The 50th Anniversary Of Switched On Bach

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Switched-On Bach, a groundbreaking collection of Bach arrangements for synthesizer, by Wendy Carlos.

Switched-On Bach was released in October 1968 by Columbia Records. The album is a collection of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Carlos and Benjamin Folkman on a Moog modular synthesizer.

The album was a huge success, topping the Billboard Classical Album charts from 1969 to 1972, winning three Grammy Awards and going on to be certified Platinum by the RIAA. For many listeners, the album established the idea of synthesizers as a musical instrument.

Bob Moog described the album as “the birth of a new genre of music,- classical music, realized with impeccable musicianship on synthesizer and tape recorder.”

The album was such a hit that it led to a string of sequels from Carlos, and a slew of ‘switched-on’-inspired records, including Switched-On Buck and Switched-On Beatles.

In a 2003 interview, Carlos discussed how Switched-On Bach came together, in spite of the limitations of the Moog modular synthesizer:

People overlook the amount of personal invention and cleverness that we put in to make up for the fact that the instrument was so deficient.

It was very much what the Disney animators do when they produce one of their large features. It required that you step back from your inspiration, from your right hemisphere of creativity, and call on the left hemisphere to do a thinking through and an analysis.

Hopefully you won’t inhibit yourself when you do this, because thinking too much about something can be dangerous. I mean you have to really take apart what it is you’re trying to get at and analyze where the deficiencies still remain in order to go in and prune those, or at least attempt to prune them. You don’t always succeed. You do the best you can.

I think that people simply were unaware, especially a lot of people who bought the early instruments, they thought that the instrument was sort of like a Thomas organ, I guess. They expected to plug it in, press a few buttons, and sit down like a pit pianist, you know, and just crank out, you know, like a cocktail pianist. Some people did do that. In fact, actually, the whole field of synthesizers is really just like that. And the idea isn’t mine.

The album – and it’s intriguing cover – inspired a generation of synthesists.

50 years on, Switched-On Bach and many of Carlos’s other albums are, unfortunately, out of print and unavailable on digital music services.

17 thoughts on “The 50th Anniversary Of Switched On Bach

  1. Switched on Bach is an amazing album. 50 years! Bach and the synthesizer were made for each other. Happy 50th Wendy……I hope you are still making wonderful music that inspires us all.

  2. Why is this unavailable?

    Seems tragic that people can’t discover this, except in the bins at used record stores.

    1. True, and the few CDs still available sell for a grand. Today you can find even the most obscure prog band on iTunes but not such a masterwork: shouldn’t Carlos be among the greatest and most influential electronic composers?

  3. “50 years on, Switched-On Bach and many of Carlos’s other albums are, unfortunately, out of print and unavailable on digital music services.”

    Well that’s a shame! Wonder why this is? Either way, hopefully it’ll be available again someday. I’d like to hear it.

  4. Not only have her albums been out of print for almost a decade now, but she refuses to digitally distribute them and goes out of her way to DMCA anyone sharing copies of it. Weird business model.

    1. That’s both interesting and a little sad. I hope Wendy reads these comments. This kind of reminds me of Harold Lloyd. He was a silent film star who ranked alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in popularity and influence. Very funny guy too. But almost 100 years later almost no one knows who he is. The reason (quoted from Lloyd’s wikipedia page):

      “Lloyd kept copyright control of most of his films and re-released them infrequently after his retirement. Lloyd did not grant cinematic release because most theaters could not accommodate an organist, and Lloyd did not wish his work to be accompanied by a pianist: “I just don’t like pictures played with pianos. We never intended them to be played with pianos.” Similarly, his features were never shown on television as Lloyd’s price was high: “I want $300,000 per picture for two showings. That’s a high price, but if I don’t get it, I’m not going to show it. They’ve come close to it, but they haven’t come all the way up”. As a consequence, his reputation and public recognition suffered in comparison with Chaplin and Keaton, whose work has generally been more available.”

      If that’s the direction Wendy wants to go then I guess it’s her business. Other art will fill in the cracks as time goes on. But it’s unfortunate that an album that changed so many lives will end up being a short article in wikipedia. Something to think about Wendy…

    2. That’s why they’re available on both The Internet Archive and a certain Russian torrent tracker. Again, extremely mould-breaking and enjoyable album.

  5. I heard this in elementary school. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. A few decades later I was marketing manager at Moog. These things can happen.

    1. I first heard it in elementary school as well, in a music class. I’m pretty convinced that’s what got the ball rolling for me to later be so obsessed with synths and the music made with them. I still enjoy listening to it.

  6. Shame some of you can’t hear this because it’s got some SUPERB sound programming on it (amongst other joys).

    1. You might not like it, but “lame and sophomoric” it is not. Think of the context of the time and what new ground needed to be forged to come up with this. In the same way, you might not want to ride in the Wright brothers airplane and feel tempted to call it “lame and sophomoric” now, but it was a needed evolution non-the-less.

    2. Are you sure you’re listening to the same album? Go to archive.org, search for “Switched on Bach 1”, start listening at 6:22 and tell me that it’s sophomoric and lame. This was the birth cry that blew the minds of those who would become our synth heroes in the 1970s, like Emerson, Jobson, Larry Fast, etc.! Still blows my mind today.

  7. This album set in motion the process that made me who I am today. I purchased this album with my allowance when I was eight years old and listened to it over and over. I was intrigued by the unique timbres of this amazing new instrument. I immediately dropped the guitar and started taking piano lessons. I got my first synthesizer in high school and later in college I was granted access to an electronic music lab. My love of the instrument and the techniques for recording led to my lifelong career as an audio engineer and electronic musician. Thank you, Wendy.

  8. Big fan!

    I come across vinyls of the first one all the time. Also have The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, Clockwork Orange, Switched-On Bach II and Switched-On Brandenburgs.

    No need for digital if you have the original. $10-20 iTunes vs $1-2 charity shop.

    Is a shame though that these can’t be accessible to more people.

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