Switched on Wendy

This morning, I (sort of) helped a pal over at The Current find a recording of Wendy Carlos’s Switched on Bach. East Side Digital remastered Carlos’s original recordings for release in 1999, and it’d been a while since I listened to any Carlos, so I dove right in.

I was careful about my first choice, going straight for her renditions of the Brandenburg Concertos. THESE ARE AMAZING. They’re amazing for all the right reasons.

Scoff at the cliche all you want, but Johann Sebastian Bach had preternatural abilities. A musical genius that cannot be surpassed no matter how tough a case you make for any other composer.

Point in fact, the Brandenburgs are delightful no matter what the instrumentation, acoustic or synthetic. The counterpoint always wins. If you’re unclear on what counterpoint is, there are a couple ways to think about it and hear it.

Perhaps the most used analogy for counterpoint is to think of it as a conversation. I find this explanation a bit muddy, since a conversation tends to imply that someone is listening while another is talking.

I prefer to think of counterpoint as a dance, because both parties are actively involved at all times. They respond to each other, sometimes following, sometimes leading – but always taking that journey together.

If you’d rather hear what counterpoint sounds like, listen to the opening moments of Carlos’s version of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, and I highly recommend doing so with headphones, or on a stereo where you can hear left and right. Wendy split the audio so you can hear the counterpoint unfolding between the left and right channels.

Listen for how the music in your left ear is interacting with the music in your right ear, and vice versa.

The other thing Carlos captures that so many other synth composers miss about Mr. Bach is the bounce. The vast majority of instrumental music written before about 1750 was more intricately linked with dance than anything written after the Baroque era’s end.

Carlos has always been in tune with that crucial aspect of Bach’s music.

Additionally, the music is mixed perfectly. It’s like a playground for the ears. I get especially blown away by the first movement of Bach’s 5th Brandenburg. The cascades of sound are no less impressive on a Moog.

And yes, each of those notes was programmed in one at a time. One at a time. I shake my head in amazement at her devotion to that craft, and her ability to create an experience in which you can marvel at its construction and musicality.