The Complicatist : In praise of Raymond Scott

The man who heard the future

By Gordon Campbell

In 1983, Woody Allen made a fake documentary called Zelig, a film based on the joke idea that a human chameleon (whom no-one had ever heard of) had actually been present at every significant event in the history of the 20th century. Raymond Scott (1908- 1994) is not a household name either, but he does possess something of that same Zelig-like omnipresence, once you start looking for him.

Deep breath. In the 1930s, Scott led a popular dance band and tootled his way through jazz-like hits that had exotic, campy titles like “March of the Wooden Indians.” A prolific experimental composer from the outset, a batch of his music got sold as a package to Warners in 1943, and ended up being used on over 100 cartoons from Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck right through to The Simpsons and Ren and Stimpy. While Carl Stallings has always been widely credited with the soundtracks for the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, Stallings had in reality, adapted Scott’s work quite extensively. Scott’s ‘Powerhouse’ for instance, became a staple of cartoon sound FX as you’ll probably recognise from this (click to download .mp3) or from this (clck to download .wav).

From that point, Scott’s story a lot more interesting. In the mid 1940s for instance, Scott hired the young Robert Moog and worked with him on the development of several sound-generating electronic devices – research that led ultimately in the 1960s to the first electronic synthesiser. Down the years, Scott’s own electronic music compositions have been widely sampled and celebrated by everyone from Fat Boy Slim to DJ Spooky to the late hip hop genius, J Dilla to the Kronos Quartet, and also by bands like Rush and They Might Be Giants. Reportedly, David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet described his initial immersion to Scott’s music in 1992 as being “like being given the name of a composer I feel I have heard my whole life, who until now was nameless.” In 2008, Cory Doctorow of the Boing Boing site cited Scott as ‘hands-down my favorite composer. He was also a brilliant engineer whose homebrew, pre-digital sampling and sequencing techniques were 60 years ahead of their time.’ Peter Buck of REM, Henry Rollins, and Andy Partridge of XTC have praised Scott’s pioneering genius in similar fashion.

Much of Scott’s influence has stemmed from the trailblazing electronic music laboratory that he had set up in the mid 1940s, called Manhattan Research. As this article explains, some of what emerged from the Manhattan Research lab anticipated developments in modern classical music as well as electronica :

Scott used the [Clavivox] to compose several early electronic music pieces in the 1960’s including three volumes of synthesised lullabys called “Soothing Sounds for Baby” (1963) predating minimalist music’s use of repetition and sequences [ ie, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, John Adams, Steve Reich] by 20 years.

For related reasons, Scott can also be seen as a musical forebear of Brian Eno and Kraftwerk. After being exposed to a collection of Scott’s Manhattan Research recordings, Can’s Holger Czukay told one interviewer in disbelief : “This is from the fifties and sixties? 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.” Scott and his technicians had devoted themselves to the development of purpose built electronic instruments such as the Clavivox (a kind of Theremin with a keyboard) and a huge device called the Economium. Bizarrely, Scott came to the attention of Motown Records magnate Berry Gordy Jnr, who signed him to Motown – and for several years, the Economium was kept at Gordy’s house, at least until Gordy finally lost interest in Scott’s never ending experimentations. The instrument eventually found its way into the hands of Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, another Scott acolyte.

Sixteen years after his death in 1994, Scott’s influence is – if anything – on the increase. Last month on the Pitchfork site, David Portner aka Avey Tare, the lead singer for Animal Collective cited Teengirl Fantasy as a current favourite band – and the first Teengirl Fantasy track that comes up on Youtube happens to be a re-working of Scott’s composition “Portofino.” Basically, the more you look for Scott, the more you see his fingerprints are everywhere. Did I mention his music is also the soundtrack for these Tic Tac commercials here and also here?.

Rather han attempt to explain Scott’s accomplishment, the music can be best left to speak for itself. For starters, here are a couple of examples from Scott’s early exotica and cartoon days. ‘Siberian Sleigh Ride’ is from one of the hallucinatory Betty Boop cartoons made by the Fleischer Brothers cartoon studio.

On the other hand, this “Twilight in Turkey” sequence comes from a 1937 movie called Ali Baba Goes to Town. The plot of the film sounds like something you’d expect from Preston Sturges – it was about a hobo who walks onto a film set, falls asleep and dreams he’s back in old Araby as a courtier of the Sultan. Allegedly, the film was meant to be a satire of Franklin’s Roosevelt’s New Deal, since the hobo organizes work programs, taxes the rich and abolishes the army, no less. In this sequence, the enthusiastic drummer is Johnny Williams, whose son later became the major Hollywood composer, John Williams.

The next few tracks offer a couple of examples of Scott’s electronic work. “The Happy Whistler” comes from the Soothing Sounds for Baby albums that were the forerunners toi minimalism, while the 1963 work “Little Miss Echo” is extraordinary in its own right – especially given the difficulty of creating thesesounds with the technology of the day. Regardless, “Little Miss Echo” still sounds as modern as anything emerging from bands like Boards of Canada or Ducktails.

Finally. I’ve picked three examples from Scott’s corporate/industrial work. The fantastic 5 minute long Paperwork Explosion short film was made in 1967 to extol the virtues of IBM, and Scott’s collaborator here was Jim Henson, during his pre- Muppet days. Somehow, the fact that IBM – thinly disguised as the name of the programming language Cobol – appeared as the evil corporation in the recent Leonardo DiCaprio film Inception only adds to the strange, parallel universe feeling of this clip.

I’ve also chosen two pieces from the Manhattan Research lab period, namely ‘ ‘Lightworks’ and ‘Bendix : The Tomorrow People’ Fans of the late, much lamented hip hop producer J Dilla will recognise both of these tracks, since Dilla used samples from them on the “ Lightworks” track that opens his posthumous masterpiece, Donuts.

Lightworks           Bendix : The Tomorrow People

Much of the adulation came too late for Scott. By the late 1980s, he had fallen on hard times, had suffered a stroke and was unable to communicate. The Scott revival began in the early 90s, just before his death in 1994. Yet even if he had been around to enjoy the current acclaim, Scott probably wouldn’t have been satisfied by it anyway. He always had bigger dreams in mind. Way back in 1949, he had described the future in these terms : “Perhaps within the next hundred years, science will perfect a process of thought transference from composer to listener. The composer will sit alone on the concert stage and merely ‘think’ his idealized conception of his music. Instead of recordings of actual music sound, recordings will carry the brainwaves of the composer directly to the mind of the listener.”

You get the feeling that given the chance, Scott would have swapped the praise for a research grant to get back into the workshop, to try and make something like that vision into a reality.