Wendy Carlos: Language and Legacy

Joining us once again,  with his contribution to this weeks “Featured Article” is Mr. Emmett Shoemaker! Emmett,is a writer / Journalist / educator and frequent contributor to Sixties Music Secrets! Today he’s here to share his commentary on the life and work of Wendy Carlos! Here’s Emmett…


I was thrilled to read the SMS entry on Wendy Carlos some months ago, and I understand it to be one of the more popular posts — rightly so; Ms. Carlos’ career is a long and fascinating one. And the author clearly wishes to convey the historic nature of her life and work.

It is in deference to her legacy, and the important archival work being done at 60’s Music Secrets, that I’m writing with a slight adjustment/update/addendum to that initial post.

In recent years, the public perception of, and discourse concerning, transness has developed rapidly. Dominant (rigidly gendered) language models are being replaced in an effort to recognize the complexity of the trans experience, the adversity trans individuals often face, and, most importantly, the humanity of all trans folks, regardless of age, race, sexuality, profession, etc.— a humanity that has too long been qualified, or outright denied (often violently so).  

Rather than conducting line-edits of the previous post, I’d like to supplement it with this very informative and engaging video, hosted by a musician named Sarah of the fledgling YouTube channel, “Sounds Good.”

Sarah, who possesses an extensive knowledge of experimental music history, reviews some of Carlos’s key innovations and contributions, including (and I was surprised to learn this), pressure-sensitive synthesizer keyboards.

For the purposes of this post, I think it’s important to note that Sarah is, herself, a trans woman, a fact she acknowledges towards the end of the video.  Sarah’s survey of Carlos offers several valuable insights beyond the mere facts of Carlos’s life, including but not limited to: 1) the linguistic discretion owed to trans individuals; 2) the value of having “elders;” and 3) the ambiguity of representation.

What do I mean by the ambiguity of representation? Note that Carlos, who was more open to publicity earlier in her career, eventually closed herself off to the press due to excess scrutiny regarding her transness, particularly a Playboy feature whose angle had been misrepresented to her. In short, her gender identity was regarded as novelty, and her musical accomplishments were often diminished by this lurid perspective.

Sarah herself expresses confusion regarding how best to discuss Wendy Carlos—how, that is, to honor the real and meaningful fact of Carlos’s transness, while not relegating her to a kind of sub-category, that of the “trans musician.”

These are thorny questions. Whenever an individual from a marginalized or minority community excels publicly, there is this tendency to qualify their work. Ex: “Black actor,” “female writer,” etc. The normative “actor” or “writer” is invariably white, straight, and male.

Indeed, Carlos is trans, and, indeed, she is a musician (an understatement), but what I think Sarah’s video gestures towards is the fact that Carlos and her accomplishments are greater than the sum of these parts. We are all more than our most identifiable identity markers. And we must be especially attentive to this fact when discussing figures whose very publicity renders them vulnerable.

Wendy at Work

1 Comment

  1. Great post Emmett. I remember Switched on Bach well. For us 60’s hippies it was a thing to behold at 1:00 am either going up or coming down. I had no knowledge of the Walter/Wendy issue. I am glad you shared it. More power to Wendy and what she has accomplished despite her personal drama. I’m just glad she got in touch with who she really was. Good job Wendy and thanks for the great music.

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