Switched-On Bach

Wendy Carlos

Columbia Masterworks, 1968


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


You would think, after 400-plus years, it would take a lot to turn the world of classical music on its ear. But, in 1968, Wendy Carlos did just that, taking the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and merging them with the still-in-its-infancy world of synthesizers.

The end result, Switched-On Bach, divided the classical world. Some loathed the album, stating the purity of the music had been lost; others lauded the album for bringing the music into the 20th century. Whatever side of the fence you were on, there was no denying that Carlos was a groundbreaking musician, both in the world of classical music and the use of the Moog synthesizer in general.


Over fifty years later, one can appreciate how novel this whole concept was. Each note had to be separately programmed on a device which was notably tempestuous to use—which is apparently putting it nicely. However, the sound has not aged as well; notwithstanding the advances made in electronic music in a relatively short period of time, the overall sound is akin to computers generating the tones that become some of Bach’s better-known works.

This isn’t to say that Switched-On Bach isn’t worth one’s time to listen to. There is still plenty to be fascinated with in these recordings. Carlos’s take on Brandenberg Concerto # 3—the three pieces which close the disc—is a masterpiece in itself. (Carlos would later release Switched-On Brandenbergs: The Complete Concertos in 1980.) Likewise, the opening track, “Sinfonia to Cantata #29” and “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” all put a new spin on Bach’s music that one would like to believe would have made ol’ Johann smile with approval.

Yet this is not a perfect release; after a while, the electronic pings and waves making up the music gets a little boring to listen to—and, yes, it does sound dated after a while. I can imagine anyone under the age of 30 thinking they have devices that could make pieces such as “Air On A G String” sound as if it was an actual string quartet performing it. Even I’m not immune to this; listening to “Two-Part Invention In F Major,” part of me thought my old Commodore 64 could have produced this track. And a select few tracks, like “Prelude And Fugue #2 In C Minor,” just sound a little too robotic for my liking.

Yet in 1968, creating an album such as Switched-On Bach was akin to a miracle; Carlos took the technology that was available to her and pushed it to the absolute limit. For that alone, Switched-On Bach is worth giving the occasional listen to, even if you claim you don’t like classical music. Even though it occasionally shows the signs of age, there’s enough on this disc that might just convince you to give the genre another crack.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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