Wendy Carlos, electronic musician and composer, has managed to enjoy a reasonable amount of success as an overall unclassifiable artist probably because of her chamelion-like explorations of a wide range of styles: From electro-baroque (Switched-On Bach), to film soundtracks (A Clockwork Orange, Tron), to nature/electro/ambience (Sonic Seasonings), her compositional process/craft has indeed shown flexibility - yet we as listeners and admirers could not help but wonder who the true Wendy was, as a musical identity, under the shifting surface.
I think we got a hint at it in the piece "Timesteps" from the Clockwork Orange soundtrack, and on this 1986 release / 2001 re-release that identity is fully realized. On the surface, at first listening, much of it sounds like world music: Tibetan Incantations, Balinese Gamelan ceremonies, African tribal dances, drifting in and out in a sort of auditory slide show. Yet as she explains in the collection's liner notes, these world images were used as more of a treatment, a way to encapsulate and focus tunings and textures she had just started to work with in her own abstract, intuitive approach to composing. The result is a kaleidoscopic journey, a sumptuous feast for the ears, one which challenges us by clashing dissonant cacophony against sheer melodic beauty - hence the title.
It is ironic that, sometimes, purely electronic music sounds best (is more interesting and exciting) when it is made to sound more primitive and organic. Carlos succeeds at this for the most part, with her use of quarter-tones and percussive sounds, as well as the use of an electrified voice on two of the tracks. She has been criticized for sounding too mechanistic on other works; the pieces contained in this collection should lay those complaints to waste. Here her performances exhibit a flow that could only come from a creative dream state; here we truly are witness to an artist at the peak of her creative powers.
This album came and went so fast back when it was released 15 years ago, I didn't have a chance to score it on CD when I got my first player. Its rerelease is indeed a cause for celebration. Much appreciation is owed to the efforts of East Side Digital on behalf of the Wendy Carlos collection. If there were any one album that best represented this pioneer recording artist, Beauty in the Beast is this listener's choice.
Best heard in the dark, during a rainstorm ......