To start with the hypothetical: If you were an American composer trying to eke out a living in the immediate aftermath of World War II, odds are you were writing for a big band or a small jazz ensemble. Now, let's say you had the stones to break out of that format and venture into the alien territory of electronic sound; you really didn't have much to work with back then except a theremin, a reel-to-reel tape machine (if you could find and afford one), a microphone and a razor blade. But if you were musician and inventor Raymond Scott, that simply wasn't enough — not by a long shot.
A graduate of Juilliard, Scott was an adequate pianist whose fascination with machines followed him throughout his budding music career. That journey started in the mid-1930s, when he recruited a quintet (simply called the Raymond Scott Quintette) that recorded a long string of his unusually wacky jazz compositions. Unbeknownst to Scott at the time, that music would end up serving as the sound bed for dozens of the early Looney Tunes cartoons (and, decades later, select episodes of The Ren & Stimpy Show) — a twist of fate that eventually endeared him to a staunch coterie of fans who had grown up with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, but for years had never known that the music was Scott's handiwork.
Scott in his 1950s self-built electronic music studio
Photo: Copyright the Raymond Scott Archives, Raymondscott.com
“He would often be in the control room while his band was recording,” notes Irwin Chusid, who, with Jeff Winner and Gert-Jan Blom, curates the Raymond Scott Archives. “He wanted to hear what the microphones were picking up, and he wanted to control the sound and mix it as well as possible under the relatively primitive circumstances. That's why we called the quintet's two-CD set Microphone Music [Basta, 2003]. Raymond considered the microphone to be the hidden member of the band, and he was a control freak about how it was positioned.”
Scott's demanding approach in the studio spilled over into how he dealt with the band — a tense relationship that often escalated into angry confrontations, compelling Scott to seriously consider the idea of using machines to do the heavy lifting for him. In 1946, he founded Manhattan Research — arguably the first professional electronic music workshop in the United States, based in his spacious Long Island, N.Y., home — and began designing and building a series of electro-mechanical devices that contained the seeds for two of his coolest inventions: the Clavivox and the Electronium.
The Clavivox happened almost by accident. Scott had bought a theremin for his daughter, but because she found it difficult to play, he sought to solve the problem by using a modified electric keyboard assembly to control the signal from the theremin's tone generator. The unit caught the attention of a 20-year-old Bob Moog, who paid a visit to Scott's studio with his father in the early '50s. Patented in 1956, the finished Clavivox contained a sub-assembly designed by Moog — a full decade before the Moog modular synthesizer was introduced.
The Electronium was a much larger, module-based device that Scott developed and refined over years of strenuous work. “At first, it was very big and loud and crude,” Winner explains, citing the legendary “Wall of Sound” component, a prototype of the modern sequencer that covered nearly 200 square feet of wall space.
“People like Moog described the clicking and clacking of the switches as almost drowning out the musical tones themselves,” Winner continues. “He might have one device that was generating a rhythm, and then on top of that he might sequence pitches of percussion, which is not so different from sequencing a bass line [which Scott perfected in the late '60s with a module called Bassline Generator]. Later, he was able to miniaturize everything and make it all electronic, so it went from being electro-mechanical to truly solid state.”
Meanwhile, Scott put his inventions to use by making music. His “strictly for the money” gig as bandleader for popular '50s TV show Your Hit Parade allowed him to finance and maintain the studio — by now a state-of-the-art facility for recording numerous sound experiments, advertising jingles and film scores (samples of which have found their way into the work of Gorillaz, J Dilla, Madlib, Peanut Butter Wolf and many more). As the stellar two-CD set Manhattan Research Inc. (Basta, 2000) makes clear, what set Scott apart from other electronic music composers of the '50s and '60s was his keen, witty and often whimsical attention to melody.
Improbably, Scott's work caught the attention of Motown president Berry Gordy Jr., who hired him in 1972 as the label's head of Electronic Research and Development. Although Scott held the position for five years before a serious heart attack forced him into retirement, the Electronium that Gordy had commissioned him to build — a unit now owned by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh — never generated a hit. Even so, Scott's honored place among the firmament of electronic music innovators was already assured.
“Raymond Scott was one of those rare people who was influenced by the future,” Moog said after Scott's death in 1994. “He did things that later turned out to be directly for the future. I think he was tuned into the celestial, cosmic network — the one that's out there in time, as well as space — to a greater extent than the rest of us.”
Visitwww.raymondscott.comfor a history of Raymond Scott's achievements.