Great Scott!

Pub date January 2, 2008
WriterErik Morse
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Though orchestra leader and electronics pioneer Raymond Scott may not exactly have been a household name, his sonic inventiveness succeeded in seeping across the larger social synapse of America’s television generation. Credited with founding 20th-century music’s dubiously named exotica genre — a kind of pop counterpart to art brut that included everything from Claude Debussy’s Javanese tribalism to Clara Rockmore’s theremin, Arthur Lyman’s vibes and chimes to electronic voice phenomena séances — Scott created a corpus that was as unique as it was bizarre.

In fact, Scott’s variety of assorted musical approaches was extraordinary: he composed everything from syncopated so-called cartoon jazz to proto-synthesizer radio jingles to ambient albums for toddlers. "The concept of electronic music for babies in the early 1960s usually strikes folks as either extremely clever and useful or totally insane," says Jeff Winner, aficionado, archivist, and coproducer of many Scott reissues. And truly, Scott’s role as a radiophonic designer and a thoroughly American surrealist in the autodidactic tradition of Joseph Cornell or Stan Brakhage is unparalleled in the almanac of recorded music.

It’s appropriate, then, that this new year marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of a man in whose absence the ether of the 20th century may have sounded radically different — or, at the very least, would have had fewer blurbs, blips, and zoinks. In celebration, the Raymond Scott Archive and Basta Records — the geniuses behind the comprehensive Manhattan Research Inc. (2000) and the 1997 reissue of Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, Volumes 1–3 (Epic, 1963) — are planning a yearlong audio bacchanal that will revisit every major era in the composer’s 50-year career. According to Winner, this will include the release of a documentary by Scott’s only son, Stan Warnow; a series of electronic and jazz rarities recordings; and live tribute concerts on the East and West Coasts.

Born Harry Warnow in 1908 to a Jewish Russian immigrant family in New York City, Scott pursued his early passion for science and music by attending a local Brooklyn technical school before entering the Institute of Musical Art (later the Juilliard School) in the late 1920s. He began his professional career as an in-house musician at CBS, where he worked in varying capacities for the television and radio network — as a session man, orchestra conductor, and creative director — for decades.

In the interim, the always resourceful musician recruited five compeers and formed the Raymond Scott Quintette — so called because, according to Scott, using the correct "<0x2009>‘sextet’ might get your mind off music." Under Scott’s direction, the Quintette produced a striking oeuvre that blended the compositional and stylistic aesthetic of big band jazz, the amorphous motifs of soundtrack and sound effects records, and the playful narratives of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The song titles alone are surrealism in miniature — "New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House," "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," "In an Eighteenth Century Drawing Room," and Scott’s most celebrated and oft-repeated piece, "Powerhouse." So successful were these instrumentals that within months of their debut the Quintette were contracted with 20th Century Fox to score major motion pictures. These songs would also become the adolescent soundtrack of Saturday morning after Warner Bros. secured the rights to the Quintette’s catalog in 1943 and Warner musical director Carl Stalling inserted huge swathes of Scott’s work into the immensely popular Looney Tunes.

Using the generous salary from his work at CBS, Scott bankrolled his own electronics studio — a sort of junior BBC Radiophonic Workshop — which he christened Manhattan Research in 1946. Though its initial function was to produce radio ads and jingles, the Long Island, NY, laboratory’s true purpose was to develop unheard and unimagined forms of electromechanical and synthesized tones. Predating the widespread use of integrated circuits and analog synthesis, the photocell tone generators and polyphonic sequencers constructed at Manhattan Research were completely unprecedented in sound technology.

"Given the amazing, tiny, and cheap technology that’s everywhere today, it’s a real challenge for us moderns to appreciate how difficult and s-l-o-w the process was," Winner explains. "It was always laborious, tedious, and extremely time-consuming. Designing, theorizing, soldering, then testing…. Wiring, rewiring, and testing again and again…. Hour after hour, year after year — literally — decade after decade."

The records spawned from these contraptions — the Clavivox, the Electronium, and the Circle Machine — often consisted of limpid pools of sustained sound multitracked with sharp sine wave helices and processed glitches. The almost childlike primitivism and free-form tonality that template Scott’s work bely its enchanting subtlety, prefiguring the kraut rock pastoralism of Brian Eno and the lush microtones of contemporary digital artists Christian Fennesz and Nobukazu Takemura. In fact, Winner recalls that when a colleague introduced Eno to Scott’s music years ago, Eno "was indeed impressed. He agreed that some of Scott’s electronic music is similar to some of his own."

Though his success as a producer and inventor was subordinated to his very popular role as an orchestra conductor and jazzman — creating a kind of night-and-day personality that alternated between the smiling TV bandleader and the dial-twisting mad scientist — Scott continued his nocturnal research unabated. Along the way, the once-gregarious musician became more obsessive and secretive regarding his unwieldy instruments, some of which extended wall to wall with their untranslatable, blinking consoles.

The fruits of his labor only became clear later, as the impact of Scott’s brilliance was measured in the younger technologists and musicians who joined his mission in the ’50s and ’60s. Budding musical technician Robert Moog began working with Scott long before he invented the first modular synthesizer that bears his name. Motown impresario Berry Gordy was so impressed with Scott’s mysterious Electronium that he recruited the inventor to the label’s expanding R&D department and bankrolled Manhattan Research’s 1971 move to California, where Scott would spend his final professional years toiling unapologetically on the apparatus.

"During [those years,] among the very few who were thinking about electroinstruments, no one foresaw a consumer market for hardware," Winner explains of Scott’s lifelong work. "Almost no one wanted those kinds of sounds yet." With this centennial celebration — and a bevy of new studio discoveries — Scott’s work may finally be recognized for its uncompromising beauty and understood as the revolving soundtrack for a century of technology and dreams, human and machine.