‘Switched-On Bach’: the moment classical music became a platinum hit

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Classical music is one of the most important movements in musical history. Many people look at various composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Brahms and assume they were all making music around the same time; however, there was a large gap between the periods when they made music, and the music they made accomplished very different things.

For instance, when you consider Bach, you think of romanticism, arguably one of the most important movements in the artistic world. No longer was it merely the case that composers made music to flex their know-how; instead, music was created as a means of expression. People who wrote sad songs did so from a place of sadness, the same with joyful tunes and all things in the middle. 

Of course, as technological developments came and culture shifted, the music that we listened to changed. Classical music still formed a part of everyone’s lives as the fundamentals apply to most genres, and in its pure form, it is still used to score TV shows and films; however, classical albums weren’t exactly topping the charts. That is, of course, until Wendy Carlos came along.

While Carlos worked a great deal on film scores, she also worked on general music. One of her LPs was a ground-breaking piece of music as she propelled classical back into the spotlight and had it climb to the top of the charts. This came in the form of her album Switched-On Bach, which she put together with the help of Robert Moog. 

The album was a compilation of different Bach pieces, all played on a Moog synthesiser. It was a hit and a real accomplishment; however, Carlos didn’t tend to admit as much, as she was mainly frustrated that the one piece of work was a lot of people’s only insight into what she did. “You have to learn to move on, to take baby steps to get beyond what people may see you as. It kind of denies me the right as a human being to mature, become an adult, and move on. I don’t do it to try to confuse the issue. The reason I move on is really because I’m curious.”

It’s ironic that she chose to use Bach’s work as the foundation for the record, given that her criticisms about the synthesiser contrast entirely with what the romantic composer was famous for – emotion. “Bob Moog helped me come up with the tools. At that time, it was kind of a seller’s market. There weren’t a lot of electronic instruments that were around, and so, with no disrespect to Bob…” Carlos thought momentarily, “I found that the instrument I used was merely the best one that I could find at that time.”

She continued, “It was such a limited device. It wasn’t much of a musical instrument. It was very lacking in any form of expression, and the proof of this is that there were very few people who used the instrument who did anything interesting with it. The reason being, it was damn hard to do.”

Carlos achieved emotion with an emotionless instrument. Her use of the synth propelled its popularity, which means that now, there is a whole range of different instruments packed with emotion available. The album wasn’t just an anomaly in its success; it was also a pivotal moment in the technological development of sound.

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