The Secret Music Technology of Raymond Scott

Raymond Scott should have been as famous as Dolby or Moog or even Stockhausen; instead he's unfairly pigeonholed as accompanist to Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig

Background: Below is the latest in my series of profiles of individuals I call visionaries of sound—innovators who are more than just composers or performers, but futurists beyond category. Their work aims at nothing less than altering our entire relationship with the music ecosystem and day-to-day soundscapes.

In many instances, their names are barely known, even within the music world. In some cases—as with Charles Kellogg, recently profiled here—they have been entirely left out of music history and musicology books.

In this installment, I focus on the remarkable legacy of Raymond Scott. During the coming months, I will be publishing more of these profiles. Perhaps I will collect them in a book at some point.

Bonus for paid subscribers: In the next few days, I will also be sharing a special feature with paid subscribers to The Honest Broker. They will receive my guide to the 100 best film soundtracks of all time—published in two installments, with examples from each work. If you sign up for a paid subscription this week, you will be sure to receive this extra.

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The Secret Music Technology of Raymond Scott

By Ted Gioia

Unfortunately, I need to start this article by talking about Porky Pig.

Raymond Scott deserves better. He never intended for his legacy in music to depend on cartoon animals. But his largest audience, as it turned out, would be children who laugh at Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and the other animated protagonists of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons released by Warner Bros.

Scott didn’t write cartoon music—at least, not intentionally—but his music appears on more than 100 animated films. For that give credit (or blame) to Carl Stalling, who needed to churn out a cartoon soundtrack every week, more or less, while under contract to Warner Bros. Stalling found a goldmine in the compositions of Raymond Scott, whose music had been licensed to the studio. These works, which straddle jazz and classical stylings, possess a manic energy that made them the perfect accompaniment to a chase scene or action sequence or some random cartoon-ish act of violence.

Scott called his music “descriptive jazz”—his name for a novel chamber music style that drew on the propulsive drive of swing, with all the riffs and syncopation of that dance style, but with less improvisation and proclaiming a taste for extravagant, quasi-industrial sounds. It was like techno before there was techno, but with a jitterbug sensibility.

When I first learned about Scott, I was taught to view him as a music novelty act, akin perhaps to Zez Confrey or Spike Jones, and the most frequently cited examples of his work (to the extent, they were mentioned at all) were these cartoon soundtracks. But Scott had higher ambitions. He was, after all, a Juilliard graduate, with a taste for experimental music, and worldview more aligned with Dali and Dada than Daffy Duck. But Scott also wanted to be a technologist—his early aim had been to study engineering. He dreamed of combining these two pursuits, and gaining renown as one of the trailblazers in electronic music.

Under slightly different circumstances, he might have become even more famous for music tech than for his cartoon music, as well-known as Robert Moog or Ray Dolby or Les Paul or Leon Theremin. But those dreams were all in the future, when he picked the name “Raymond Scott” out of a phone book—because he thought it “had good rhythm.”

Scott had been born as Harry Warnow, in Brooklyn, on September 10, 1908. After graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School, he got steered toward a music career by his older brother Mark—who bought his sibling a Steinway piano and convinced him to attend the Institute of Musical Art (now known as Juilliard). After graduation, Harry took a job in the CBS Radio Orchestra, which his older brother conducted. In order to avoid the appearance of nepotism, he picked that dignified British-sounding name from the directory.

The compositions of Raymond Scott shook up listeners long before they got co-opted as cartoon music. In 1937, when jazz big bands were the hottest thing in American popular music, Scott launched his Quintette—the spelling reinforced the Anglicized sound of his adopted name—which, adding to the anomaly, was actually a sextet. And he proceeded to record some of the strangest tracks of the era, musical curios with odd programmatic titles, such as "Celebration on the Planet Mars" or “New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House.” Consider him as a forerunner of Frank Zappa, constructing an idiosyncratic popular music that could either be viewed as tongue-in-cheek exercises in humor, or experimental works pushing at the limits of commercial styles.

Many of his most famous compositions date from this period. But Scott, ever restless, kept changing his approach. He got a contract with Columbia as leader of a big band, and hired some of the greatest names in jazz (Ben Webster, Charlie Shavers, Cozy Cole). Fronting an interracial band, Scott also played a key role in breaking down segregation in radio orchestras. But like every other phase in his music career, this one came and went.

Scott admired Duke Ellington, and it’s tempting to envision him moving in the same direction during this period, when so much progressive music masqueraded as swing jazz. Instead Scott switched gears, creating a 13-piece orchestra to play so-called silent music—more than a decade before 4′33″, Scott was now surveying territory that John Cage would later master, artfully grasping that all music implies a kind of a non-music as its foundation or basis.

Scott was covering so much new ground, yet he was cursed with a reputation as a musical prankster—so his innovations were often dismissed as gimmicks or stunts. He didn’t help matters by moving rapidly from project to project. So just as his jazz got displaced by silent music, the latter gave way to radio work and Broadway composing, and eventually even a brief foray into classical music—which culminated in his Suite for Violin and Piano from 1950.

Yet, over time, Scott found himself more and more intrigued by the rapidly evolving music and recording technologies of the era. It was a time of disjunctive change—with the shift to audio tape, the introduction of the long-playing album, the first experiments with over-dubbing, and other such developments. As early as 1946, Scott established his Manhattan Research company, a combination between a think tank, workshop and small-scale tech production facility.

The concept of a music synthesizer didn’t exist back then. But at some point in the 1950s, Scott hired Bob Moog to design circuits for him. Before the end of the decade, Scott began work on his Electronium, an electronic synthesizer and algorithmic composition / generative music system.

What a bizarre moment in American music history! All over the world, kids were listening to Raymond Scott’s music accompany Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig . But Scott himself was charting the future of sound technology, anticipating many of the core building blocks of music in the digital age. His specific goals and progress are hard to follow—primarily because of his intensely secretive approach to his work. But, by any measure, Scott was decades ahead of his time.

“Who else was doing so much on so many fronts in music technology? No, not a corporation like IBM or Bell Labs, but freelancer Raymond Scott operating out of his home.”

In 1959, Scott invited a journalist for Popular Mechanics into his Manhasset, New York home—which the reporter breathlessly asserted “is not a home in any ordinary sense, it is a 32-room musical labyrinth” filled with “electronic instruments that have confounded highly trained experts in his field.”

Here Scott showed his “clavivox”—a keyboard instrument that could bend notes and create “a humanlike vibrato.” He also displayed his “videola”—which streamed motion picture images to a display on Scott’s living room piano, and recorded the music he made to accompany the film. But perhaps most intriguing of all were Scott’s sampling and looping technologies. These are commonplace nowadays, but in 1959 who else had invented a “device that automatically finds a selection in a particular recording tape and continues to repeat it as long as he wants it repeated”?

Scott was always cautious about giving away too many details, but he mentioned that it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars to replicate his home set-up. This was at a time when the average family income wasn’t much more than $5,000 per year. The implication was clear: Scott was a crazy inventor who had sunk a king’s ransom into strange gadgets.

Even at this late stage, Scott continued to pursue jazz projects. But here too his fixation on secrecy undermined his efforts. In 1960 Scott brought some of the leading figures in jazz into a recording studio, where he directed the efforts of Elvin Jones, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Toots Thielemans, Kenny Burrell, and others. Yet when he released the album, under the name The Unexpected, he refused to disclose the names of the musicians. He merely referred to them as the Secret Seven. Who else would work so hard to hide something that others would proudly proclaim? Only Raymond Scott.

In the mid-1960s, Scott displayed a very different side of his music-making on various projects with Jim Henson, providing scores for short experimental films. Many of these were corporate-funded—a TV commercial for Bufferin, or a documentary on paperwork to promote an IBM word processor. But these made-for-hire connections shouldn’t distract us from the artistry of these undertakings or the bold nature of the music. Just listen to these works, and consider how many future genres, from techno to glitch, are prefigured in these imaginative collaborations.

Meanwhile the inventions kept coming, but Scott seemed determined to undermine his own innovations—this time with his trademark sense for the absurd. In 1963, he developed a drum machine, but decided to name it “Bandito the Bongo Artist.” How could you take this technology seriously? But that had always been Scott’s modus operandi. Even back in the 1940s, he had developed a $10,000 piece of equipment named the Karloff (after horror film actor Boris Karloff), which emulated the sounds of coughs and wheezes, a steak frying in the pan, and other esoteric noises.

I struggle in my attempts merely to define these efforts—shrouded in confidentiality and the mists of time—let alone evaluate them. I doubt even Scott could have provided a connecting narrative to his workshop activities, which led to the development of everything from sound-generating jewelry to an electronic Chinese gong. Yet he also built one of the first multi-track tape recorders (1952), an “electro-music sequencer” (1953), a “rhythm synthesizer” and “pitch sequencer” (both in 1960), a “bassline generator” (1968), and numerous other devices and machines. Who else was doing so much on so many fronts in music technology? No, not a corporation like IBM or Bell Labs, but freelancer Raymond Scott operating out of his home.

But the main focus of Scott’s efforts in the 1960s was on an breakthrough compendium of music technology he called the Electronium. He later claimed that he devoted eleven years and almost a million dollars to this project.

Here again, the zeal for privacy with which Scott treated his research limits our ability to trace the history of this amazing piece of equipment—which seems to be nothing less than an analog anticipation of the electronic synthesizer. He left behind no adequate documentation or recordings, and the one surviving unit is not functional. But in 1969, Scott so dazzled Berry Gordy of Motown with this technology, that he not only sold an Electronium to the record label, but was eventually hired as director of electronic music research—no doubt the only person with that job title in the entire recording industry.

This could have been a breakthrough moment in American popular music. But the window of opportunity was rapidly closing. Scott’s former associate Robert Moog was commercializing his competitive technology, and within a few months, his synthesizer would show up on breakout albums such as  Sun Ra’s My Brother the Wind (1970), Isaac Hayes’s soundtrack to Shaft (1971), and Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book (1972)—the latter on Motown’s Tamla label. Under slightly different circumstances, Stevie Wonder might have been recording with Scott’s Electronium, but instead the Moog emerged as the synthesizer of choice among musicians. 

Motown’s chief engineer Guy Costa later recalled Scott’s involvement with the label:

“He started originally working out of Berry's house. They set up a room over the garages, and he worked there putting stuff together so Berry could get involved and see the progress. At one point Scott worked out of a studio. The unit never really got finalized — Ray had a real problem letting go. It was always being developed.”

We can only speculate on how close Scott was to commercializing his technology. If he had been less secretive, could he have accelerated its development—perhaps by hiring a team of assistants to speed up the process? Was the equipment actually ready for use in the 1960s, but delayed because Scott constantly wanted to tinker and improve? Was he distracted by all the other gadgets he was inventing back then—focusing on doorbells and music boxes, vending machines and baby rattles? Or was it his poor health—he had already suffered a heart attack in 1958, when doctors told him he had only one year to live.

Scott beat those odds, but another heart attack in 1972 led to a bypass surgery. Four years later, his health still precarious, he underwent a second bypass. In 1977, he retired from his Motown position. He continued to work on music and tech in private, but Scott could only look on from afar as the whole recording industry embraced the electronic toolkit he had pioneered decades before.

In those final days, not many people paid any attention to Raymond Scott. And when an interviewer did contact him, it was usually to ask about cartoon music. Scott might have been a kind of turbocharged Stockhausen—half composer and half mad scientist—but instead he was the guy who provided background music while Wiley Coyote chased the Road Runner. At his death in 1994, Scott warranted an obituary in the New York Times, but the headline called him a “Composer for Cartoons”—a distinction he never wanted, and which vastly underestimates his ambitions and visions.

A series of recent recordings from Raymond Scott’s archives have started the long process of reevaluation this innovator deserves. By my measure, Scott was one of the most creative forces in music during the middle decades of the 20th century. Even in his apparent weaknesses—his constant jumping from project to project, the frenetic zaniness of his music, his breach of the dividing line between the comic and the seriousness—Scott seemed to capture the zeitgeist of postmodern times. I suspect that 25 or 50 years from now, his reputation will be even larger than it is now. But one thing is certain: we will be living in a world of musical technology, sounds, and algorithms very much like those Raymond Scott envisioned so many decades ago.