Would you like to listen to one of the first classical music albums to go platinum? Here’s your chance. First released in 1968, Wendy Carlos’ Grammy winning album Switched-On Bach was a revolutionary attempt to bring the classical works of Johann Sebastian Bach to the attention of listeners who spend most of their time on bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I, too, was such a classical luddite, before I was completely blown away by this album.
Carlos—a talented musician, composer, and engineer—helped perfect the Moog Synthesizer used to create the mechanical sound of Switched-on Bach. It was only fitting that it was Carlos’ music which popularized the synthesizer. The Moog is not supposed to be natural, and if you come in expecting an orchestra recreated by a machine, you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, expect what you would expect from a very proficient beatboxer. Carlos is able to change oscillations, create bings, buzzes, chirps, drones, screeches, zaps, zings, and zips to create a sound that is out of this world.
This music is best described as very nuanced, focusing on tone and melody. Indeed, I believe it is the first recording that plays the notes precisely as they were meant to be played. Musicians can make mistakes that they and their listeners are unaware of, not so with machines. The music never attempts to imitate another instrument; it is content with its electronic nature.
The album starts off with Bach’s “Sinfonia To Cantanta No. 29” and “Air on a G String.” The Sinfonia is like a perfect multi-layered sandwich, just the way you expect it, with a richness that you haven’t tasted before. The only thing you end up complaining about is a bigger sandwich, and in the song’s case, a greater duration. And what tribute to Bach would be complete without “Air on a G String?” This performance is just as soothing as it could be with any other instrument. I generally associated electronic music with having a cool ambiance to it, but Carlos reminds me that anything is possible.
Switched-On Bach finishes off with “Brandenburg Concerto No 3.” These three movements are my favorite tracks on the album. They are far more interpretive than the other pieces and offer something new and distinct to the classical world by playing homage to Bach’s improvisatory nature, especially so in the second movement. I don’t have to explain why the music is genius, it’s Bach after all but the performance only enhances the musical piece. It doesn’t matter if you enjoy classical music, if you enjoy electronic music, you will enjoy this performance for its value as a musical piece.
It may seem like I have only been singing out praises for Switched-On Bach, but that is because there is not much to complain about. Granted, if you do not like the sound of synthesized, electronic music, this is probably something you will listen to once, think “huh, that was interesting,” and shelve away in a CD case for a long time. It’s definitely not for everyone. On the other hand, if electronic music is just up your alley, then you will never put this down. Carlos has created a personality, and thus a person, for the Moog Synthesizer in Switched-On Bach, much like any artist would create a personality for himself when reproducing a classical piece. So come on and socialize with the Moog Synthesizer and find out what it likes to do on the weekends.