With her debut album Switched-On Bach, composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos (b. 1939) brought the sound of the Moog synthesizer to a generation of listeners. Her story is not only one of a person who blazed new trails in electronic music for decades but also the story of a person who intersected in many ways with American popular culture, medicine, and social trends during the second half of the 20th century and well into the 21st.
The biography captures the freshness and ingenuity of the project [of Carlos's Switched-On Bach] ... Through exhaustive archival research, Sewell meticulously captures Carlos’s career ... Along with the ascension and ebbing of Carlos’s career, Sewell conveys the more intimate aspects of the composer’s life ... Sewell shares such details without allowing them to overwhelm the multidimensional, complicated truths of her subject ... Sewell takes great care to place Carlos’s story within the context of the historically persistent and damaging academic and scientific theories regarding transgender people, as well as to cite some of the clinicians who offered advancement through research and lifesaving medical care ... Sewell devotes much space to how this took shape in the form of filing lawsuits against people whom Carlos thought had harmed her, or taking them to task in letters to the editor or on her own website in lengthy screeds. This latter part of the book becomes somewhat granular in this regard; die-hard fans, if not general lovers of electronic music and its history, may find the anecdotes compelling. Overall, however, Wendy Carlos: A Biography is an important account that helps us understand the legacy of an underexposed trailblazing composer.
... the first serious book to examine Carlos’s legacy at length, both as a composer and as a transgender woman. It’s an essential read—not only for electronic music fans, but for anyone interested in the history of gender and popular culture ... The book progresses with Sewell as the sole narrator, which can get monochromatic at times, reading like a detailed, fact-filled report rather than a fun and colorful history ... That said, Wendy Carlos: A Biography is a great work of scholarship ... deals sensitively with her gender transition, deftly chronicling her ascent to fame in the 1960s and the intense media scrutiny about her gender identity ... Those who can stick with it—from the long technical explanations of synthesizers to expansive, involved discussions of Carlos’s press interviews —will be amply rewarded...also gets bogged down later on, when it becomes less about music and more about lawsuits, business issues, and other concerns ... thoughtful and exhaustive.
... [a] fine new book ... Today...the sheer labor it took Ms. Carlos to create Switched-On Bach is all but impossible to imagine. Ms. Sewell is particularly good on those days ... Wendy Carlos: A Biography is a happy rarity among academic arts books—a grounded, thoughtful, appreciative study that maintains focus on its subject and her milieu, all the while paying the reader the courtesy of elegant prose.