Switched-on Bach

I first heard Switched-on Bach on LP, a record that is sadly missing from my parents’ collection now, and have only just today received its replacement—the re-mastered CD of the original album.

(Since the release of Switched-on Bach, Wendy Carlos has released Switched-On Bach 2000, an altogether different album.)

This is probably not a disc that many people would listen to for pleasure, as it represents Bach performed by ‘pure’ synthesised sound—that is, not a digital sample of a real instrument, but a wholly created sound, courtesy of the ground-breaking Moog synthesiser. (Wikipedia has a good summary of the Moog available.)

With its odd clicks and whistles, it’s easy to dismiss the disc as electronic experimentation. But there’s more to it than that; for me, one of the most revealing aspects of the recording is the fact that Bach’s music exists independently of its orchestration. This can be said of many composers, but Wendy Carlos’s work on this disc shows just how true it is of Bach.

The opening Sinfonia (from Cantata no. 29) is glorious in its multi-layered electronic richness, and the clear polyphony of Carlos’s arrangement of the masterful Prelude & Fugue no 7 (from Book 1 of theWell-tempered Clavier) is a pleasure to hear.

The other excellent bit on this disc is the “Initial Experiments” track, in which Wendy Carlos goes through some of the first steps towards recordingSwitched-on Bach, mixed from the original 8-track session tapes. It’s a fascinating bit of background.