Wendy Carlos Dismisses New Biography As ‘Bogus’

Wendy Carlos – A Biography is a new unauthorized biography of the composer and electronic music pioneer.

Pioneering composer and synthesist Wendy Carlos (Switched On Bach, Tron, The Shining) has dismissed a new unauthorized biography as ‘bogus’.

The new biography, Wendy Carlos – A Biography, is written by Amanda Sewell and published by Oxford University Press. Like many biographies, its subject was not directly involved.

Carlos is famously protective of her privacy and has worked very hard to control how her image and music is used.

Carlos shared her take on the new biography on her site:

“Please be aware there’s a purported ‘Biography’ on me just released. It belongs on the fiction shelf.

No one ever interviewed me, nor anyone I know. There’s zero fact-checking. Don’t recognize myself anywhere in there—weird. Sloppy, dull and dubious, it’s hardly an objective academic study as it pretends to be.

This slim, mean-sprited volume is based on several false premises. All of it is speculation taken out of context. The key sources are other people’s write-ups of interviews done for magazine articles. There’s simply no way to know what’s true or not—nothing is first-hand.

The book is presumptuous. Pathetically, it accepts as “factual” a grab-bag of online urban legends, including anonymous axes to grind. The author imputes things she doesn’t understand, misses the real reasons for what was done or not done. She’s in way over her head, outside any areas of expertise, and even defames my dear deceased parents—shame!

While Carlos has personally dismissed the new biography, the book is in response to a void in information on the electronic music pioneer. Carlos has avoided interviews for decades, and most of her music is not available in physical or digital formats.

via mixmag

40 thoughts on “Wendy Carlos Dismisses New Biography As ‘Bogus’

      1. Quite so. She has given the electronic music community so much and does not owe the world anything else – not more music, not reissues of her recordings, not an autobiography, not an interview, not an update to her website – nothing. She deserves her privacy and deserves to be able dismiss an account of her life and career as bogus if she see fit. As someone who has been inspired by her work since childhood, I would have loved to read a biography that had her approval, but I will absolutely respect her dismissal of this book.

        1. Very well said. I feel the same way. Her music was my first introduction to electronic music when I was a kid too. It’s been a life-long love affair ever since.

        2. I feel exactly the same way. I would love to be able to know more about her, read a biography commissioned by her but, it is absolutely her right to do or not do as she wishes. She was my introduction to electronic music as a kid too which started a life-long love affair ever since.

  1. I dont think it should be mandatory for an artist to write an autobiography. There are artist that believes in their own privacy, maybe Wendy feels that her music is the only informations the world needs to know about her. I agree with this vision: the only thing an artist owes to others is sharing a creative output

  2. This got me thinking about all of the biographies out there based on the public records of people. Like, their interviews, or anecdotes about them from third parties. Interviews and anecdotes rarely paint a true picture of someone, and I try to keep in mind when reading biographies that it’s more like a “story based on someone’s public life”, unless the writer had access to a life’s worth of the subjects journals. It has to be frustrating to be living a private life and have a book “about you” come out and not have signed off on it, so I empathize with Ms. Carlos.

    1. A handful of people I know have been deemed interesting enough to earn bios and it one case a movie and another a TV miniseries. The depictions were totally alien, like some kind of weird parody. Events I personally experienced had little to nothing to do with the real life event. But guess what. These books become the canon and are considered documented fact and the experiences of those who were there literally mean nothing compared to some vampire parasite biographer that pasted together and exaggerated various hit pieces.

      But if you think that is bad, unauthorized biographies are reliable scripture compared to contemporary news accounts of events. Nothing I’ve ever personally experienced has even been remotely portrayed accurately.

  3. Wendy is amazing on so, so many levels. Of course I’d love to know more about her, but she’s far more entitled to her probably than I am to her life story.

  4. I’m with Wendy, no matter what. I feel almost personally art-wounded that her existing body of work is unavailable, regardless of why. That’s just Wrong, due to her amazing skills and new listeners who won’t be lifted up in their own doings by what she achieved. I have her earlier music on safety cassettes because I won’t play the LPs anymore!

    That said, no artist produces forever, or at the same level of their first fire of youth. Alan Moore stopped writing because he got tired of being f**ked by the business machinery. Who knows what elements led to her going quiet? The full “Timesteps” is still a modular player blueprint decades later and I still can’t whistle it. I’ve sprained myself trying. Nope, I won’t be buying that book.

  5. Wendy you are supported by millions of synth fans all over the world.

    Oxford university press your credibility is in tatters : you have lost your credibility.

  6. If the subject of a biography can’t recognize her self in the work, the writer has not only failed but has done injury.

    Her response is very nicely written.

    I wonder if Oxford University Press attempted to get her a pre-release copy to vet? How does that even work?

  7. Totally respect Carlos and her opinion, but it’s also fair to recognize that autobiographies are not necessarily any more accurate than biographies, because people are frequently unreliable narrators and want to sanitize how they are seen.

    Sewell’s book is published by Oxford University Press, which is a respectable publisher, and the author has a PHD in musicology, too, so this isn’t the hack job that Carlos suggests it to be.

    My impression from the publisher’s summary is that biography may discuss Carlos’s cultural identity at the expense of discussing her work. Based on history, Carlos would be much more open to a biography that limited itself to her work.

    1. I’m not sure why having a Phd precludes someone from doing a hack job – in fact some might say it could increase the odds.

      My understanding is that the author focuses a great deal on identity issues, and one gets the impression that Carlos is, as you note, uninterested in that.

      But by writing a biography on an elusive, but nonetheless living person, with apparently no interviews with the subject or even interviews with significant primary sources, it suggests to me that the author was happy to settle for a lit review, and a lot of conjecture – and that has the makings of a hack job to me

  8. I think all people should be treated the same way is does not matter if they are legends or famous. Carlos is entitled to her opinion and to give her side of the story. But I see no problem in an author writing a book about a person. Freedom of speech and all that. Then we as individuals can make our descions if we want to read the book or not.

  9. Never been a fan and I’ve long thought that Carlos’s work was grossly overrated and much of it – groundbreaking as it was 50+ years ago – sounded hopelessly naff by the time the ’80s rolled around, so there’s precious little chance I’ll read the book even if it was praised by her.

    At this point Carlos should be happy that someone is bothering to take the time to write anything. The musical world has moved on.

    1. “The musical world has moved on” … heh …

      If you are basing this take solely on her Switched-On Bach and related work, and you have never heard her Clockwork Orange & Tron soundtrack work, or her albums Sonic Seasonings, Digital Moonscapes, Beauty And The Beast, or Tales Of Heaven And Hell – you have some serious catching up to do.

    2. Not being a fan, sure; grossly overrated? I don’t know – you listen to anyone who came after her in the idiom she basically invented, and they never reached her level of musical and technical achievement.

      As for her music sounding hopelessly naff by the 80s, I don’t understand how anyone could find the full version of “Timesteps” naff even today – it brought together new sonorities and a unusual compositional style, with elements of Ligeti, Varese, and others, and it’s a tour-de-force of analog synth programming.

      And don’t get me started on her investigations into tunings, especially non-octaval tunings, where she was again, an obvious pioneer.

      Not only has the music world not moved on, it still hasn’t caught up.

  10. Never understood people’s enthusiasm for her music
    Those switched on Bach albums are awful
    I do remember her having some lovely cats though !

  11. I grew up with Switched on Bach. I built a synth out of TV parts because of her album. Tomito was another great with The Planets. Some of her more abstract work is harder for me to enjoy; clearly a talented artist.

    1. One of the earliest combinations of synthesis and live orch – the movie admittedly has some cheese in it (though I love it), but much of the music is beautiful. It also showcases what was probably the most powerful additive synthesizer ever made (designed by Hal Alles), the uber-rare Crumar GDS.

      So yes, the Tron Soundtrack.

  12. What I don’t understand is why this academic, and the publisher, would choose to go ahead with a biography of a person who is still alive, and not have the respect and decency to ask for her involvement on HER OWN STORY. And if Ms Carlos said no, she does not want to be interviewed and not have a book written about her based on anecdotal data, without her input, they should write about something else. There are rigorous ethics protocol involved in academic work and this just does not sit well with me.

    As others have pointed out, Wendy Carlos does not owe the world anything – whether you like her work or not (I do). She is certainly entitled to bash her own unauthorized biography.

  13. This book is basically just assembled from interviews you can already read somewhere else, and doesn’t say much that you wouldn’t already find on her Wikipedia entry, for example. It basically exists to sit on a library shelf so that someday, some undergraduate writing a paper about Wendy might find a sympathetic account of her life, which is more than what you’d get from other sources, especially 20th century ones where bigoted language abounds. This author does what she can to counteract that sort of thing, and tries to do justice to Wendy’s life story, despite her non-involvement. While one can hope that Wendy might actually release an authorized biography some day, that’s her prerogative.

  14. Gee, I’d better get cracking on my unauthorized biography about me! It’s just got to have synthesizers, Area 51, synthesizers, mind control projects, synthesizers, aliens, synthesizers, secret cabals, synthesizers, foreign machinations, synthesizers and Alfred Schnittke.

  15. Wendy Carlos was just among the first ones to use synth to play Bach, just like people started to use a different music instrument, piano, to play Bach hundred years ago (there was no piano in Bach’s era). Now, every Bach student can do it because synth is so easy to access, just different instruments on Bach music.

  16. My first impression was, let’s have free speech and let someone write about someone else if they want to. But a quick look at twitter and it seems the marketing is really playing up the gender issue rather than the music, which does seem a little exploitative.

  17. Apologies in advance for any long windedness here…

    I was in junior high when my Mom, a good sight reader and piano teacher, came home with a copy of Switched-On Bach, which she bought ostensibly because she thought my older brother would like it. He was indifferent, but that album flipped my head upside down. Long story short, it was this and Carlos’ subsequent albums that sparked a lifelong fascination with synthesis, audio recording/engineering and electronic music – an obsession that continues to this day.

    I don’t know what pisses me off more – that an unauthorized biography of Carlos’ life and work has been published without her involvement or her approval, or that most of her work is out of print and unavailable at present. Both are utter travesties that should not be allowed to stand.

  18. I didn’t realise most of her music is not available in physical or digital formats. That means my pull-out vinyl record from Keyboard Player magazine, where she plays examples of mean tone and equal temperament, must be quite valuable.

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