Switched-On Bach at Fifty

A pioneer of digital music, once named Walter Carlos, released Switched-On Bach in 1968.  I don’t remember its release, but I do remember it being widely discussed half a dozen years later.  It was a blockbuster; I have read that it is the most successful classical album of all time.

In 1980, my friend Doug Dower showed up with a copy of Switched-On Brandenburgs by the same musician, now named Wendy Carlos.  (She is still alive and well as of this writing.)  I loved the shiny silver cover with the woodcut of baroque instruments hooked up to wires.

So–it being 2018 and all–I thought I should finally get a copy of the first LP.  What’s fifty years, right?

As has become so typical, Amazon was completely confusing and unhelpful.  There is a much newer Switched-On Bach available, with a slightly updated cover as well as vastly updated technology, but the Land O’ Bezos wasn’t clear as to whether or where you could get the original release.  And I wanted the original:  I will consider the new interpretation in due course.  (Jeff, one word:  disambiguate.)

So it was eBay to the rescue.  I had to specifically search under “Walter” Carlos and make sure that this former name of the artist was on the package.  Not, of course, to stir controversy over her transition, but just to be certain I got the 1968 release.

And I did get it, and it’s the original, and it’s a delight.

As I write, the Invention in D minor is on, buzzing like a mosquito through the speakers.  The recording is a lot of fun.  I am not sure you can call it authentic, but I am certain it is not authentick.  I recognize the best-beloved Bach tunes one after another, and they are clean and articulate, unromanticized in terms of tempo and dynamics;  they are just synthesized.  As an organist, I am used to interpretations of the same work with widely differing sounds, so I can’t say this recording bothers me on principle (or on Principal).

At times, the word that comes to mind is cheeky.  The synthesizer can be so deadpan, but its repertoire of voices contains many that seem to have comic potential.  Perhaps that’s 2018 looking back at 1968.

Anyway, I find that the original Switched-On Bach has aged well.  May we all say the same of ourselves!

About Jon

Keyboard artist, sacred musician, teacher, writer, working in New York City and State. Many interests include music theory and history, literature, astronomy, genealogy, philosophy and theology, gardening, and good food.
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