogs are in the Korova Milk Bar. Carlos’ music is equal to the task of underscoring Kubrick’s bold and disorienting visuals while at the same time holding its own in drawing the viewer/listener in as seen in the following montage from the film:

“Timesteps” and A Clockwork Orange

After the success of the Switched-On Bach albums, Carlos and her collaborator, Rachel Elkind, were experimenting with a device called a spectrum follower. The spectrum follower converts speech and vocals to electronic sounds and mirrors the overtones of the original input—in short, an early vocoder. Their plan was to create a synthesized version of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, complete with the ‘Ode to Joy’ vocal chorus.

Elkind felt that the Beethoven piece needed something of an introduction, a piece that would ease listeners into the sonic palette of the electronics being used prior to hearing a familiar piece of music. Carlos began to work on what developed into a completely new composition called “Timesteps.” Listening to the complete piece now, it’s an amazing work of electronic composition and studio wizardry, and it tests incredulity to realize that it was created in 1971. 

Wendy Carlos/Timesteps (full composition)

Wendy Carlos has described how she was perhaps three minutes into “Timesteps” when a friend loaned her a copy of A Clockwork Orange, which she immediately began to read. Like so many readers then and since, she fell deeply under the spell of Burgess’ vision and was struck by the fact that her nascent composition captured the book’s opening scenes. Subconsciously, “Timesteps” became, for Carlos, a musical composition based on the book.

When Carlos and Elkind learned that Stanley Kubrick was filming his version of A Clockwork Orange, they were able to get in touch with his representatives and submitted both “Timesteps” and the Choral Movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for him to hear. Kubrick was suitably impressed and asked to meet with the duo. They discussed and began creating versions of music that Kubrick wanted for the film, including Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” and Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie,” and Carlos created some original background music such as “Country Lane.” 

Kubrick’s Soundtrack Approach

Kubrick’s use of music in his films is as groundbreaking as the films themselves, but not always to the liking of the composer/performers. In 1967 he commissioned Alex North to compose the score for his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. During filming and initial editing, the movie was overlaid with standard versions of some classical compositions. In the initial stages of editing, the director began to appreciate the way the music already being used helped underline the story, which used few words. He decided not to use North’s music, instead simply leaving recordings of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube,” as well as works by Gyorgy Ligeti, in place. 

Read: Music Festivals: How to Get More Women Onstage

Kubrick’s decision to not even re-record the pieces with an orchestra was unheard of at the time and it was controversial. Famed film composer Bernard Hermann (Psycho, Taxi Driver) felt it marked a low watermark for music in film: “It shows vulgarity when a director uses music previously composed! I think that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the height of vulgarity in our time. To have outer space accompanied by ‘The Blue Danube’, and the piece not even recorded anew!”

Kubrick ended up using only parts of the music that Carlos and Elkind created and adapted for the film. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, choral movement, and scherzo, as well as “Timesteps”, were all used in the film, but they were very seriously edited, and only those edited sections appeared on the original film soundtrack. Columbia Records released an album, long out of print, of Carlos’ music for the film that contained the complete “Timesteps” but it did not include the complete score.

Though Carlos was one of the first musicians to take the Moog synthesizer and its ability to create music seriously, along with Elkind, who was instrumental in assisting Wendy to create music using various studio techniques, neither has received anything like the credit they deserve. Most of the original albums were not released or digitally mastered from original masters by any of the record labels who had released them, so Wendy herself has undertaken a massive remastering and reissuing project. This includes the Bach recordings (Switched On I & II, Brandenbergs, and Well-Tempered Synthesizer), Beauty In the BeastSonic Seasonings, and Tales of Heaven and Hell

Her complete score for A Clockwork Orange is available and I highly recommend it over the official film score. Carlos also did music for the original film Tron and worked again with Kubrick on a score for The Shining, although only minutes of her music out of the hours that was created was used. All part of the business of soundtracks, I suppose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.