Switched-On Bach 2000 comments

(All rights belong to their owners. Image used here from Amazon for review purposes only.)

I want to like Wendy Carlos’ work, I really do. But, she doesn’t make it easy.
When I started messing around with synthesizers a few years ago, one of the things I wanted to do was get my hands on a copy of the original Switched-On Bach, to see what she (at the time, Walter) had done using the Moog synths. Unfortunately, S-OB was long out of print, and it wasn’t until this Christmas that I received a used copy of the 2000 25th anniversary re-master.

I can’t remember much at all about the original S-OB, except that it had received a lot of airplay on the rock FM radio stations, and that I liked the one song that the stations kept replaying. At the time, I didn’t know anything about electronic music (I was 11 when the album came out in 1968), but I thought it sounded cool. (Hot Butter released their version of Gershon Kingsley’s “Popcorn” in 1972, and THAT I REALLY liked. I became very interested in synth music at that point, but all the music teachers and majors I talked to at the time were convinced the “pock” sounds in the song were the result of African wooden blocks, and weren’t done on the Moog.)

Anyway, the reason I wanted the S-OB CD was to hear the original tracks again now that I have a better understanding of synthesizers. But… anyone that has heard S-OB 2000 already knows that Wendy re-wrote all the songs to be more in keeping with Bach’s original spirit of the music. She wrote 20+ pages of liner notes for the re-release detailing why she hated working with the early synths, and how she disliked the “turgid messy” sounds they made. Part of the notes describe the new tunings she used for each song, and how this makes the songs closer to what they would have been like in Bach’s period. Really, Wendy’s focus was on the use of electronic instruments to make an “authentic-sounding” reproduction of Bach’s music, rather than re-interpreting it to take advantage of things synths can do that acoustic instruments can’t. It’s another example of using a $5,000 synth to imitate a piano, when you could have just as easily just bought the piano outright.

S-OB 2000 sounds so generic, like something anyone could have played. I’m not a connoisseur of classic music, and I can’t tell the difference between a “well-tempered” tuning and a “medium-rare” one. To me, all the songs seem the same – pretty much an acoustic interpretation of standard, well-known classical music. I guess if you want to know what the music would have been like if Bach himself had played it on a period instrument, S-OB 2000 would give you that experience. Instead, I wanted something a little more along the lines of what Tomita had done. There are some places where I can pick out little glides, or buzzy squarewave notes, but they don’t stand out at all. All the instruments sound too much like regular acoustic pianos and such. Where are all the synthesizers?

Summary: Switched-On Bach 2000 is Wendy Carlos’ vision of what Bach’s music would be like if you were listening to him live. It’s nice and all, but if what you want is the sound from the original 1968 album, you’ll be disappointed. Recommended only to classic music buffs.

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