In 1979, Carlos was one of the first public figures to disclose having undergone gender reassignment surgery.
Carlos was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the first of two children born to working-class parents. Her mother played the piano and sang and had an uncle who played the trombone and another who played the trumpet and drums. She began piano lessons at six years of age, and wrote her first composition, A Trio for Clarinet, Accordion, and Piano, at ten. Carlos attended St. Raphael Academy, a Catholic high school in Pawtucket. In 1953, at fourteen, Carlos won a scholarship for a home-built computer at the Westinghouse Science Fair, a research-based science competition for high-school students. From 1958 to 1962, Carlos studied at Brown University and graduated with a degree in music and physics, during which she taught lessons in electronic music at informal sessions.
In 1965, Carlos graduated Columbia University with a master's degree in music composition, during which she scored several films for students and a film maker for UNICEF, and assisted Leonard Bernstein to present an evening of electronic music at the Philharmonic Hall. Carlos studied with Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening, two pioneers of electronic music in the 1960s; the four were based in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City, the first of its kind in the United States. When Ussachevsky suggested to Carlos that she work in a recording studio to support herself, Carlos was a recording and mastering engineer at Gotham Recording Studios in New York City until 1968. She called it "a really lovely occupation" and found it a useful learning experience.
During her time at Columbia, Carlos met Robert Moog at the annual Audio Engineering Society show, which began a partnership; Carlos gave advice and technical assistance in the development of the Moog synthesizer, Moog's new electronic keyboard instrument, convincing Moog to add a touch-sensitive device for greater musical dynamics, among other improvements. By 1966, Carlos owned a small Moog synthesizer, which she used to record sound effects and jingles for television commercials, which earned her "anywhere from $100 to $1000". In 1967, Carlos befriended Rachel Elkind, a former singer who had a musical theatre background and worked as a secretary for Goddard Lieberson, then-president of Columbia Records. The two shared a home, studio, and business premises in a brownstone building in the West Side of Manhattan in New York City.
Carlos wrote several compositions as a student. Two were recorded and released on By Request (1975), titled Dialogues for Piano and Two Loudspeakers (1963) and Episodes for Piano and Electronic Sound (1964). Others include Variations for Flute and Electronic Sounds (1964), Episodes for Piano and Tape (1964), Pomposities for Narrator and Tape (1965), and Noah (1965), an opera blending electronics with an orchestra. Her first commercial release was "Moog 900 Series – Electronic Music Systems", an introduction to the technical aspects of the Moog synthesizer released in 1967. Part of her compensation for making the recording was in Moog equipment.
Carlos began her music career with Switched-On Bach, an album formed of several pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on a Moog modular synthesizer. The idea came about around 1967, when Carlos asked Elkind to listen to some compositions written by Carlos and musicologist Benjamin Folkman ten years prior at the Electronic Music Center, one of them being Bach's Two-Part Invention in F major, which Elkind took a liking to. Plans for an album of several Bach compositions developed from there, leading to a recording contract with Columbia Masterworks through Elkind's contacts, a deal that lasted until 1986. The label had launched an album sales campaign named "Bach to Rock", though it had no album of Bach's works in a contemporary context in its catalogue. With a $2,500 advance, Columbia granted Carlos and Elkind artistic freedom to produce and release the album. Carlos performs with additional synthesizers played by Folkman and Elkind as producer. Recording was a dragged out and time-consuming process as the instrument could only be played one note at a time.
Released in October 1968, Switched-On Bach became an unexpected commercial and critical success and helped to draw attention to the synthesizer as a genuine musical instrument. Newsweek dedicated a full page to Carlos with the caption "Plugging into the Steinway of the future". It peaked at No. 10 on the US Billboard 200 chart and was No. 1 on its Classical Albums chart from January 1969 to January 1972. It is the second classical album to sell over one million copies and was certified Gold in 1969 and Platinum in 1986 by the Recording Industry Association of America. Carlos performed selections from the album on stage with a synthesizer with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, her only live performance. In 1970, the album won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Album, Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (With or Without Orchestra), and Best Engineered Classical Recording. Carlos released a follow-up, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, with synthesized pieces from multiple composers. Released in November 1969, the album reached No. 199 on the Billboard 200 and received two Grammy nominations. The success of both albums allowed Carlos to move into Elkind's more spacious New York City home in 1971.
After the release of Switched-On Bach, Carlos was invited to compose the soundtrack of two science fiction films, Marooned (1969), directed by John Sturges, and A Clockwork Orange (1971) by Stanley Kubrick. When the directors of Marooned changed their minds to include a soundtrack, Carlos chose to work with Kubrick, as she and Elkind were fans of his previous films, adding: "We finally wound up talking with someone who had a close connection to Stanley Kubrick's lawyer. We suddenly got an invitation to fly to London". Before Carlos knew about the offer, she read the book and began writing a piece based on it named "Timesteps". A soundtrack containing only the film cuts of the score was released as Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange in 1972, combining synthesized and classical music by Henry Purcell, Beethoven and Gioacchino Rossini with an early use of a vocoder. The album peaked the Billboard 200 chart at No. 146. Later that year, Carlos released an album of music not included in the final score titled Walter Carlos' Clockwork Orange. Carlos later described the project as "a lot of fun ... a pleasurable venture".
Carlos experimented with ambient music on her third studio album Sonic Seasonings, released as a double album in 1972, with one long track dedicated to each of the four seasons. Recorded as early as 1970 and finished in mid-1971, before the A Clockwork Orange project was complete, Carlos wished to produce music that did not require "lengthy concentrated listening", but more than a collection of ambient noises to portray an environment. It combined field recordings of animals and nature with synthesized sounds, occasionally employing melodies, to create soundscapes. It reached No. 168 in the Billboard 200 and influenced other artists who went on to pursue the ambient and new-age genres in later years.
By 1973, Columbia/CBS Records had received a considerable number of requests for Carlos to produce another album of synthesized classical music. She agreed to the request, opting to produce a sequel to Switched-On Bach, which began with her and Elkind seeking compositions that were most suitable for the synthesizer; the two picked selections from Suite No. 2 in B minor, Two-Part Inventions in A minor and major, Suite from Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, and Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major. The latter features a Yamaha E-5 Electone organ for certain passages, as a reliable polyphonic keyboard had not been developed. The result, Switched-On Bach II, was released in 1973 and sold over 70,000 copies in the US during the first five weeks of its release.
Following Switched-On Bach II, Carlos changed musical directions once more. In 1971, she and Elkind asked Columbia Records to attach a pre-paid business reply card in each new pressing of her albums, which resulted in a considerable amount of suggestions from the public regarding the subject of her future releases. The ideas received were divided; some asked for more classical adaptations, while others wanted more of Carlos' original compositions. Carlos decided, "If I was going to spend months for mere minutes of music, I certainly wasn't going to be pigeonholed into only retreading existing music", and so began a process of "re-directing new ideas, reworking old ones". By mid-1974, Carlos and Elkind had selected tracks of varying styles to record on the Moog synthesizer, which Carlos found liberating, as it demonstrated the flexibility of the instrument. Released as By Request in 1975, the album includes pieces from Bach, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, two of Carlos' compositions from the 1960s, and renditions of "Eleanor Rigby" by The Beatles and "What's New Pussycat?", originally sung by Tom Jones. The final track, a "witty and serious" set of variations based on themes by Edward Elgar, was replaced with tracks from The Well-Tempered Synthesizer on UK pressings after members of Elgar's estate refused to have his music presented in a less than serious light, which "devastated" Carlos. By Request was followed by Switched-On Brandenburgs, a double album containing all six of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos played on a synthesizer, in 1979.
Carlos reunited with Kubrick to compose the score for his psychological horror film The Shining (1980). Before filming began, Carlos and Elkind read the book, as per Kubrick's suggestion, for musical inspiration. Carlos recorded a considerable amount of music, but Kubrick ended up using existing music by several avant-garde composers he had used as guide tracks in the final version. The Shining (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), released in 1980 on Warner Bros. Records, features two tracks credited to Carlos and Elkind: the main title theme and "Rocky Mountains", the former a reinterpretation of the "Dies Irae" section of Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz. Some of Carlos' music had some legal issues regarding its release, but much of it was made available in 2005 as part of her two-volume compilation album Rediscovering Lost Scores.
With work on The Shining complete, Elkind ended her long-time collaboration with Carlos when she moved to France with her husband in 1980. Carlos remained in New York City, sharing a converted loft in Greenwich Village with her new business partner Annemarie Franklin, which housed her new, remodelled studio, which was enclosed in a Faraday cage to shield the equipment from white noise and outside interference from radio and television signals.
Carlos' first project with Franklin began around 1980, when The Walt Disney Company asked her to record the soundtrack to its science fiction feature Tron (1982). Carlos agreed, but was not interested in composing solely with electronic music, as she wished to incorporate an orchestra with her musical ideas. She recalled their demands were "tightly specified ... there wasn't a lot of elbow room, and that made it fun". The score incorporated Carlos' analog and digital synthesizers with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the UCLA Chorus, and the Royal Albert Hall Organ. Tron: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack was released in 1982 and reached No. 135 on the Billboard 200. Carlos intended to release her scores on her own album, but Columbia/CBS showed a lack of interest in the prospect.
Three studio albums from Carlos were released in the 1980s. The first was Digital Moonscapes in 1984, Carlos' first to only feature digital synthesizers. She wrote the album's tracks for orchestra "or orchestra replica", inspired by various astronomical subjects, which used some leftover material from her score to Tron. Soon after, Carlos secured a deal with Audion Records, a smaller label, as she wished to "get away from that kind of big, monolithic government-like aspect that [she] had dealt with for so many years". In 1986, Audion released Beauty in the Beast, which saw Carlos experiment with just intonation, Balinese scales, and four new scales she devised for the album: Harmonic, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. The album features the first instance of a 35-note octave. Carlos considers the album as the most important of her career. She followed the album with Secrets of Synthesis in 1987, her final album for CBS/Columbia, featuring several introductions and demonstrations of synthesized music from Carlos with audio examples from her previous albums.
In 1988, CBS Records asked Carlos to collaborate with comical musician "Weird Al" Yankovic to release a parody of Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev. Carlos agreed to the project, as she felt it presented a chance "to let your sense of humour out of the cage". Yankovic adapted and narrated its story, while Carlos rearranged the music with a "MIDI orchestra", her first venture using the digital interface. The album's second side also contains a humorous adaptation of The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns titled "The Carnival of the Animals–Part II", with Yankovic providing funny poems for each of the featured animals in the style of poet Ogden Nash, who did similar for the original. Released in October 1988, Peter and the Wolf/Carnival of the Animals–Part II was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Album for Children in 1989.
To mark the 25th anniversary of Switched-On Bach, Carlos re-recorded the album with her set of digital instruments and recording techniques. Released in 1992 on Telarc Records, Switched-On Bach 2000 took roughly one and a half years to produce; Carlos estimated around 3,000 hours were invested in the project, which involved using several digital audio workstation software packages, including SoundTools and ProTools. A Moog synthesizer is only used once on the record; the rest is performed on 13 modern synthesizers. The album also marked her first venture into mixing in Dolby Surround sound.
Carlos wrote the soundtrack to the British film Brand New World (1998), also known as Woundings, directed by Roberta Hanley and based on a play by Jeff Noon. Carlos explained the style of her music: "I was given fairly large carte blanche to do some horrific things and also some inside-psyche mood paintings, and that's what the film became".
In 1998, Carlos released her most recent studio album, Tales from Heaven and Hell, for the East Side Digital label.
Beginning in 1998, Carlos digitally remastered her studio albums, culminating in the Switched-On Box Set released in 1999 featuring her four synthesized classical albums.
In 2005, the two-volume set Rediscovering Lost Scores was released, featuring previously out-of-print material, including the unreleased soundtrack to Woundings and music recorded for A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Tron that was not used in the films.
Carlos became aware of her gender dysphoria at an early age, recalling: "I was about five or six... I remember being convinced I was a little girl, much preferring long hair and girls' clothes, and not knowing why my parents didn't see it clearly". She once went on a date with a girl in her youth and felt "so jealous of her I was beside myself". When she moved to New York City in the 1960s, she learned about transgender issues for the first time and received counselling from sexologist Harry Benjamin. In early 1968, Carlos began hormone replacement treatments, which altered her appearance. Prior to a live performance of excerpts from Switched-On Bach with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Carlos felt unhappy to appear in public. She cried in her hotel room and left wearing fake sideburns, a man's wig, and drew facial hair on her face with an eyebrow pencil to disguise herself as male. Carlos did the same thing when she would meet with Kubrick and for an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970. The commercial success of Switched-On Bach allowed Carlos to undergo sex reassignment surgery in May 1972, but she continued to release albums as "Walter Carlos" throughout the 1970s.
Carlos kept her story secret until she agreed to a series of interviews with Arthur Bell between December 1978 and January 1979 for the May 1979 issue of Playboy magazine. She chose Playboy, as it has "always been concerned with liberation, and [I was] anxious to liberate myself". In 1985, Carlos spoke about the reaction to her transition: "The public turned out to be amazingly tolerant or, if you wish, indifferent ... There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life."
In 1998, Carlos sued the songwriter/artist Momus for $22 million for his song "Walter Carlos" (which appeared on the album The Little Red Songbook, released that year), which suggested that if Wendy could go back in time she could marry Walter. The case was settled out of court, with Momus agreeing to remove the song from subsequent editions of the CD and owing $30,000 in legal fees.
Switched-On Bach was the winner of three 1969 Grammy Awards:Album Of The Year, Classical
Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist Or Soloists (With Or Without Orchestra)
Best Engineered Recording, Classical
In 2005, Carlos was the recipient of the SEAMUS Lifetime Achievement Award "in recognition of lifetime achievement and contribution to the art and craft of electro-acoustic music" by the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States.
Carlos contributed a review of the then-available synthesizers to the June 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, contrasting the Moog, Buchla and Tonus (aka ARP) systems. She was dismissive of smaller systems like the EMS Putney and the Minimoog as "toys" and "cash-ins".
Carlos is also an accomplished solar eclipse photographer.Switched-On Bach (1968)
The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969)
Sonic Seasonings (1972)
Wendy Carlos's Clockwork Orange (1972)
Switched-On Bach II (1973)
By Request (1975)
Switched-On Brandenburgs (1979)
Digital Moonscapes (1984)
Beauty in the Beast (1986)
Secrets of Synthesis (1987)
Switched-On Bach 2000 (1992)
Tales of Heaven and Hell (1998)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
The Shining (1980)
Switched-On Brandenburgs, Vol. I (1987; comprises the first CD of Switched-On Brandenburgs (1979) and selections from Switched-On Bach (1968) and Switched-On Bach II (1973).)
Switched-On Brandenburgs, Vol. II (1987; comprises the second CD of Switched-On Brandenburgs (1979), selections from Switched-On Bach II (1973), and Bach's "Little" Fugue in G minor, BWV 578.)
Switched-On Boxed Set (1999; compiles Switched-On Bach, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer, Switched-On Bach II and Switched-On Brandenburgs)
Rediscovering Lost Scores, Volume 1 (2005; compiles previously unreleased music from The Shining, A Clockwork Orange and several UNICEF films)
Rediscovering Lost Scores, Volume 2 (2005; compiles previously unreleased music from The Shining, Tron, Split Second, Woundings and two Dolby demonstration tracks)
Electronic Music (1967 from Vox Turnabout. Includes two Carlos compositions "Dialogues for Piano and Two Loudspeakers" (with Phillip Ramey, pianist) and "Variations for Flute and Tape" (with John Heiss, flutist)
Moog 900 Series – Electronic Music Systems (1967; demonstration disc of the capabilities of the first commercially available Moog synthesizer)
Peter and the Wolf (1988; with "Weird Al" Yankovic)