Raymond Scott: The First 100 Years

Raymond-Scott-by-Drew_Friedman.jpg

Irwin Chusid, journalist, music historian, radio personality and self-described "landmark preservationist," (wiki) wrote the following essay to mark the centennial of composer Raymond Scott for Boing Boing. Portrait of Raymond Scott above by Drew Friedman. (Click image for full size.)

His merry melodies have propelled the antics of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Animaniacs, and Bart Simpson. His recordings underscore the body-fluid fetishism of Ren & Stimpy. Yet Raymond Scott, who was born in Brooklyn 100 years ago today, never wrote a note for a cartoon in his life.

Scott's popular 1930s faux-jazz novelties were festooned with titles like "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," "Celebration on the Planet Mars," and "New Year's Eve in a Haunted House." When Warner Bros. purchased Scott's publishing in 1943, their music director Carl Stalling began seasoning his cartoon scores with Scott's sonic spice. In hundreds of these anarchic shorts, Stalling sampled over a dozen Scott titles, with "Powerhouse" echoing behind countless cat-chase-mouse sequences and ominous assembly lines. Since forever, Scott's quirky musical motifs have become genetically encoded in every earthling.

Not that it mattered to Scott. He didn't care about cartoons. He cared about machines -- whether they had a pulse or not. His demanding perfectionism was legendary. He rehearsed his sidemen to the point of exhaustion and resentment -- and insulted them if they failed to meet the maestro's standards. Drummer Johnny Williams (father of composer John Williams) told an interviewer: "We were machines, only we had names."

Since Scott couldn't hire the perfect musicians, he built them. From the 1940s thru the 1970s, Scott, whose recording studios doubled as science labs, worked increasingly with home-built techno sound generators. He's one of the great overlooked pioneers of electronica, with US patents to prove it. His 1963 Soothing Sounds for Baby series of repetitive, high-tech nap-inducers set the template for ambient music. In 1970, Motown founder Berry Gordy was so impressed with Scott's Electronium, an analog console that composed by artificial intelligence, that he commissioned a unit. Two years later, Gordy hired Scott at Motown-L.A., where the mad scientist toiled until 1977.

Scott called the Electronium an "instantaneous composition-performance machine." You twisted dials and twirled knobs to set preferences, got a tape rolling, hit "GO," then walked away while the device "composed." It's ironic that the Patron Saint of Control Freaks, who demanded total submission from his talented human recruits, eventually hardwired the perfect sideman -- and got himself a collaborator with a mind of its own.

Decades earlier, Scott demolished a discriminatory barrier by hiring the first interracial band in network radio history. In a segregated industry, he was offered the job of Music Director by CBS in 1942. Scott demanded the right to hire the best players regardless of color. The network balked. Scott refused to stand down, and eventually prevailed, bringing on board Ben Webster, Charlie Shavers, Cozy Cole and other black jazz heavyweights.

In the 1950s, he worked with a young Columbia grad named Robert Moog, later inventor of an eponymous synthesizer. They got along well. "Scott was definitely in the forefront of developing electronic music technology," Moog attested, "and in the forefront of using it commercially as a musician." Scott's son, Stan Warnow, is directing a documentary about his father. In a poignant second-generation encounter, Warnow recently filmed an interview with John Williams during which they discussed their dads. "I grew up hearing Scott's music," Williams told Warnow. "My father played drums with his band, so the music was very much in my head and in the musical atmosphere of our home. I remember those magical musicians performing their alchemy. Raymond Scott has an important place in American music."

Scott suffered a debilitating stroke in 1987, which left him unable to work or speak. He died in 1994, just as his music was undergoing a revival. His compositions have since been covered or sampled by Gorillaz, Kronos Quartet, Devo, J Dilla, They Might Be Giants, Madlib, El-P, Don Byron, Soul Coughing, and others. Lately it seems that 20% of student animation projects on YouTube contain unauthorized soundtracks by Scott (whose heirs encourage Creative Commons use).

To mark the centennial, the Scott Archives commissioned a portrait by caricaturist (and Scott fan) Drew Friedman. Limited edition prints signed by the artist, Drew Friedman, are available at RaymondScott.com. -- Irwin Chusid.

Drew Friedman portrait of Raymond Scott | Raymond Scott site | Raymond Scott blog | Stan Warnow's documentary-in-progress of Raymond Scott