Bargain Bin Babylon: Wendy Carlos: Sonic Seasonings

Bargain Bin Babylon: Wendy Carlos: Sonic Seasonings

Carlos balances Sonics Seasonings’ overall experimental leanings with the same sense of playfulness that brought her previous releases mainstream success.

Wendy Carlos’ position in classical and experimental music history is strange. Her first two albums, 1968’s Switched-On Bach and 1969’s The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, earned her immediate acclaim as a radical interpreter of European classical music. Many of her succeeding albums charted, which is unfathomable for new age music in today’s market. She also scored Kubrick’s The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, her work on the latter nearly as essential to the movie as Malcom McDowell’s white suit. She’s widely regarded as a pioneer of electronic music, but the music world has yet to champion her original works to the same degree as her interpretations.

One of these original albums, and arguably one of the best, is 1972’s Sonic Seasonings. Released just after Clockwork, the album finds Carlos stretching out her compositions into four side-long ambient tracks, each named after one of the four seasons. Carlos’ instrumental ensemble is relatively sparse, consisting of mostly crystal-clear field recordings and, of course, a mess of synthesizers. She does explore strange electronic timbres, but her real focus is on the use of the instrument as a mirror of more traditional sounds. She highlights the instrument’s melodic capabilities more than its textural ones, and passages like the plinking, chorale-like arpeggios that open “Fall” find the composer looking for something between a pizzicato string and a sharp flute attack.

More than just in its timbral choices, Carlos balances Sonics Seasonings’ overall experimental leanings with the same sense of playfulness that brought her previous releases mainstream success. There’s something completely unpretentious about the way the bouncing, campy melodic motif from “Spring” is full-scale interrupted by a thunderstorm, only to be brought back later in even jollier harmony. However, these field recordings are also some of the record’s most significant missteps. They reach for a transportive effect, hoping to present the album as if Carlos and her cumbersome electronics are just breezing through an open field. Decades of criticism and experimentation in regards to the relation between the sounds of nature and art haven’t done this album any favors, and often the thunder claps and bird calls that define most of “Fall” can feel a little kitschy.

It’s precisely this goofy, post-hippie attitude that makes “Summer” the most radical composition here. Where the surrounding seasons are a more appropriate mix of ’70s synth sounds and field recordings, this is a torrential industrial track, and its midsection in particular, full of grating electronic noises, wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Cluster’s first two records. This season’s antithesis, “Winter,” removes anger in favor of a late-in-life calm that features some of the only piano playing on the album. With its rustling bells, wolf howls and lingering ambient melody, it’s doesn’t sound all that different from a recent Necks album. This relation between Carlos, undoubtedly a hermetic electronics fanatic, and group improvisation highlights the humanist spirit she places into her music.

While the frustratingly inaccessible nature of Carlos’ work online might explain the diminished celebration it receives, there is no better time than now for a reappraisal of her catalog. Much of the music here could almost pass for Dedekind Cut or M. Geddes Gengras. While Sonic Seasonings might not have the crossover appeal the Switched-On series, it’s an immersive new age album that showcases both Carlos’ early mastery of then-new technology and a deeper look into the compositional side of an artist best remembered for her interpretive and collaborative work. As always, the bargain bins are here to properly right these wrongs for anybody with an hour and a couple dollars to spare.

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