so you wanna get into... raymond scott
"the music you are listening to is completely electronic and has been created and produced on equipment designed and manufactured by manhattan research, a division of raymond scott enterprises, inc."
|Feb 24, 2020|
welcome to issue #6 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every second and fourth monday, and on off-weeks we publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers. this week we’ve got an overview of raymond scott’s weird life and weird(er?) work.
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raymond scott is known, by those who know him at all, either as the guy who wrote the looney tunes songs or as an obscure early electronic musician. there’s an argument to be made, however, that raymond scott is among the most important musical thinkers of the twentieth century. here’s a list of things he did:
convinced cbs radio executives in the 1930s that original music, rather than just standards, belonged on the air
insisted in the early ‘40s that he be able to hire any musicians he wanted for the cbs orchestra, leading to the first racially integrated radio band in the united states
created one of the first synthesizers, the clavivox, in 1952
invented the sequencer, 1960
mentored bob moog while he was inventing the moog synthesizer
invented a whole slew of weird electronic instruments including the videola, the rhythm synthesizer, the pitch sequencer, the bassline generator, the voice modulator, and a drum machine called “bandito the bongo artist”
ran research & development for motown records in the seventies
and this one is not really music-related, but he also invented the fax machine. seriously.
if a person did just one of these things he would be worthy of a place in musical history, but raymond scott did all of them and, until the mid-1990s, was completely forgotten. let’s take “invented the sequencer” as an example. the sequencer is arguably the most important electronic music device after the synthesizer itself, but in the late ‘80s scott had to write the following letter to an unknown addressee:
I have a story that may be of interest to you.
It is not widely known who invented the circuitry concept for the sequential performance of musical pitches—now well known as a “sequencer.”
I, however, do know who the inventor was—for it was I who first conceived and built the electronic sequencer back in 1960.
This concept for my musical pitch sequencer was triggered by the introduction in 1959 of the Wurlitzer Drum Machine called the Sideman—a rotating mechanical disc switching device that produced an electronically generated sequence of drum sounds.
It immediately occurred to me—Why not build a device that would automatically sequence through a string of musical pitches?
Using thyratron tubes and relays I contructed my first electronic “sequencer” by the spring of 1960.
why did scott fall off the map? the letter gives us a clue. scott continues, “During these early ‘60s I was so secretive about my development activities—perhaps neurotically so. Now, with the passing of years, I guess I regret my secrecy and would like for people to know what I accomplished.” while scott was working on the most important of his inventions, he was terrified that someone else would steal his ideas. a clip from scott’s son’s excellent documentary about him shows scott on edward r. murrow’s Person to Person television show in 1955. he shows murrow a simple recording device even though he was working on much more complex electronic instruments at the time. his paranoia that someone would steal his ideas after seeing them on t.v. ironically fated him to obscurity, as this opportunity to tie his name to his inventions on a national broadcast would have certainly boosted his reputation. instead, he came across as a nervous composer who just liked to fiddle around with recording equipment.
there is no indication that scott’s letter was ever sent. but still, he got his wish, albeit posthumously, that people know what he accomplished. in the late ‘80s, a record collector named byron werner came across a scott record which grabbed his attention, and he began collecting scott albums and making compilation tapes that he passed around to people like mark mothersbaugh and wfmu’s irwin chusid. chusid contacted scott’s third wife and offered to represent him to get his work back in circulation. she agreed, and throughout the ‘90s a scott revival began to take shape. chusid founded the raymond scott archives, and along with dutch musician gert-jan blom and producer jeff winner has spearheaded a massive project to restore scott’s reputation and to make his music commercially available once again.
raymond scott’s music doesn’t exist as traditional albums that he recorded and sequenced himself, with a few exceptions. instead, there are major compilations that serve as the best introduction to his work. his early work with the raymond scott quintet was distributed via radio and t.v. and 78 rpm records which were later collected and compiled as Microphone Music (2002) and Ectoplasm (2008). then, his later electronic experiments were posthumously compiled and released as Manhattan Research, Inc. (2000) and Three Willow Park: Electronic Music from Inner Space, 1961–1971 (2017).
the albums that were released during his lifetime are Raymond Scott and His Orchestra (1953), This Time with Strings (1957), Rock ‘n Roll Symphony (1958), and The Secret 7: The Unexpected (1960). all of these albums either provide worse versions of songs found elsewhere (This Time with Strings) or are frankly unrecommendable (Rock ‘n Roll Symphony), so the best bet is to start with the compilations. as such, i won’t provide an album ranking but rather an overview of his insane career, with a couple glimpses at his personal life. we’ll proceed thusly: The Raymond Scott Quintet(s), 1934-1949; Lute Song, 1946; Soothing Sounds for Baby I-III, 1963; Electronic Invention and Experimentation, 1946-71.
then, stick around til the end for a special limited-time surprise for all you devoted readers.
The Raymond Scott Quintet(s), 1934-1949
raymond scott was born harry warnow in 1908. he later changed his name to raymond scott to seem less jewish, which was not unusual for those with showbiz ambitions at the time (he would also get a rhinoplasty to alter his appearance to seem less jewish, which certainly was unusual and hints at deeper problems—especially as he tried to convince his first wife to do the same). his older brother mark warnow headed the cbs orchestra in the ‘30s and hired scott as the pianist. scott then got a few folks from the cbs orchestra to play in his own group, the raymond scott quintet (sometimes quintette). for the group, he composed hyperbusy jazz-pop songs with titles like “new year’s eve in a haunted house” and “dinner music for a pack of hungry cannibals.”
the above video is the only extant live footage of the raymond scott quintet performing their most famous song, “powerhouse.” if you are a keen observer you will spot an apparent error: there are six performers in this quintet! this is because scott was an insane person who thought the word “sextet” would make people too horny. really.
anyhow, the quintet was scott’s main creative endeavor during the late 1930s and ‘40s. it was massively, massively successful, making scott nationally famous and convincing cbs executives that there could exist “music that the listener likes the first time they hear it.” previous to this, apparently, cbs would only air standards because they thought folks would get angry and smash their radio like king kong if they heard a new song. scott’s songs were all over the radio, in looney tunes cartoons, and even in shirley temple movies. ellington and stravinsky admired him. he was truly living the dream.
in 1938, he took over his brother’s spot as director of the cbs orchestra and in 1942 he used his considerable leverage to hire black musicians, creating the first racially integrated american radio orchestra. scott is not necessarily a hero on all fronts, however, as in 1942 he also hired dorothy collins, his fifteen-year-old protege, as singer for the orchestra. scott and collins would get married in 1952, by which time she was 25, which is fine and legal i guess, but ooh boy does that situation make me itchy.
Lute Song, 1946
during his time with the cbs orchestra scott was tapped to write the music for the broadway play Lute Song, which today is mainly known as the musical that gave yul brynner his big break. it’s notable to scott-ists because it’s his only non-jazz non-electronic music, and it showcases how lovely he can write a melody for voice. i predict that a re-issue of this will soon have all the kids on tik tok singing “mountain high, valley low,” because i am wildly out of touch.
Soothing Sounds for Baby I-III, 1963
in 1963 the gesell institute of child development collaborated with scott to produce a trilogy of albums meant to help parents with young babies. the idea, apparently, was that every six months you would switch out the lp for the next one in the series until your baby was 18 months old, at which point…? anyway, atrocious marketing, because i think any baby in its right mind would immediately object to this music. for us adults with sophisticated tastes, however, it’s remarkable—some have even suggested that the genesis of ambient music begins with these three albums rather than with Music for Airports. their reissue in 2017 has been a key event in scott’s rehabilitation. but better to leave them for the adults in the room; by now we’ve got better music for babies.
Electronic Invention and Experimentation, 1946-1971
gather ‘round because this is the good part. it’s difficult to limit scott’s inventing and experimenting with electronic music to one era, because even in the ‘30s he was obsessed with microphones and recording equipment. but in 1946 he created his electronic music corporation, manhattan research, inc. and filed the patent for his first instrument, the “orchestra machine,” so it’s as good a place to start as any.
in 1949 he took over for his brother at another job, this time as the conductor on cbs’s Your Hit Parade, after warnow’s untimely death. in 1950 the show moved to nbc t.v., making scott a reluctant t.v. star and also making dorothy collins a much less reluctant t.v. star. after he married collins, scott used his t.v. money to buy a big house and fill it with electronic gadgets. in these 25ish years from ‘49 to ‘71, he invented at least a dozen instruments or electronic music devices. his recordings of these instruments are collected on the two great compilations Manhattan Research, Inc. and Three Willow Park: Electronic Music from Inner Space, 1961–1971, which unearth incredibly great and valuable songs along with interview clips and commercial jingles that, while they are kind of a drag, do represent rare archival evidence of how research into electronic music was funded and thus furthered by Big Soda.
machines that scott invented helped to create the vocabulary of electronic music production, including his “sequencer,” “bassline generator,” and “voice modulator.” he was that rare combination of artist and engineer that could hear a sound in his head and then create a machine that produced it. temperamentally, he was perhaps driven by a need for perfection that he couldn’t find in human players and an ambition that wouldn’t let him stop improving on what he had made. for these reasons he secluded himself in his laboratory, building and then dismantling machine after machine to chase ever-more-absurd ideas about what electronics could do. who knows how many machines were finished but scavenged for parts before they could be patented?
the electronium is perhaps the best representation of what scott was trying to do with electronic music. this behemoth would compose music—not just play back patterns, but randomize elements in order that the composer could let it play and then select segments of audio to build on. berry gordy, founder of motown records, heard about the electronium and ordered one for $10,000. his idea was that it could be used as an idea-generator for new r&b melodies. stipulated with the purchase was that scott would have to fly to california to teach the motown producers to use the machine for six months. initially impressed, gordy offered scott a job as director of electronic music research and development, so scott and his third wife moved west. of course, scott would constantly be tinkering with the machine to try to “improve” it, frustrating the producers and embarrassing gordy when he tried to show off his new purchase to visitors. throughout the ‘70s, his laboratory was at 3 willow park center, a massive building filled with electronic gadgets.
(a restored electronium, from modularsynthesis.com)
finally, in 1977, scott was fired from motown. throughout the ‘80s he would continue to compose music, now on widely available synthesizers that, ironically, were built based on his own inventions. finally, he had a series of strokes that prevented him from composing and impeded his communication until he passed away in 1994. the electronium as it existed at its height of functionality, shown above, represents scott’s dream of electronic music. he called it a “cockpit of dreams”: the composer could sit in front of it and create whatever sounds he could imagine, not only programming the machine but responding to the machine’s suggestions as to what to play. the electronium below, from footage taken in scott’s shed at his house in 1993, represents the state of his dream at his death. dusty, dismantled, broken—but devo’s mark mothersbaugh, along with werner, chusid, blom, and winner, would soon recover the electronium, recuperate scott’s reputation, and re-introduce his work to the world.
(scott’s electronium in his shed in 1993, as videotaped by “bianca bob”)
the raymond scott revival continues apace, with his music still being reissued and remixed. the 2013 album raymond scott rewired featured reimaginings of his music by the bran flakes, the evolution control committee, and go home productions. he’s been sampled by folks like gorillaz, j dilla, and madlib, and his proponents include scholar-artists like dj spooky. for too long he’s been consigned to the “novelty” portion of music fans’ noggins, but as his music is being taken increasingly seriously, now is the time to jump on the bandwagon and familiarize yourself with his most important work. and with that in mind, i have a…
Bonus Gift for All You Loyal Readers!
(image from raymondscott.net)
because you’re such a sweetheart for reading, i’ve created an .mp3 album of the best of raymond scott’s electronic music. its 21 tracks include the best full songs from the compilations Manhattan Research, Inc. and Three Willow Park: Electronic Music from Inner Space 1961-1971. both of these compilations are incredibly important but, as i mentioned above, the listening experience is marred somewhat by the inclusion of short commercials that scott produced for general motors, vicks, hostess, and other corporations. my hope is that by focusing on his completed songs i’ve foregrounded scott’s compositional skills. download it quick though because the wetransfer link expires in a week. if you like what you hear go buy the full albums. also do let me know if this type of downloadable bonus content is of interest and i’ll try and do it more often.
alright that’s it folks. if you want to know more about raymond scott i recommend the official website at raymondscott.net and, if you have a few extra bucks, the documentary produced by his son stan warnow. see you next week!