An Interview with Wendy Carlos by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #11/12, 1983
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
Wendy Carlos first achieved notice with the release of a pair of Switched-On Bach recordings in 1968, adapting the famous classical material for a synthesizer developed by Carlos and engineer Robert Moog. Carlos later adapted the classical music for Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1972) and continued the association by scoring Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), although the majority of Carlos’ work was unused in the film. In the following interview, conducted in the midst of scoring TRON on May 20, I982, Wendy Carlos explains in detail her musical approach to the film.
How did you become involved with TRON?
Michael Fremer was familiar with my work. I think they had a vague idea about John Williams in the production department, but Michael thought that would be a cliché and that they should go with somebody else. In any event, they did contact me, and Michael was very honest, he said that he had contacted other people too. Some of the material they didn’t care for. Brian Eno thought that it wasn’t quite his cup of tea, and I was rather eager to get started on a project that would require both orchestra and synthesizers, so when he told me that he wanted me to do the synthesizer work and then find somebody else to do the orchestra, I said “oh, no, if you’d want the score to be handled by me at all, I’d like to do the whole thing.”
So they had intended from the start to have a combination of orchestral and electronic music?
In fact, I think their original idea was that they would use totally live orchestra for the real-world sequences, and totally synthesizer for the computer-world sequences, and I’ve since talked them into trying to make the boundary line much more diffuse.
Would you explain the kind of score you’re writing for TRON?
It’s kind of like the vehicle was the ideal one to come at this time. I’d been looking for a chance to incorporate orchestra with synthesizer in some way so that the synthesizer was really an equal part of the orchestra in the full sense, not the way it’s usually used just for a few solo lines. Because of the specifications Michael gave me, I thought: alright, I’m going to try and produce a score that has some areas that are heavy on the electronics and other areas which are heavy on the orchestra, but which, by and large, will blend the two most of the time and make the boundaries unclear, so that the audience should be as unconcerned with whether they’re hearing synthesizer or live instruments as they are with whether they’re watching a live photograph or a computer generated one. The result is that I’ve written a score for a large orchestra – we used the London Philharmonic and employed a hundred and five pieces on it. Because of the time shortage I was not able to do the electronic portion first and have the orchestra play with that. Instead I’m synching to their performances, but not quite in the purest way that it would have been had the schedule permitted the amount of time they promised me when they contacted me last August (1981).
In what manner are you combining the orchestral with the synthesizer, as far as achieving that balance between the two?
Originally I did wish to make the score have parts that were notated specifically for synthesizer and other parts that were notated specifically for orchestra. As a result of this severe deadline, I did a fairly complete short score indicating all of the instruments, and then I had the copying – the routine job of fleshing out – done by a professional orchestrator. His name is Jorge Calandrelli, and he had worked with Rachel Elkind and me when we did the score for Kubrick’s THE SHINING, and I had found him to be an extraordinarily empathetic musician. I thought he would probably mind having things pretty much laid out for him, because he likes the creativity of getting involved with doing orchestration from, like, just a piano sketch. But he said he really took to it quite rapidly and he succeeded in saving my ass in many ways, since I had made a great many blunders in writing the score out – lots of accidental things that took a good eye to catch, and so he was really worth his weight in gold.
In any event, that score was recorded with the instruments separated as much as we could do in the large hall where we recorded it. That gave me a mix which allowed the solo woodwinds, or whatever, to be put down a bit low, and have synthesizers supplement in on top of them, and in such a timbre that the result is that the ear probably doesn’t recognize that there’s another instrument underneath it. So, really there’s quite a bit of synthesizer throughout all of the cues that I’ve done so far; it’s doubled most of the orchestral line. The orchestra is somewhat processed: in the textures it’s very, very processed, using a few of the same tricks you do making musique concrete, and it starts becoming a practice where you’re manipulating the orchestra material and making synthesizers do things that, in the past, have sounded quite like being an orchestra, and that tends to make them seem fairly diffuse, fairly hard to pick out. It comes to where – unless you’re intimately familiar with that sort of thing, or if you’ve got one of those wonderful ears that can pick out those things, or if you’re trained in the field; there won’t be any doubt in those people’s minds – but I think the greater audiences won’t really know what’s synthesizer and what’s not. It’ll be an interesting blend.
In any event, whether it be from synthesizer or tricking up the original orchestra recordings, it’s all being done after the fact of recording the orchestra; that’s how I’m working. Mostly I’m using the old Moog, which is monophonic, a little bit of Polymoog, and we were fortunate enough to get (although only at the last minute) an M. T. I. digital synthesizer which is something that could have really been used exclusively for all of the electronic parts, but because of the lateness of its arrival and the scarcity of good software for it right now it’s really impossible to use it as well as could have been done. It’s a fully functional sixteen-bit digital machine and the only thing on the market that (although not on this film) could be used to produce the same timbres that happen within the acoustic realm. That’s the reason we wanted it, even though it’s perhaps not as convenient as things like the synclavier and other instruments which are beautifully-made but just do not possess the same freedom of limitation within the ultimate oscillated design.
Musically, what elements of the film are you emphasizing?
When I first started they asked me to come back to them with some kind of three-theme score. They wanted a good guys theme, a bad guys theme and a Tron theme, and I was not really sure how I could tell them that that doesn’t really have much bearing on the music. You’re better off almost letting it evolve by writing a few compositions and letting the themes within that then ~ these, rather than writing the tunes first, as tunes. The way I write, the tune does not come first, it all comes at once, simultaneously – counterpoint, harmony, rhythm and the timbre are all very much a part of the original concept.
So instead I came back and turned out a fifteen minute sketch of the music, and then since they still didn’t have any footage for me, I began to realize a lot of it only on synthesizer. They fell in love with some of the ideas, and told me they were doing a reel for the NATO (National Association of Theatre Owners) Convention in Las Vegas at the end of November and they wanted some music cues that they could put in that production to show the theatre people what kind of a film TRON would be. So I worked for a week doing cues directly for that. The result was that they had become very fond of some of the themes within that demo music, and asked me to amplify them and also come out with a very important theme called the Anthem, which is sort of the Good Guys Theme – this thing that you play whenever there’s some moment of love interest or a thing going well or the triumphant ending of the movie. That theme was the last thing to be developed and I simply took pieces of the themes that they already liked and reassembled them so that they came into a tune, much more in a romantic tradition than the others which are more rhythmic and of a more modern feel.
Then with those themes selected I simply wrote it, sort of symphonically; the music constantly refers back to the theme. It’s very cyclic, and yet there are places where it’s more theme-and-variation, but I guess it’s closer to the spirit of a symphony than any other form. It’s a strange affair; you’ll have to hear it for yourself to decide what it really is – I can’t tell you, I’m much too close to it right now – but it essentially does do all of the dramatic things necessary for film music, and yet it stays honest, almost to being absolute music in its own way; if it were re-written into a suite form it probably would fit very well into a concert program.
It’s not music that they forced me to write down in any particular way. I chose to try to be a little simpler than my normal style, for the sake of a motion picture audience, but I didn’t feel cramped; it was really a nice experience to write the kind of music that I felt was the best for the film, and I’m very grateful for being given the chance to do it, to be involved in a spearhead in a new direction in doing film scores, just like the visuals are sort of a new direction in the way motion pictures are made.
So you’ve basically used the synthesizer to embellish the orchestra?
In places it’s really almost an equal; in other places it’s really the star. It’s not as much of a single force for the score as it would have been in the original plan – I had to cut short the amount of synthesizer work that I would do. I did quite a few cues, but they changed a lot of footage and so none of the cues that I had done wholely on synthesizer any longer fit the picture. It was sort of an awful moment when we discovered that, and I just had to say, “Look guys, here’s what has to go on now; you’ve got to lock your picture down and then, and only then, can I write a score for you. I just can’t function this way.” And it took them until the end of February (1982) to reach that stage. That was very late in the game, especially with a film that’s coming out in Summer.
What kind of musical effects, as opposed to dramatic scoring, have you done for the film?
What I was trying to find was some way to have a degree of tension and of contrast in the score, which was not coming as I was writing for the film. The film is extremely fast-paced, almost like a 30-second television commercial that goes on for an hour and forty-five minutes. It moves, constantly; and any music that won’t sound out of place has to move right along with it. So all of the score pages were terribly black, filled with notes, and most of the tempos move along at a good clip. There are places where they’re going along on a 240 metronome click track rate, which is hard to play to; that’s prestissimo.
For the other things, where there were dialog scenes, I deliberately wanted adagio and largo to take place, so I wrote little mood things that would probably go on for an average of about six to eight measures, that were meant to be played sort of over and over again, like the minimalist kind of music. I would take these and put the chorus doing similar things and find blends that could be played together or put at different speeds, retrograded or harmonized or filtered or phased and sent through elaborate ambient kind of generators, so as to produce a wash that moved without very much motion at all. So the textures are the slowest grave or gravissimo that you want to imagine, and they contrast with the extreme fast pace that takes place in the rest of the score. It’s usually soft enough, somewhat quasi-impressionistic, if you want to use a label like that, but this is what it is. It’s very much a creature of the post-music concrete kind of a thing, something very much out of the 20th Century, although it harkens back in some ways to your impressionistics or your late romantic moments.
I’ve heard that you recorded some of the cues at half speed in order to play them back so they would be very fast paced.
That was mostly for the things that are no longer being used. For the synthesizer, there’s an optimum speed range that the keyboard operates on; there’s also a lower threshold and, an upper threshold that you can use without an awful lot of annoying side effects. Over the years I have learned to play at any tempo necessary to get a final result to be wherever it belongs, even though I seldom play at the actual tempo that the music is later played back on. With the orchestra stuff I’m forced to play a lot of it at actual real-time tempo because there was such a shortage of time for the orchestra sessions. There are many places, where just in one or two more takes it would have been locked tight in rhythm, but we didn’t have time for any more takes and so the rhythm drifts. I don’t think that it’s going to limit the effect in this movie very much at all; it’s just that what I would have liked to do didn’t quite take place.
You’re recording the soundtrack LP at the same time you’re synching to film, aren’t you?
Yes. After I’ve mixed the orchestra and the synthesizer parts, one generation later it goes on a 16-track recorded with a SMPTE track to synchronize it and that tape is sent out to L.A., where it’s played back in sync with the film and mixed on the console to the final master, which makes the sound terribly clear. At the same time, I have to make a second master, apart from that one. Within the hour after I’ve done a cue, I stop the film and change the reels, and I re-mix the cue in a slightly better way for record – not quite so much a boost at the high end that you have to do for a decent film mix that won’t get swallowed up in the theatres. Those kinds of considerations you should do on a record or else you cut a record which is so shrill on the top end that it doesn’t reproduce nice for the home. So I’m making a mix of this at the same time that I’m making the film mix, and most of the engineering is really mine; they’re getting essentially a final product. I can view it here against the picture and I can see if the cues are all fitting exactly, so there’s no need for the usual staff out in Hollywood, the way ordinary film scores are done. I have been putting together all of the complicated cues that were recorded in several different takes at different tempos, and I’ve made mixes of those onto another 16-track, and as soon as I’m done working on the film I will take the textures and the separate mixes and combine them in a final four- and two-track mix to be sent to CBS Records.
Finally, what is your view of the use of synthesized music instead of, or in addition to, traditional symphonic music in film scoring?
I think that it’s something long overdue. We talked about these things back a dozen years ago, in the halcyon days of moog when all of that stuff was just opening up. It’s so overdue that many people feel it’s probably been done before; but as I see it, it’s something that’s inevitable, much like the use of a computer for generating animation. I think that the asset of having a synthesizer as one of the resources within an otherwise orchestral feel is great, It’s so damn fine for a movie that it’s probably something that’s going to be used a great deal. Maybe in about five or ten years it’ll be very common to see this sort of thing done. It’s just a question of time before people develop the same habits and techniques that I’ve been trying to work on all these years – to know how to use a synthesizer as more than just something that somebody comes in with a little Prophet-5 and sits down and plays a solo line while you’re recording the rest of the orchestra – it ain’t that, that’s for sure, any more than having a bass drum and cymbal in the orchestra and considering it a percussion section. It’s only one small tip of the iceberg, of what will become a very exciting family of the orchestra. That’s what the percussion section became about a hundred years ago; woodwinds and brass continued to be modified over the years until they’ve reached a state of development where they don’t know how to carry them much beyond that, and now we’ve going to do the same thing with the electronics. I feel like I’m just part of the growing pains necessary to make the electronic medium be as legitimate a family member of the orchestra as any of the other sounds.
In most orchestral music you usually have a great interplay of the instruments. Well-orchestrated music has notes coming from all the sections rapidly falling one after another; it gives a marvelous texture and a nice color, and I would think that an imaginative composer could make a synthesizer go along as being a color that’s in there underneath every so often, and occasionally let it rise to the surface for a momentary solo, the way you do with the woodwinds or what-have-you.
I feel that it goes without saying, as though I shouldn’t be having to say this, yet I appreciate the validity of the question. I guess my prejudice believes that it’s likely to be one of the most useful members of the orchestra for film scoring just because it embraces so many things that can fall into almost a pseudo-concrete kind of style that suggest dramatic events far more easily than you can do with traditional instruments. It’s like a chorus; I mean, everyone should be dying to want to use it for that purpose, and as the instruments get more sophisticated, with digital instruments now coming into their forte, the software gets made so they can be used conveniently and quickly, I think it’s going to happen.
Do you feel that TRON may legitimize this kind of scoring in the minds of those who cling to the more traditional symphony orchestra?
Oh, no, that sounds so pompous! I doubt if many people are even going to know or care. I hope they’ll like some of the tunes – a lot of people in sound effects apparently are walking around humming some of them, which makes me happy – and I hope those who are a little more sophisticated, those who read your magazine and that, those of us who cherish this kind of thing, I hope they’ll go through the audience to spread the word that here’s something new that should be used more, so that it plants the seed in the head of producers and directors to try and steer their projects into doing more of this kind of thing.
People may look back on TRON as being certainly a pioneering venture in both the visuals and the music, but I’m not sure how much of that will be immediately obvious when the film comes out. Especially on the music; I expect that the computer graphics will steal the show the first couple of years and slowly word will come out that, “Hey, but listen at the same time, there’s stuff there too that’s experimental”, and people will go, “oh, yeah!”
Maybe it’s my own taste in music, but I probably tend to overwork things so that they are more subtle than they need be, but let the audience work a little to find it. It’s there, it’s just that it doesn’t come out and hit you in the face.