To mark its 50th anniversary, two bands have taken to the stage to pay homage to Wendy Carlos’s classic crossover album Switched-On Bach.
2018 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most iconic, groundbreaking and well-loved electronic music albums of all time: Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach. Still a benchmark now, in 1968 it arrived as a tour de force demonstration of the new Moog modular synth, and spawned countless gimmicky ‘switched-on’ rip-offs in the following years. Wendy Carlos, a serious composer as well as synth pioneer, went on to score various films (not least Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Disney’s Tron) and develop her own material too.
A defining feature of Switched-On Bach is its studio-album status. The performances were put together painstakingly, with monophonic lines multitracked to eight-track tape over a period of weeks or months, and the kaleidoscopic electronic timbres generated in response to careful segmenting of Bach’s interweaving musical lines. Analogue modular synths don’t typically lend themselves to fast, agile recall of patches, so a Switched-On Bach Live was never likely to happen; at least not until some time into the ’80s — by which point, ironically, enthusiasm for those glorious creamy Moog tones had waned in favour of digital synthesis techniques and sampling. It’s also telling that other classical crossovers of the same era that did happen live — like Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Pictures At An Exhibition — were never purely synth-based. Modular and Minimoogs might have been there on stage, but the sound was often rooted in traditional orchestral or rock line-ups.
Fast forward to the present, and once again analogue and modular are ‘in’. Demand for vintage gear has never been so high, the modular market is a veritable smorgasbord of tasty options, and the new breed of integrated synths stay in tune and have plenty of patch memories.
All of which leads nicely to the main gist of this article, about how two UK-based groups — Art Of Moog and the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble (see box) — are essentially recreating the spirit of Switched-On Bach live on stage. The approaches are very different, in terms of line-up, gear, arrangements and live sound practice, but both have garnered a following of synth nerds, Bach buffs and old hippies alike.
Art Of Moog are my own group, and more than anything here I wanted to go into some detail about how we went...
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