A square for Wendy Carlos

A few weeks ago, my friend Kate and I shared the Square Share/Balance for Better Blanket project on which we worked earlier this year, together with all at team KDD&Co., to mark International Women’s Day, 2019. The blanket has been officially recognised as an example of best practice and I feel incredibly honoured to have been involved. Thank you, KDD & Co., and thank you, IWD!

Winner International Women's Day - Best Practice

As you may have gathered from the post I wrote about designing the square which celebrates Bobby Baker, or Kate’s amazing account of her square commemorating the poetry of Adrienne Rich – or, as you’ll know if you are currently designing your own square(s) using our template on Ravelry – the process of designing and charting squares can be quite involved. I relished this aspect of the project and found that working on each square provided rich opportunities to deepen my appreciation for, and to pay especially close attention to, the work of the person it celebrated. There are messy notes in my bullet journals accompanying many of the squares I designed which remind me of how I thought about them all and which I am enjoying revisiting for these posts.

bullet journal page with written notes, stuck in chart and glimpses of washi tape

There is a particular kind of focus required to transpose ideas from other people’s work into the language of stranded colourwork and – as a long-term co-ordinator of knit/sound projects – it was especially joyful for me to work on squares that related to the work of other creatives whose main work is with sound.

Today I want to tell you about my square celebrating the work of American musician and composer Wendy Carlos. Wendy first rose to fame with Switched-On Bach (1968) – an album of music by Johann Sebastian Bach performed on a Moog synthesizer which won three Grammy Awards and helped to popularise the synthesizer (and the music of J.S. Bach) throughout the 1970s. The commercial success of Switched-On Bach led to several more keyboard albums from Wendy, who also composed the score to two Stanley Kubrick films: A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980); as well as the film score for Walt Disney Productions’ 1982 film, Tron. These are some highlights of a long career and Wendy Carlos’s Discography is rich and varied. But my favourite release from her is Sonic Seasonings.

album cover for Sonic Seasonings by Wendy Carlos

I love this album, first composed in the 1970s. Although I might now try and describe it as “ambient music”, it prefigures that term – coined by Brian Eno later that decade – by several years:

“on the level of pure enjoyment, these records were designed to be a part of the decoration, so to speak – a sonic ambience that enhances the listener’s total environment. On still another level, Sonic Seasonings takes listeners out of their environment and into the countryside of their fantasy: the weary urbanite can eavesdrop on the conversation of chattering bids; the mountain dweller can leave his soul with the sound of the surf, and so on.

We ask, however, tht you, the listener, supply one element that we could not possibly blend into the final mix – your own imagination and his remembrance of Nature’s blessings.”

– Rachel Elkind, 1972

When it came out, the idea of an album like this was a new concept. Wendy describes how “there was no existing category for music of its kind.” The release was not Classical Music, while also not being Popular music, nor Jazz. Wendy writes that Sonic Seasonings was “intended to work on a timbral and experiential level, so the sound could “flow over you,””. Even with the development of later categories – ambient; minimalist; electronic; mood etc. – and the benefit of time and hindsight, it still feels difficult to pigeonhole this album as anything other than itself. I’ve not heard anything else quite like its vast, meandering world of creatures, moods, weathers, melodies and places and the CD booklet is full of thoughtful meditations and quotes on the nature of sound.

Quote from CD liner notes: "There's music in the sighing of a reed; There's music in the gushing of a rill; There's music in all things, if man had ears; The earth is but the music of the spheres." - George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Sonic Seasonings was released on vinyl in 1972 and then reissued on CD in 1998 and it brings together the electronic textures of synthesisers with field recordings from nature. It follows the structure of a year and the four seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter – are loosely suggested in spacious, 20+ minute long tracks. Rachel Elkind worked closely with Wendy on the production and concept for this work and describes it as “an aural tapestry, [containing] natural sounds… subtly mixed with electronic and instrumental sounds in an effort to create four evolving, undulating cycles evocative of the moods of the earth’s seasons….an amalgam of the natural and the synthetic.”

There’s something really strange and beautiful about the hermetically-sealed electronic sounds of the synthesiser mixing and melding with the volume of space present in many of the field recordings with which they are mixed. That, to me, is what the mix of “the natural and the synthetic” means. It’s a gentle, pattering melody of electronic sine waves and tones blurring with the noisy smash of ocean waves in Fall; or the thunderstorm in Spring mixed with the voices of birds. As the days grow increasingly short, cold and dark, I have lately been taking a special pleasure in Winter with its shimmering, tingly sounds (is this what icicles sound like?) layered with drifts of wind; with the song of wolves; and with vocals by Rachel Elkind.

How to suggest such delicious sonic complexity in the finite canvas of a knitted square, 142 sts at its edge and decreasing dramatically towards its centre?

I decided to start by thinking about soundwaves since Wendy’s free, open, playful and curious approach to sound itself is what defines Sonic Seasonings, and since it is a picture of an island surrounded by waves and movement with which she chose to illustrate the cover of this body of work. Poring over the CD-liner notes, I noticed a further reference in a quote shared on the back cover and attributed to anonymous: “I am moving all day and not moving at all. I am like the moon underneath the waves that ever go rolling.”

To speak to these themes of waves and soundwaves, I opened the track Winter in my sound-editing software and printed out a screen-grab of its waveform which I then stuck in my bullet journal.

a photo of a wave-form taken from Winter by Wendy Carlos, as seen in audio-editing software

A waveform is something I’ve tried to represent in stranded colourwork before, but I’ve always been deterred by the problem of how to handle long strands between the peaks of different waves. Also, there is phenomenal detail in a waveform which is immediately lost once it is transcribed into the low-resolution medium of stranded colourwork. Tinkering with the peaks and troughs of my soundwaves and consulting the image taped into my bullet journal, I decided I needed to be less literal. I started to chart an approximation of shapes suggesting soundwaves. I decided there would be two tiers of soundwaves in my final square design to speak to the idea of left and right stereo channels.

sound waveform charted for stranded colourwork knitting

The artwork with which Wendy Carlos illustrated Sonic Seasonings is called Waves at Matsushima. It is a painted screen produced during the Edo period by the artist Ogata Kōrin (Japanese: 尾形光琳; 1658 – June 2, 1716) – a Japanese painter, lacquerer and designer of the Rinpa school. This amazing image shows the movement of the waves around the islands of Matsushima. Wendy and Rachel saw the original in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where, Wendy comments, they “fell in love with it.” I decided to colour my soundwaves chart with the shades that had so captivated Wendy and Rachel in shades from Kate’s Milarrochy Tweed palette. Hirst provided the creamy background; Horseback Brown and Hare described the warm dark to mid-browns; Stockiemuir and Garth provided the bright pops of green to describe the island flora in the painting; and Buckthorn evokes the blush of hot orange used by Ogata Kōrin in the original painting.

Waves at Matsushima by Ogata Kōrin; a rich palette of greens, oranges and browns shows a sequence of waves rolling against large islands which rise out of the water

Wedge swatch featuring my Wendy Carlos motif in the same colours as used in the painting "Islands of Matsumisha" by Ogata Kōrin

Do you remember the wedge-swatch of which I wrote in this post? I used the same technique – a swift way to swatch one quarter of the square – to test my design ideas out. While I worked, I listened to Sonic Seasonings. I then transferred my design into the proper chart template and sent it off to Mel who deftly turned it into this:

Soundwaves represented in a hand-knitted square, as visual wave forms in shades of green, brown and orange

I so enjoyed spending time with Wendy’s music and with the notes that came with her CD. I particularly like that she chose, in this 1998 re-release, to also share an early incarnation of Winter:

About the out-take: Winter went through a few more revisions than the other movements. It was not as obvious what sounds might best suggest this ostensibly cold, quiet time of the year (snowfall is nearly soundelss, and snow on the ground tends to absorb sound.) Originally I pictured a scene in a cozy cabin somewhere up North, with a roaring fireplace, a comfortable old rocking chair, a friendly purring kitty, and a music box playing, what else, music from S-O B (Switched-On Bach, Wachet Auf.) The first definitive mix of this attempt can be heard on this bonus track. It didn’t (and doesn’t) quite work, and so we looked in other directions, before coming up with the wolves plus haunting vocalise that more musically ends Sonic Seasonings.

I really like the quiet, domestic texture of this outtake – with its purring kitty! – and I appreciate Wendy sharing it with us as a record of her creative process and as something that she felt “didn’t (and doesn’t) quite work”. I thought about this a lot during the whole project and the idea – and the comforting soundscape of “out-take” gave me courage when anything I was working on didn’t quite come together right away; the sonic/track equivalent of a swatch.

Winter as described in the CD liner notes

I also thought about how, in several years of studying field recordings and the adjacent discipline of Electroacoustic composition at University, Wendy Carlos and this groundbreaking ambient project undertaken with Rachel Elkind were never mentioned by my tutors; all the more reason to celebrate them in our work.

bullet journal edge with soundwave washi tape and screengrab of editing software printed out and stuck inside

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