(Wendy Carlos, 1987)

The final illustration for the article is a perspective drawing of a “generalized keyboard,” one that I started to build twice, but never had the practical resources to bring to fruition. One of my great life disappointments, but then, you can’t have everything you wish for. More recently, via MIDI and Digital Performer, I’ve cobbled some workarounds using standard tools. Even a dream must occasionally be practical!

Wendy Carlos is best known as a pioneer of the synthesizer who reached mass audiences with her album Switched on Bach (1968) and soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). While never-before-heard timbres were a stunning feature of these works, Carlos also pursued another avenue opened up by synthesizers: the development of new tunings. As Carlos wrote in her 1987 article “At the Crossroads”: “This is the first time instrumentation exists that is both powerful enough and convenient enough to make practical the notion: any possible timbre, in any possible tuning, with any possible timing.” Lacking, however, were suitable interfaces  for realizing tunings other than the ubiquitous equal tempered scale. Carlos hoped to remedy this with her proposed generalized keyboard: based on a design by R. H. M. Bosanquet from 1875, it divided the octave into 53 equal steps, strategically arranged so as to make all regular divisions of the octave playable. “There is scarcely a more worthwhile venture to pursue as soon as possible than adopting a standard for and then manufacturing at least a ‘limited edition’ of these keyboards for all of us now becoming involved with this field,” Carlos wrote. Alas, like the shift to meantone Carlos expected to see as digital synthesizing equipment became more common, the keyboard was not to be.
Text: Wendy Carlos’s website (c. 2003-05)
Image: Wendy Carlos, “At the Crossroads,” Computer Music Journal 11/1 (1987): 40