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Circle Machines and Sequencers

December 1, 2001
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When the Raymond Scott revival kicked off nearly a decade ago, the composer's name was commonly confused with noir novelist Raymond Chandler and actor Randolph Scott. Lately a different case of mistaken identity has emerged. Was Raymond Scott (1908-94) a quasi-jazz alchemist from the late '30s Swing Era whose melodies later underscored Bugs Bunny and Ren and Stimpy cartoons? Or was he the unsuspecting godfather of the modern genres of techno, electronica, and ambient music?

These two historical roles might seem incompatible, yet they coexist within the same enigmatic figure. The two roles aren't paradoxical; instead, they exhibit an idiosyncratic continuity.

SCOTT'S SECRET SCIENCE

Many of Scott's playful riffs—originally recorded from 1937 to 1939 by the Raymond Scott Quintette—are genetically encoded in almost every human being, thanks to their use by Warner Bros. music director Carl Stalling in 120 episodes of Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes animated classics. More recently, these and other themes were featured in a dozen episodes of Nickelodeon's Ren & Stimpy Show. The popular rediscovery of Scott's original novelty jazz recordings (which began with the 1992 Columbia CD release Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights) led to a belated reappraisal of Scott's timeless—and long forgotten—genius.

Throughout the 1990s, his early works were covered by the Kronos Quartet, Don Byron, Foetus, Holland's Metropole Orchestra, the Beau Hunks Sextette, and countless other admirers. David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet said his first introduction to Scott's music in 1992 "was like being given the name of a composer I feel I have heard my whole life, who until now was nameless. Clearly he is a major American composer."

Awareness of the other side of his career, as an electronic music pioneer, began in 1997 with the reissue of Scott's 1963 Soothing Sounds for Baby trilogy. These albums, largely overlooked upon their original release, contained gentle—and all-electronic—works meant to calm and delight infants. Scott's pioneering and little-heard explorations of synthesized rhythmic minimalism and low-key ambience foreshadowed the subsequent conjurings of Terry Riley, Phillip Glass, Kraftwerk, and Brian Eno. That most of Scott's ethereal music was performed on vacuum tube- and transistor-rigged music machines - ones he designed and built - made the reemergence of these recordings seem like the Dead Sea Scrolls of electronica.

But Soothing Sounds for Baby couldn't possibly prepare the world for the exotic artifacts found on the recent two-CD set, Manhattan Research Inc. The 69 tracks on Manhattan Research Inc. cover Scott's groundbreaking electronic work from 1953 to 1969. Forays into abstract musique concrete can be heard alongside decidedly nonkiddie collaborations with a young, pre-Muppet Jim Henson.

In addition, Manhattan Research Inc. presents some of the first TV and radio commercials to employ electronic music soundtracks. The package moved Can's Holger Czukay to disbelief. "Raymond Scott belongs to the phalanx of unique people like Les Paul, Oscar Sala, and Leon Theremin, to whom we owe so much in developing our own musical identity today," Czukay says.

ELECTRIFIED SWING

Before Scott embarked on a professional music career in 1931—at his older brother's insistence—he intended to pursue engineering. As a result of his fascination with technology, Scott's knowledge of radio and recording studios showed a sophistication rarely seen among composers and bandleaders. Throughout his life, Scott explored music technology with a Nobel laureate's dedication. He revolutionized the art of microphone placement, and spent many of his band's recording sessions in the control room, monitoring the mix.

A June 1937 article in Down Beat, titled "Engineer-Musician Electrifies Swing World With Ideas," described Scott's New York City apartment as "divided into two parts: in one the dominant note was the piano and phonograph; and in the other was all sorts of recording equipment, with microphones all over the place and long wires trailing across the floor." The feature explored Scott's science of "creative acoustics," which involved using a mic to manipulate and capture sounds that differ from those heard by the naked ear. A November 1937 Popular Mechanics feature, "Radio Music of the Future," described Scott "placing a `dead' microphone beside the piano and then turning it on only after the keys have been struck [to] catch the ghostlike effect" of aftertones that are "ethereal, disembodied, [and have] a sense of great space."

MANHATTAN R&D

As a composer, Scott was a strict perfectionist with little tolerance for improvisation, which triggered the ire of many jazz purists. He earned notoriety as a session tyrant and was commonly criticized for treating his sidemen and vocalists as hardware. "All he ever had was machines—only we had names," said drummer Johnny Williams. Singer Anita O'Day, who worked briefly with Scott's early 1940s big band, called him "a martinet" who "reduced [musicians] to something like wind-up toys."

In 1946—the same year he composed the score for the Mary Martin/Yul Brynner Broadway production Lute Song—Scott established Manhattan Research Inc. to expand the horizons of electronic sound generation (see Fig. 1). From 1950 to 1957, Scott financed his technological excursions by conducting the orchestra on NBC's cornball, but highly rated, chart-countdown show, Lucky Strike's Your Hit Parade (a gig he allegedly despised for its banality). Raymond and his second wife, singer Dorothy Collins, were seen on the little screen in millions of American households every week. However, few suspected the alter ego lurking behind the conductor's forced stage smile.

FIG. 1: Raymond Scott in the studio in the 1950s. To test the sound of his recordings, he had an assortment of speakers. At his left is the studio''s main audio control center.

At the dawn of the '60s, Scott advertised Manhattan Research Inc. as "the world's most extensive facility for the creation of Electronic Music and Musique Concrete." A slogan for his venture was "more than a think factory—a dream center where the excitement of tomorrow is made available today."

By spending more of his time soldering circuits and less with union-scale sidemen, Scott eventually dispensed with the human element altogether. He was more comfortable around machines; Scott spoke their language—or taught them to speak his. As Electronic Music Foundation president Joel Chadabe says, "Scott's music is so perfectly crafted, so lyrical and easy, so completely charming and good-natured, that it seems all the more wonderful, even mysterious, that much of it was created with the sophisticated and complex technology he invented. Scott developed his instruments to make his music and did it so well that what you hear is the music."

The inventions evolved according to the whims of Scott's boundless curiosity. In March 1946, he patented an electromechanical synthesizer called the Orchestra Machine. An obscure ancestor of the tape loop-based Mellotron, it featured a keyboard that could simulate an ensemble of traditional musicians. "This machine is a device incorporating a number of multiple soundtrack units, that may be selected as would the musical instruments in an orchestra," Scott wrote in the patent disclosure. "The entire mechanical driving system's speed may be varied in order to select any particular musical pitch."

Two years later, he began a decade of work on a behemoth sound-effects generator that he eventually christened Karloff (after horror-film legend Boris Karloff) (see Fig. 2). Scott demonstrated the unit to columnist Joseph Kaselow of the New York Herald Tribune. "The heart of the unit is a control panel with some hundred or so buttons and dials from which Scott can get an infinite number of rhythms and sound combinations—treble, bass, beeping, swishing, honking - you name it," Kaselow said. "Scott's machine, actually a control console which selects, modifies, and combines sounds produced by electronic means, has 200 sound sources and is capable of quickly producing infinite and varied musical and electronic effects. The machine uses several electronic tone generators, and others can be added. The control panel directs pitch, timbre, intensity, tempo, accent, and repetition. It can sound like a group of bongo drums. It can give impressions which suggest common noises. It can create the mood of musical tone-poems. And it can also produce limitless emotional variations to suit a variety of musical styles. All, of course, if Scott is at the controls."

WALL OF SOUND

A 20-year-old Columbia University student named Robert Moog and his father were among the privileged few who witnessed Scott's obsessions in action. At the time, the Moogs were building theremins in their basement. Scott wanted to obtain the instrument's electronic subassembly, and so he invited the Moogs to tour his facility in Manhasset, New York.

FIG. 2: Raymond Scott playing the Clavivox in the 1950s. Karloff, the instrument behind him, was a sound-effects generator that could also do simple drum-pattern sequencing.

"First, Raymond showed us his recording studio. Then a very large room with a cutting lathe and all sorts of monitoring and mixing equipment," Moog says. "The entire downstairs was a dream workshop consisting of a large room with machine tools of the highest quality; a woodworking shop; an electronics assembly room; and a large, thoroughly equipped stockroom of electronic parts. My father and I were there with our mouths hanging open."

This encounter commenced a social and professional relationship between Moog and Scott that lasted for nearly two decades. "When I first worked for Scott in the early 1950s, he had a very large laboratory," Moog says. "One room was completely filled with rack upon rack of relays, motors, steppers, and electronic circuits. Raymond would go around and adjust various things to change the sound patterns. I'd never seen anything like it. It was a huge, electromechanical `sequencer.'" Scott called it his Wall of Sound. (See Fig. 3 and the sidebar "Genesis of the Sequencer.")

Scott used the Moogs' theremin module in the first prototype of his keyboard synthesizer, the Clavivox, which he patented in 1956. (See Fig. 4). A few years before meeting the Moogs, Scott fashioned a toy theremin for his daughter Carrie. "I must have been 11 or 12, which would be around 1950 or 1951," says Carrie Makover. "I had seen a Broadway play called Mrs. McThing which used a theremin, and I loved the way it sounded. But after my dad built it, I discovered I couldn't play it. So he took it back and made it into something else."

The resulting synthesizer allowed a player to glide smoothly from one note to another without a break over a 3-octave keyboard. It could be played with an expressive portamento rather than with discrete pitches only. Subsequent improvements allowed staccato attacks, on/off vibrato toggling, and many other effects. It could also simulate many traditional instruments.

"This was not a theremin anymore," Moog says. "Raymond quickly realized there were more elegant ways of controlling an electronic circuit." In subsequent models, Scott used photocells and a steady light source beamed through photographic film graded from opaque to transparent. This varied the voltage, which changed the pitch of the tone generator. The waveform of the sound determined the tone color, and the methods of altering the waveform were similar to modern analog synths. "A lot of the sound-producing circuitry of the Clavivox resembled very closely the first analog synthesizer my company made in the mid-'60s," Moog says. "Some of the sounds are not the same, but they're close."

RACE AGAINST THE CLOCK

The discipline Scott, a relentless workaholic, imposed on his musicians came naturally to himself. In 1957, at age 50, he endured his first encounter with serious heart trouble. "I had many dead spots around my body," Scott wrote in his journal. "Cardiac specialists gave me one year to live." Instead of slowing, Scott's pace increased. Perhaps Scott realized that, besides outmaneuvering competitors, he was also pitted against the undertaker's pocket watch.

Around 1959, Scott designed and built the Circle Machine, a more compact electronic sequencer. Dr. Thomas Rhea, music synthesis professor at the Berklee College of Music, visited Scott many times in the early '70s and remembers the Circle Machine as "an analog waveform generator that was this crazy, whirling-dervish thing. It had a ring of incandescent lamps, each with its own rheostat, and a photo-electric cell on a spindle that twirled in a circle above the lights." Each bulb's intensity was individually adjustable, as was the rotation speed of the photocell. As the lights brightened, the pitch ascended. Arm rotation speed governed the rhythm. The lights could be stag-gered in brightness, and depending on the pattern, the tone sequence generated would change. The Circle Machine was capable of a wide range of unearthly sounds, as heard in numerous commercial jingles Scott recorded during the late 1950s and early 1960s (many of them are included on Manhattan Research Inc.).

FIG. 3: Raymond Scott''s Wall of Sound, which Bob Moog later described as an electromechanical sequencer. The Wall was 30 feet long and contained thousands of stepping switches. Its music needed to be played loud in order to drown out the clicking of the switches.

Building on the foundations of, and cannibalizing components from, his Karloff generator and Wall of Sound sequencer, Scott developed the first version of his "instantaneous composition/performance machine" in the late 1950s. He named it the Raymond Scott Electronium (no relation to the German Hohner electronium), and it became the most ambitious and resource-consuming project of his life (see Fig. 5). Laboring for decades, Scott developed it in many different incarnations, all of which shared his artificial intelligence technology. "The entire system is based on the concept of Artistic Collaboration Between Man and Machine," Scott wrote in a patent disclosure. "The new structures being directed into the machine are unpredictable in their details, and hence the results are a kind of duet between the composer and the machine."

Instead of a traditional, piano-style keyboard, the Electronium was "guided" by a complex series of buttons and switches, arranged in orderly rows. The system was capable of "instantaneous composition and performance" of polyphonic rhythmic structures, as well as tasking preset programs. With Scott controlling the sonorities, tempos, and timbres, he and his machine could compose, perform, and record all at once. The parts weren't multitracked; rather, voices, rhythms, and melodies originated simultaneously in real time.

"A composer `asks' the Electronium to `suggest' an idea, theme, or motive," Scott wrote in the user manual. "To repeat it, but in a higher key, he pushes the appropriate button. Whatever the composer needs: faster, slower, a new rhythm design, a hold, a pause, a second theme, variation, an extension, elongation, diminution, counterpoint, a change of phrasing, an ornament, ad infinitum. It is capable of a seemingly inexhaustible palette of musical sounds and colors, rhythms, and harmonies. Whatever the composer requests, the Electronium accepts and acts out his directions. The Electronium adds to the composer's thoughts, and a duet relationship is set up."

"It was always this kind of metaphysical, almost magical thing, about literally thinking things to the point where they would happen," says Herb Deutsch, a Hofstra University music professor who worked with Moog to develop the first Moog synthesizer in 1964. Deutsch, who also worked for Scott, remembered one of his colleague's visionary objectives. "He wanted to take the work out of being a musician," Deutsch says. "That used to really get me upset. He said, `Look, I just want to sit here, and I'd like to turn this machine on, and whenever it does something good, I just want to record it at that point.' It was not that he was a lazy guy - far from it. He worked incredibly hard to take the work out of being a composer."

Circuitry expert Alan Entenman assisted Scott. "What Ray did was to recognize that music has repetitions and patterns, and he envisioned a machine that would incorporate those patterns," Entenman says. "He thought of it as `an orchestra with a thousand voices.' It had plug-in modules, and each module was a synthesizer of his own design that was capable of making a wide variety of sounds. Each one he would give a different voice, and what he kept telling me was, that if you listen to music, it's repetition. You could repeat notes in a different tone. What made his Electronium successful was his knowledge of composition. Being a composer, he knew how to construct music from these things - and it really worked.

"This thing could make any kind of music you could imagine," Entenman says. "One time he had [what] he described as this real sexy, `raunchy jazz' coming out of this thing. He and [electronic instrument inventor/composer] Bruce Haack were just in heaven.

"I understand the secret, to some extent," Entenman says. "The harmonics are precise mathematical multiples, and when something vibrates, there are overtones. The way you blend these overtones, and the amount of offset they have with one another, gives it warmth. That's what he would do to get it to sound rich. He'd couple that with the melodious, rhythmic patterns he built into it. He would program how it was repeated, and in what key it would be repeated, so it was like gears within gears."

MOTOWN MAESTRO

Refining the Electronium was Scott's primary focus throughout the 1960s, when integrated circuits made smaller and more efficient designs possible. Scott asked Moog to "sophisticate my equipment. The concept is the same as I've had for many years now. And you're the scientist who will make these things small, more compact, and with fewer parts." Moog replaced Scott's 8-stage "sequential timer" relays with electronic stepping switches.

Despite another bout of heart trouble in 1967, Scott continued to focus full-time on his Electronium. By the end of the 1960s, he had invested more than a decade—and more than a million dollars—in refining his brainchild. But Scott's health was failing, and his once-substantial royalties were dwindling.

FIG. 4: Scott''s keyboard synthesizer, the Clavivox, was patented in 1956. The pictured Clavivox, which resides in the Audities Foundation collection, was recently used by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

In August 1970, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy read an article in Variety about Scott's work. The Los Angeles-based music mogul immediately phoned Scott and asked to see - and hear - this miraculous invention. Soon, a sizable Motown entourage arrived at Scott's Farmingdale, New York, facility in a fleet of limos. "It was genius meeting genius," Motown executive Guy Costa said in 1997. "Berry certainly respected Ray and his knowledge, and Ray admired Berry."

Gordy was impressed by Scott's Beethoven-in-a-box. "Berry felt that the power of the Electronium, the ability to numeralize the music process, was important," Costa said. "Berry was always a formula man; he'd find a rhythm or a progression and build on that. The Electronium gave you the ability to play a chord, and the ability to store rhythms, and resequence those things. To have all these new effects was a turn-on."

One month later, Gordy placed an order for an Electronium. The initial down payment was $10,000, but it would eventually cost Motown millions. Costa arranged for shipment of the device from New York to Gordy's home in Los Angeles. Scott planned to spend six weeks tutoring the Motown chief on the device. When Gordy asked Scott to make further modifications, the inventor was happy to comply and continued working in Southern California, with his client involved in the progress.

Eventually, Gordy offered Scott a position as head of Motown's Electronic Research and Development department. Scott accepted, and in 1972 he relocated to the West Coast with his third wife, Mitzi. Equipped with his own research studio facility, Scott continued to develop the Electronium and other technologies. "Berry was looking at the Electronium as a source of inspiration and new ideas, and as a methodology—as a sophisticated programmable sequencer," Costa said. "It was an idea stimulator, a creative thought processor. Maybe [they would] find combinations that hadn't been tried. It could have done anything he wanted it to do."

Following a serious heart attack in 1977, Scott retired at age 69. "Ray was a wonderful guy," Costa said. "I can't tell you how much fun we had together. He was the experimenter; the mad professor." What Motown had to show commercially for its investment remains a mystery, as no tapes have yet surfaced from the company's vaults.

THE CLOCK RUNS OUT

After continued heart problems in the late 1970s, Scott was no longer on music technology's cutting edge. He tried to upgrade his devices with microprocessors but lost valuable research time due to illness. "By then, he had destroyed the Electronium by vandalizing it for parts for other things he was working on," Costa said. "And new electronics had come so far, that they could do with one little chip what he had tons of wiring doing on the Electronium. It didn't pay to keep working on it."

But Scott didn't give up. Despite deteriorating health (including heart bypass surgery), he continued to work, even while bedridden. In the mid-1980s, he modified a Yamaha DX-7 and used MIDI to connect the keyboard to his Electronium through a PC purchased in 1981. "I got involved in an exciting project," the 75-year-old wrote in his journal in June 1983. "For three months I slept an average of about 50 hours weekly. Then I folded. Symptoms of folding: extreme fatigue, wobbly walking, accumulation of chest pains, zero energy output capability." A major stroke in 1987 closed down the shop completely. Even more tragic, Scott could barely speak, rendering him unable to answer questions when interest in his work revived in 1992. He died in February 1994 at age 85.

VISIONARY OUTLOOK

FIG. 5: This is the final version of the Raymond Scott Electronium, created for Berry Gordy of Motown. This “instantaneous composition/performance machine” was capable of playing highly complex music and is now owned by Mark Mothersbaugh.

"I understand his ideas about the collaboration between man and machine, which to me is the most important thing he did, in terms of electronics and music," says Berklee professor Dr. Thomas Rhea. "He anticipated some artificial intelligence concepts and some compositional concepts that people believe somebody else did. The idea of collaborating with a machine, and allowing the machine to make certain decisions, was pretty avant-garde.

"I appreciate everything Cage did, and Stockhausen," Rhea says. "But there's a whole tradition here that's being ignored, and Raymond Scott is one of those people." Moog recently spoke to the BBC about his old colleague. "Raymond was the first," Moog said. "He foresaw the use of sequencers, and the use of electronic oscillators, to make sounds. These were the watershed uses of electronic circuitry."

Jeff Winner is the creator of RaymondScott .com and coproducer of Manhattan Research Inc., a two-CD and book set of Raymond Scott''s early electronic work. Irwin Chusid is the director of the Raymond Scott Archives. His study of outsider music, Songs in the Key of Z, was recently published by A Cappella Books. For audio examples of Raymond Scott''s instruments, visit www.raymondscott.com/sound.

SIDEBARS

GENESIS OF THE SEQUENCER

Gentlemen: I have a story that may be of interest to you.

It is not widely known who invented the circuitry concept for the automatic 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 sequencer.

Bob Moog, who visited me occasionally at my lab on Long Island, was among the first to see and witness the performance of my UJT-Relay sequencer.

To digress for a bit: I was so secretive about my development activities—perhaps neurotically so—that I was always reminding Bob that he mustn't copy or reveal my sequencer work to anyone. I understand, now, my personal need for secrecy at that time. Electronic music for commercials and films was my living then—and I thought I had this great advantage—because it was my sequencer.

Word naturally got around about the nature of what my device accomplished, but Bob Moog continued to be loyal. I must say Bob Moog is a most honorable person. He steadfastly refrained from embodying my sequencer in his equipment line until the sheer pressure of so many manufacturers using the sequencer forced him to compete. Yet, he used the simplest version, though he knew about my most advanced sequencer. Quite a gentleman, and a super talent besides.

Now, with the passing of years, I guess I regret my secrecy and would like for people to know of what I accomplished.

—Raymond Scott, circa the late 1970s (from an unaddressed letter found in his personal papers)

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

One Clavivox (of at least three known to have been built) still exists—and still works. It is one of many vintage electronic instruments owned by the Audities Foundation (www.audities.org) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, under the directorship of David Kean. The Clavivox was used recently by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on the album Echo.

The Motown version of the Raymond Scott Electronium was bought from Scott's widow, Mitzi, by composer/musician and Devo cofounder Mark Mothersbaugh, who houses it at his Mutato Muzika studios in Hollywood. At Mutato, there's a room where Scott's unique device for "Machine Powered Instantaneous Musical Composition and Performance" has been collecting dust since 1996. Partly eviscerated by the inventor for spare parts, it no longer functions. Mothersbaugh has promised to restore it to working order.

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