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The “Switched-On Bach” Story

This article by Ivan Berger, reprinted from the 1969 Saturday Review, January 25 issue, tells, as the title suggests, the Switched-On Bach story. Switched-On Bach, a collection of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on the Moog modular synthesizer, was the first album by composer and synthesist Wendy Carlos. It legitimized the electronic synthesizer as a real musical instrument and changed forever the public perception of electronic music, showing that it could be something very different from “the academy approved ‘ugly’ music,” as Carlos put it. Published by Columbia Records in October 1969, Switched-On Bach sold over one million copies and became the second best-selling classical music album of all time.” (Valerio Saggini)

Walter Carlos at his Moog Electronic Music Synthesizer. At left is an 8-track recorder which tapes directly from the Synthesizer’s output. Above the Synthesizer keyboards ar the circuit module which can be interconnected (as shown here) to generate tones with any desired qualities. Tones are monitored through the loudspeaker barely discernible at the right.

CAN Bach be synthesized without becoming ersatz? He can – as shown by Switched-On Bach (Columbia stereo, M 7194, $5.98), ten works of Bach performed on a Moog Electronic Synthesizer by composer and synthesist Walter Carlos, assisted by musicologist Benjamin Folkman. But the disc’s importance lies less in what it tells us about Bach than in what it portends for electronic music: a viable future as a performing art.

It is, of course, a most unusual Bach one hears in this recording. The crackling sonorities of the Baroque are realized in unfamiliar electronic tones chosen at times to suggest the character of the harpsichord and other Baroque instruments as well a imitating their sounds. For this, or other unidentifiable reason, Columbia MS 7194 has become not only the fastest selling Bach record of all time, but one of the fastest moving classical record in history. Within the first six weeks of its availability 50,000 copies were on the market and most of them had been sold.

Even more remarkable than the technical means employed is the expression that Carlos and Folkman have imparted to their performance. Until now, the state of the art did not allow such nuances of phrasing to be expressed with the techniques of electronic music.

“Two years ago,” writes Folkman, “with the equipment then available, to obtain the qualities that make up a good performance was a thankless, time-consuming, and ultimately futile enterprise. Even rudimentary phrasing, articulation, or modulation of timbre could involve many grueling hours for the production of mere seconds of music. Crescendo and diminuendo, the two most natural … means of musical expression, required the most calculated and laborious manipulation…. Only the least sophisticated mean of expression, i.e., timbral and dynamic contrasts, could be controlled satisfactorily.”

True, the range of control exhibited on this album is surpassed by many (though by no means all ) conventional Bach interpretations. And the techniques used seem hardly up to the challenges of the Romantic era. In fact, the more congenial challenge of the Baroque was one of the factors in the choice of Bach to prove this record’s point: Both Baroque and electronic music share “characteristics such as crisp, bright sonorities, terraced dynamics, and high relief of voices … among [their] most idiomatic features . . .” according to Folkman’s liner notes.

But once beyond the culture shock of hearing patently electronic sounds mixed with apparently instrumental ones, one must grant that Carlos and Folkman have produced an album of Bach interpretations which, in some opinion, are as valid as orchestral transcriptions, and probably as valid as many instrumental ones. Argue the musical values and you concede the record’s point: that there are musical values on the disc that can be argued from purely musical standpoints.

Electronic music has too long been shaped by its restrictions of nuance, says Carlos. Such restrictions were inherent in the “classical” studio technique from which today’s electronic music emerged. That technique involved the laborious building up of tones from endless dial-settings on separate generators, filters, and other instruments, followed by the transcription of these tones to bits of tape that had to be edited or spliced together.

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