Life, Living and Loving: Mrs. Fever’s September Song Project 2022: “Sheep May Safely Graze (Cantata #208)”

01 Sep

I woke up thinking about this song and the first time I heard it and as performed by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos on an amazing instrument called a Moog synthesizer and on the album, “Switched-On Bach.” That album changed how I looked at music and, yeah, I wanted to learn this. I was already learning how to play both organ and piano but this Moog thing fascinated the shit out of me because it was an organ, piano, and a shitload of other instruments… and none of them.

On the album cover, there’s a picture of the Moog Walter performed on and the thing that blew my mind was that every piece of music performed was done one note at a time! Today’s keyboards are all polyphonic, meaning they can play more than one note at a time but the album was recorded in 1968 and I’d heard it not long after it came out and, again, it blew my mind. We were learning Bach’s music in music class and playing some things orchestrally – as well as going to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra play and I was already in love with Bach’s music but this, wow. This.

I’m in the shower and hearing the piece in my head and remembering my… feeble attempts to play it on conventional keyboards (organ and piano) and, whew; playing it as composed for organ pretty much made me insane and I’m lathering up and laughing at that younger version of myself and thinking, “Yeah, ya didn’t know about MIDI back then, did ya?” I was also laughing to remember how me playing that album over and over drove my mom batty because she hated the “tinny” sound of the Moog synth and compared to the more modern synths, yeah, it didn’t sound all that great…

But my mind was blown just the same. Bach’s music isn’t what I’d call… uncomplicated. Indeed, music of that period tended to be rather complex in composition but seriously expressive at the same time. One other piece on the album, “Air on a G String” stole my heart. I’d heard it played orchestrally but on the Moog? Masterful. Soulful. One frigging note at a time and even more mind blowing when I saw the score for this piece; mind forever blown to see the score for “Sheep May Safely Graze” and, again, I went through some shit learning to play it on organ… but I learned it.

But I wanted to learn synthesis. I wanted to play Bach this way. I would, one day, sit down at my keyboard rig and with some software and a mess of MIDI cables, I played “Air on a G String,” not exactly how Wendy did it in 1968 but close enough for government work. I never tried “Sheep” but I was sure I could have pulled it off. I’m still showering, and this piece is “on repeat” in my head and if you’ve never listened to “Switched-on Bach” – but have heard orchestras play it – it’s… the same but not really. It’s fucking amazing that Walter (before he was Wendy) was able to express Bach in the way he did… one frigging note at a time.

I would read about how the album was produced and the ground-breaking techniques that had to be created; I thought that I would have not wanted to be the recording engineer who had to put all of this together – and get it right.

I had, a long time ago, ripped the CD to my computer and while I’ve been typing all of this, I’ve been listening to the album and… it still stirs my heart and soul. I would get “Switched-on Bach II” and, later, get the “revised” version of “Switched-on Bach” that Wendy Carlos did using modern day synths and it was nice… but I still love the original recording. “Impossibly” done one note at a time. All those patch cords. Understanding that synths like Robert Moog’s had “kinda” been around for a while but no one had used one like this. It was brilliant. Genius. Took classical music and turned it on its head.

Ah, man. Sitting at my keyboard rig with my son who is also classically trained on piano, and we’re both taking turns playing it as written but accepting the challenge of using MIDI and Sonar – the software I used to “put it all together.” Doing some editing to, um, clean up the mistakes I made. Playing it back for the first time and my son and I looking at each other and grinning and as if to say, “Fuck yeah.” Making the challenge of it even harder because I could have just used my Korg workstation to do all of this but to use it and my Technics keyboard? To understand the music as well as the science behind MIDI that would allow me to take two different keyboards and make them work as one?

What a day that was. It tested everything I learned about music and instruments. How to shape sounds and between both keyboards and the Sonar software, it was comparatively easy to do and considering how Walter/Wendy did it back in 1968.

One note at a time. I had it easy since both keyboards were polyphonic and by default. Looking at the sheet music and recording it one piece at a time and with the different voices and as many of the nuances that I could manage, like pizzicato violins. Getting the soulful tones of the oboe just right. What a day. It took me almost a week to put it all together since I was doing it after a “hard day’s work” doing my job and in between my normal day-to-day-at-home stuff. Yeah, I had to explain to my wife and poly wife why I was bothering to do this when, duh, I could just play the CD and, yeah, maybe they couldn’t understand what it meant to me, as a musician, to be able to do this myself.

They thought I was crazy and maybe I was… but I did it. And now I’m trying to remember if I still have that recording. I might and might not. I’ll look for it but don’t hold me to it because it could have gotten lost somewhere along the line. I still have my Korg workstation and enough of the MIDI stuff for it. I’d have to get some software to really make it all work as well as getting my hands on the full score, but yeah, I think I can do the song that is now stuck in my head about sheep safely grazing.

To bring this first offering for Mrs. Fever’s September Song Project to a close, I can easily remember complaining my ass off about practicing when I could have been doing other stuff (like getting laid in particular); I can remember spending hours not only learning whatever music I was trying to learn but developing the proper techniques to get the best out of whatever instrument I was practicing on, like spending x-amount of time with trumpet, then more time with piano. Being reminded by my mother that the only way I can be better at this was to keep practicing and even when I didn’t feel like it or felt that it wasn’t even necessary.

And it paid off for me the day I took on Bach and Wendy Carlos. I remember how I felt to hear the playback once I got it into some kind of decent shape and… fuck yeah.


Posted by on 1 September 2022 in Life, Living and Loving


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2 responses to “Life, Living and Loving: Mrs. Fever’s September Song Project 2022: “Sheep May Safely Graze (Cantata #208)”

  1. Mrs Fever

    1 September 2022 at 19:11

    It’s so strange to look back sometimes and realize how much EXTRA work “new tech” can create — your Moog example is exactly that. Polyphonic keyboards have been around for so long now, people forget that the ability to create chorded sound did not exist when that technology was new; one note had to be recorded, then another layered on. Etc. And timing! You’d have to be a human metronome to really get it perfect!

    My most memorable Bach piece is probably Invention No. 1 for piano. I spent a good deal of time with that composition in my teens; the crispness of detail in such a short form was something that drew me in repeatedly. All of Johann Sebastian’s music is like that, I think. It’s one of the aspects of Baroque music that separates the period so distinctly from Classical and Romantic.

    Thank you for playing along! I enjoyed reading this and look forward to what else this month’s musical musings will bring. 🙂


    • kdaddy23

      1 September 2022 at 19:47

      I had to learn and play the Inventions leaning piano and the detail and precision are maddening… but when you get it, you get Bach and the intricate way he saw music.



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