Tentative Review #95

A Clockwork Orange

(released 1971)


I had originally intended to bypass this album, but the undeniable connections between the music of Walter/Wendy Carlos and "progressive" music would seem to necessitate some acknowledgement. And, anyway, the current discussion of ACO on various progressive newsgroups would almost seem to necessitate that something be written.

The ratings in this review pertain only to those recordings featuring Walter/Wendy Carlos. The purely "classical" works are not given ratings, nor are the novelty pop singles. They fit into the discussion of the album, but are not the primary focus of the review.

1. Title Music From "A Clockwork Orange"****
2. The Thieving Magpie
3. Theme From "A Clockwork Orange" (Beethovania)***
4. Ninth Symphony, Second Movement - Abridged
5. March From "A Clockwork Orange"
     (Ninth Symphony, Fourth Movement - Abridged)
6. William Tell Overture - Abridged***1/2
7. Pomp And Circumstance March No. 1
8. Pomp And Circumstance March No. 2
9. Timesteps (excerpt)****1/2
10. Overture To The Sun
11. I Want To Marry A Lighthouse Keeper
12. William Tell Overture - Abridged
13. Suicide Scherzo
     (Ninth Symphony, Second Movement - Abridged)
14. Ninth Symphony, Fourth Movement - Abridged
15. Singin' In The Rain


Features Walter/Wendy Carlos, synthesizer.


Features Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "The Thieving Magpie" and "William Tell" by Rossini. "Pomp And Circumstance" by Elgar. "Overture To The Sun" by Tucker. "Title Music" taken from a theme by Purcell. Carlos receives shared credits for those tracks which he performs, as well as a complete credit for "Theme From "A Clockwork Orange"".


A Clockwork Orange is a novel/film which focuses on the power of music to guide the lives and mindsets of individuals, causing them to bypass rationality in their drive towards spontaneous action. In the early sections of the film, the lead character is driven to acts of chaotic "ultraviolence", with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony frequently acting as a catalyst. In the later sections, he undergoes numerous experiments whereby his behaviour is determined by the stimulation caused by exposure to said music.

The psychological impact of the film has, and will no doubt continue to spark heated debates among members of its audience. This is not the purpose of this review, however. Rather, this review is to examine the soundtrack of the film in a historical context, with particular emphasis on the tracks performed on early synthesizer technology by Walter/Wendy Carlos.

In A Clockwork Orange, the theme of music being divorced from a "purely artistic context" to a "greater cultural/behavioural context" is explored in great detail. Given this, the material on the soundtrack album could hardly be more ironic.

In spite of the fact that some of Carlos's performances and arrangements would almost make Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman blush with shame at the sheer levels of tastelessness involved, the soundtrack retains a fairly high level of credibility among followers of elevated film culture. While the role of new synthesizer technology in the creation of this album cannot be entirely overlooked, the primary reason for these continually high levels of credibility must surely be the connection of the music to the film itself. Divorced from its context, it seems unlikely that the Carlos renditions of classical themes would count for terribly much more than a historical significant novelty. Certainly, many critically maligned pieces by Emerson and Wakeman would come across as monuments of musical decency compared to Carlos's rendition of the "William Tell Overture". And, similarly, it seems unlikely that the Really Obvious Classical Themes paraded on this album would have the same avant-garde appeal had Kubrick's film never been made.

This isn't to say that the music is bad. It's just that it needs to be seen in a proper perspective. And the fact that a fair percentage of the who own this album would be terrified of listening to a Rick Wakeman disc suggests that such a context is somewhat lacking (which, in turn, isn't to say that the RW disc would necessarily be any good).

The album begins deep in the corridors of British classical history (sort of) with "Title Music", based on a theme by Purcell. Carlos transposes the monumental nature of the track over to synthesizer fairly well -- the trills of the original work, even, are nicely maintained here. The only problem is that it's all extremely "cheesy", and was presumably deliberately intended as such; this generally restricts the music from attaining to even higher ratings. A track of this sort wouldn't have seemed entirely out of place on Patrick Moraz's Future Memories - Live On TV, actually ... perhaps the cheesiness factor would have even been diminished slightly in such a context. Nonetheless, whatever its flaws, this is a good start for the album.

The album then takes an orchestral journey through Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie", actually one of the comparatively more obscure classical works here (which says more about the album than the piece). This work is carried off extremely well -- Rossini may have appealed primarily to the "clattering falsies" component of the theatre audience, and he isn't quite on par with the Last European by this reviewer's standards [will the Pynchon references *ever* end], but this is one of the more substantial overtures in his catalogue. Regardless of the context, I have no objections to this piece being here.

Carlos then returns for "Theme (Beethovania)", a variation of sorts on one of the master's popular themes. Whether or not this was a good decision isn't quite clear -- not everything that Beethoven touched was pure gold, of course, and this interpretation never seems to "make it". What really hurts this number, however, is the Zamfir-esque tones emerging from the flutish effects. All in all, not Carlos's best moment.

After an orchestral excerpt of Beethoven's Ninth 2nd Movement, Carlos returns again for one of the cheesier moments on the album -- a synth take on the famous "Ode To Joy" chorus, using early vocoder technology to produce the vocal effects. This easily crosses into Wakeman territory for sheer over-the-topness, though it must be admitted that the classical master Carlos handles the instrumental sections in a considerably more fluid manner than Emerson or Wakeman would presumably be capable of. Said passages occasionally reach a sublime level of performance, though the silliness of the chorus ultimately brings it all back down to earth.

The silliness of the "Ode To Joy" version has nothing on Carlos's "William Tell Overture - Abridged", however. This remarkably fast rendition of the tune (impressive in spite of the obvious studio manipulations involved) is so completely over-the-top that one wonders if it would be taken as anything more than an amusing embarrassment were it featured in any other context. That such an absurd performance occurs on one of the most obvious classical tracks in existence adds considerably to its `kitsch' value, of course. By the standards of the album, I imagine this would count as a considerable triumph.

The album then continues its overplayed classics motif with two notorious Elgar marches, which would have little significance if not for their relation to the film (they're easy to ignore in any event). This then leads to the leading anomaly on the album, an excerpt from "Timesteps" -- on this work, the value of Carlos's new synthesizer technology is finally revealed within the chaotic musical swirl which results. For all intents and purposes, this is a piece of progressive music, and a fairly good one at that (having parallels to Genesis's "The Waiting Room" which may be more than superficial, at that). This is an easy highlight of the album.

This version of "Overture To The Sun" is also fairly impressive, and may be the best keyboard feature of the album. From here, we progress to the brief (one minute) novelties of "I Want To Marry A Lighthouse Keeper", and an orchestral take on one of the less notorious sections of the "William Tell Overture".

This then leads to Carlos's final piece on the album, and one of his/ her best. "Suicide Scherzo" (a chronicle of the anti-hero's attempt at the titular activity) actually manages to evoke the proper classical "feel" of the Beethoven piece in its opening moments -- the epic grandeur proves capable of being reduced to modern technology. Sadly, the second development isn't quite as good -- the attempts at displayed the full range of synthesizer modes becomes a bit too intrusive, particularly when Carlos begins playing with a patch similar to that used on "Aquatarkus". It's a good number overall, though, if somewhat flawed.

Another orchestral excerpt from Beethoven's Ninth then appears, leading thereafter to the album's conclusion with "Singin' In The Rain" (years before postmodernism became a popular academic term, it was essentially defined here). The music merit of the latter track is arguable, though its place seems quite appropriate.

A Clockwork Orange isn't so much a vital work for progressive fans as it is a lesson into the somewhat unfair manner in which "prog" has been marginalized over the years. Although generally from a "classical" background, Carlos's work fits in appropriately with the other synthesizer heros of the era ... and yet s/he retains his stature while others attract nothing but scorn from mainstream critics.

This album may be useful in determining the manner in which progressive music may have a functional role within a larger musical context (for better or for worse). On a purely musical basis, well, it can't really be considered essential -- the classical motifs can all be attained from more conventional sources, the "pop" tracks aren't that notable, and Carlos's pieces can't help but seem a bit ... er ... overrated, in terms of their reputation.

That said, the album would not assume a malevolent presence in the collections of most progressive fans. I can't quite recommend it for purchase, but neither can I simply dismiss it as a bastardization of higher forms of culture.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 18 April 1998)

[ Tentative reviews home | index by artist | Previous | Next ]