Perfect Sound Forever

Raymond Scott

Forgotten Composer of the Future
by Erin Rioux
(February 2011)

A Warhol of the sonic domain, Raymond Scott merged fine art with commercial art and invented electronics that preceded Robert Moog's. In 1937 his picture appeared in Billboard above a prophetic caption: "Scott's music evolved as something more substantial than mere jazz. Its ultimate worth can only be judged by the future." Animation historian Steve Schneider has judged him “arguably the most well-known and influential unknown composer since the 16th Century."

Born Harry Warnow on November 10th, 1908, Raymond Scott was a self-taught musical prodigy. By age two he was learning his way around the piano, while his older brother Mark excelled on the violin. Harry studied engineering at Brooklyn Technical High School, showing the poise to follow in the footsteps of Farnsworth and Edison. Instead, Mark persuaded him to enroll at the Institute of Musical Art, later rechristened the Juilliard School. After graduating he was hired as a pianist for the CBS radio house band, which Mark conducted. To conceal any conflict of interest Harry adopted a named name selected at random from the Manhattan phone book: Raymond Scott. In 1936 he formed his own satellite ensemble, the Raymond Scott Quintet, and began rehearsing his oddball parlor jazz.

Perhaps jazz wasn't the proper tag. Purists in the jazz community were dismissive: “I don't think that those Scott compositions are sincerely jazz vehicles," wrote Harold Taylor in a 1939 issue of Rhythm magazine. “Only occasionally do they swing, the rest of the time they are trying to get smart effects." Such criticism was fair; Scott's squeaky-clean arrangements referenced his classical training more than it did any jazz ethos. He allowed for no improvisation in his ensemble, dictating parts to band members note for note. In an anthology of big band music, Michele Wood noted that “he composed not on paper, but on his quintet," which practiced relentlessly at Scott's command. He was a perfectionist to the core, driving some band members away. But most stuck around when they found that Scott's smart-aleck jazz sold. After the group's CBS radio debut of “The Toy Trumpet" on Saturday Night Swing Session, a record deal was struck with Duke Ellington's publisher Irving Mills. The group recorded from 1937 till 1939, attracting a wide audience of listeners and record buyers, including such musical luminaries as Jascha Heifetz and Igor Stravinsky. Soon Hollywood came calling and the Raymond Scott Quintet was featured in Happy Landing, Ali Baba Goes to Town, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

Upon returning from Los Angeles, Scott became music director of CBS, assembled the first racially-mixed network studio orchestra, and entered the lucrative business of radio commercials, composing jingles for cigarette, automobile, and shampoo companies. Cartoon history was made in 1943 when Warner Bros. bought Scott's publishing. With its snare drum rimshots, kitschy cowbell, muted trumpet, and speedy clarinet, “Powerhouse" would be the first of many Raymond Scott numbers to be synced to Looney Tunes. Odds are if you've seen an episode of Bugs Bunny you've heard the early music of Raymond Scott. Animated series such as Batfink, Ren and Stimpy, The Simpsons, Animaniacs, and Duckman have further solidified Scott's place in cultural mythology. Ironically, Scott himself never cared much for cartoons.

In the 1950s, with his music everywhere, Scott withdrew from bandleading into the confines of his studio, the Manhattan Research Lab. He revisited his childhood passion for engineering by inventing electronic devices at Manhattan Research throughout the 50's. Among his groundbreaking designs were the Karloff, a sound effects generator; the Clavivox, a keyboard synthesizer with portamento, or sliding pitch between notes; and the Videola, a keyboard with video monitor for writing to motion picture. His most ambitious invention applied artificial intelligence to music. The Electronium was an instantaneous composition-performance machine operated with buttons and knobs rather than a keyboard. The device was the first incarnation of the Step Sequencer, a staple of modern electronic music. With his machines, Scott did away with the need for human performers. The Electronium could follow his most difficult instructions without talking back. Predating the works of Terry Riley, Kraftwerk, and Brian Eno by more than a decade, Scott presaged the minimalist tendencies and technological fascinations of electronic music.

Today Scott's ideas are still wildly ahead of their time. In 1949 he postulated that ''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." Over half a century later this seems within reach given the countless musicians performing behind nothing more than a laptop computer. Even if Scott's name is cloaked in obscurity, his influence is will be felt far into the future.

Works Cited

Ankeny, Jason. "Raymond Scott: Biography." AllMusic Guide. Rovi Corporation. Web. 25 Feb. 2010.

Chusid, Irwin. "50 Years of Musical Mayhem." Jeff Winner. Web. 25 Feb. 2010.

Chusid, Irwin. "Raymond Scott: Biography." Jeff Winner, 1999. Web. 21 Feb. 2010.

Taylor, Harold. "You Can Keep Raymond Scott." Editorial. Rhythm Magazine 1939. Jeff Winner, 1997. Web. 25 Feb. 2010.

Winner, Jeff, and Irwin Chusid. "Circle Machines and Sequencers." Jeff Winner. Web. 25 Feb. 2010.

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