LSD Presents: Raymond Scott – the man who played techno in the 50’s

Raymond Scott with Clavivox c 1955
Who would you say is the Andy Warhol of music? The first pop minimalist? Who was the originator of the first sequencer? Do you need a moment to think? We have the answer for you. It’s a man named Raymond Scott born in 1908. If you’ve read that the first techno track was by Kraftwerk, wrong. History needs rewriting.

But before we begin, please listen to this and consider that it was composed in 1968:

Now we can continue.

Raymond Scott (born Harry Warnow, September 10, 1908 – February 8, 1994) was a man that was always attracted to machines. When he met his first wife, he used to call her up, record their conversations and then play them back for her over the phone! But his older brother persuaded him to pursue a career in music. In the mid 30s, after graduating from Julliard School of Music, where he studied piano, composition and theory, he worked as a house pianist with the  CBS orchestra (where his brother also worked). But at some point he felt bored playing “the same standards” every day… After hearing this the assistant director of the program challenged him to start composing new music. And that’s what he did! He changed his name to Raymond Scott, had a nose job so that nothing would reveal his Jewish roots, he formed the Raymond Scott Quintette (he deliberately chose that “incorrect” spelling)  (that was actually a sextet, but he thought that “quintet” sounded better!) and composed his first jazz song, the “Toy Trumpet”.

An instant success. His music became very popular, he appeared in films, composed formal music, wrote a Broadway musical, his music was featured in numerous Warner Brothers Cartoon films. He became “The man who made cartoons swing”.

However, success never seemed to do it for him. He was obviously doing these gigs for financial reasons. What really mattered to him were notes, microphones, machines, not stage and performance. He was uneasy in his collaboration with other musicians, and camera- shy. His quintet described him as a difficult man that didn’t allow them to improvise! Imagine saying this to a jazz musician…and to these specific jazz musicians that he used to work with… Raymond himself admitted they were “the best of the country”. I mean Elvin Jones was a session musician in his 1959 record “The Unexpected”! So it’s obvious, it wasn’t a matter of distrust. He just had his own vision and wanted to follow it on his own terms.

Scott felt he needed the perfect instruments to perform all the music he had in his head. His old passion for technology made it all happen. He continued working and inventing, and some of his inventions would become the basis of the software and hardware used today. In 1946, Scott established Manhattan Research Incorporated, which he announced would “design and manufacture electronic music devices and systems”. He invented among other things the Clavivox (1952, a keyboard synthesizer), the polyphonic sequencer (every electronic music software is built upon it) and the “Electronium”, the first artificial intelligence equipment. It could perform and compose music at the same time.

Raymond Scott had also a historical meeting with Robert Moog, the now famous keyboard maker. Raymond lived in a four -story home in North Hills, Long Island, filled with electronic devices. An electric Labyrinth as some called it. He invited Bob Moog and his father back in 1955 because he wanted to use their famous Moog Theremin as a sound generating module in a keyboard synthesizer he was working on, the Clavivox. Bob Moog was mesmerized by all that equipment he was seeing around him. He had never seen anything like that before. ”Scott had a room after room of fancy machines. It was a football field down there, half a dozen big rooms, impeccably set up”. As Moog pointed out, no one puts together an extensive laboratory overnight. Scott had been at it for years, and he was familiar with electronic music machine originators like Trautwein, Theremin and Le Caine. After this first meeting, Scott became a sort of mentor for Moog. Almost 10 years after their first meeting, Moog released his famous modular keyboard a historic machine. A feat that would not have been possible without Scott. (We have to remember that it was Herb Deutsch who came to Moog with the idea to build his synth, and Herb didn’t know Raymond Scott or his work at that time.  Certainly as electronics progressed the idea was “in the air,” someone would have done it eventually in the way that more than one person usually has the idea for new a new invention based on the way the science and technology has been developing).

MotownElectronium BW c 1972

(motown Electronium)

Scott had managed to construct also a person as a machine: Dorothy Collins, a beautiful young girl that was about to win his heart many years later… He met her at the tender age of 12 and after a while she became his protege. After training her strictly every day for years in his own house, where she lived with his first wife and two kids Stan and Carolyn, he made of her an excellent singer, that was one day to conquer America. Their fame was immense. She toured with his quintet, appeared on TV, on Radio and became America’s sweetheart. Although this story may seem very unorthodox, especially for an era like the 50s, they eventually got married. This video gives it gracefully away, with her singing in the rain and he playing the piano amorously.

However it didn’t last.  Around 1964 their marriage started to disintegrate and one day she left him. Raymond fell into a deep depression. Notes were found in his house with words like “death” and “congency”, a word that we couldn’t find out what it meant. His depression revealed a more human aspect of his make up.

Raymond Scott was very secretive. A mixture of shyness and egocentrism kept him from publishing many of his works. And he never got the recognition he did not even look for. Like a genuine artist, he did not care about financial matters and used money only for his work- to order more and more equipment and records. In his last years he lost all his wealth. He died in 1994, after a series of strokes. However, an unaddressed letter was found among personal papers dated 1980. It starts with the sentence “I have a story that may be of interest to you” and ends with “Now with the passing of years, I guess I regret my secrecy and would like people to know of what I accomplished”. This letter was never sent.

Raymond Scott in Studio c 1955

His legacy underwent a revival in the early 1990s after Irwin Chusid met Raymond and his third wife Mitzi Curtis at their home in California and discovered a vast collection of unreleased recordings of rehearsals and studio sessions. Basta records in the Netherlands also helped the audience to discover him. They put out most Raymond Scott CD’s. Today we can have access to more of his work through his son Stan Warnow, a successful film editor who shot a documentary in 2010 about his father called “Deconstructing Dad”. The documentary was shown at Transmediale/CTM Berlin festival as well as many other festivals and can be ordered here.

He kindly agreed to give us an interview and help us know better this man whose music has been playing in our apartments non stop in the last days.

LSD: Mr. Warnow how long did it get you to finish your documentary and who was you main source?

It took about 10 years from first shooting to finishing, with times when I didn’t work on it at all. During that time I had to earn a living so would have limited time to devote to the film. Finally in about 2007 I realized I had to devote myself full time to the project and fortunately had finished the expensive commitment of putting my three sons through college so turned down work from then on and finished the film in the fall of 2009. Not sure what you mean by “main source”–if you’re asking about financing I did raise some money from friends and family and got a couple of grants, the budget was very low though and I never paid myself a salary and that reduced costs as I did almost everything, camera, sound, editing myself.

LSD: It is a fact that Bob Moog was inspired by your father’s work to built his famous keyboards. However googling on internet “first keyboards” there is almost no trace of Raymond Scott. Why is that? Do you think your father didn’t get the recognition he should have gotten?

About the Clavivox, it was actually built by Raymond Scott using a theremin built by Moog, Moog didn’t build it inside the a piano keyboard, all that work was done by RS–he just used the theremin circuitry Moog designed and built. And the Clavivox was never able to be promoted successfully commercially–while it certainly was an inspiration to Bob Moog the voltage controlled synth he built was a much more practical product than the Clavivox, which was unstable and not really modular (the Moog was somewhat unstable as well, but better in that regard than the Clavivox, and being modular gave it more flexibility).  However the Clavivox was in fact an early keyboard synthesizer, of that their can be no doubt.  Bob Moog also promoted his machine much better than my dad did, plus remember the co-inventor Herb Deutsch (who as you probably know originally suggested a keyboard electronic instrument to Moog) was an academic and as such was able to introduce the machine in academic circles, Raymond Scott never had much contact with academics.

But yes, I do think RS didn’t get the recognition he should have–but remember he was very secretive about his work. Another of the many factors was that he was working mainly in advertising with his electronic instruments in the 50’s and early 60’s–it’s very easy for “serious” musicians or even jazz and popular musicians to dismiss things done in and for advertising.

LSD: As a person people referred to him as difficult to work with. As a father he was absent. One could get the impression he only felt comfortable near his machines. However there are traces of human sensibility. In your documentary you mention that he fell into a long depression after the divorce with his second wife Dorothy and that he has even tried to commit suicide. On the other hand he must  have had a great sense of humor, judging by the names he gave some of his works (“War dance for wooden indians”, “ The girl with the light blue hair”)! How would you interpret that?

Yes, my Dad certainly had a sense of humor in certain ways, but it’s not that he was one to crack jokes, but he could appreciate humor. He talked about playing music as ideally being fun–look at the liner notes for The Secret 7 for some examples of that. As far as comic titles go he certainly had a knack for those I guess that would fall into the category of fun. He wasn’t a funny person to be around as mentioned above but clearly he had a sense of what was funny and amusing when it came to thinking up titles. As far as human sensibility goes, he did certainly enjoy food (unlike some very devoted artists, scientists, business people etc who regard food simply as fuel and a necessary distraction from work). And as I mentioned earlier he definitely enjoyed the company of women despite his squeamishness.

LSD: Your father was mystic about his work. He had a paranoia about not publishing any of his inventions. However, his aloofness is a cherished quality, especially today, when social media force in a way new artists to be over expressive. In 1980 there was an unaddressed letter found in your father’s house, where he describes with an always reserved way that he was the inventor of the sequencer, of the first polyphonic synthesizer and he talks very fondly about his collaboration with Bob Moog. This letter was never sent. Could it be that he changed his mind about going public? Today, because of you and a handful of inspired artists, his reputation starts to spread. What do you think your father would have thought about that?

I think he’d be thrilled!  But I believe he always wanted recognition for his work but was mainly concerned about other people stealing his ideas, so he wouldn’t share details about how he did things, often even with Robert Moog. He’d request a circuit to be designed when Moog would ask him how it would be used he’d tell him not to worry about that, just build it. But certainly he liked being successful and powerful early in his career and all the benefits it brought, though at the same time remember again he didn’t like appearing in public.

LSD: “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.”, quoted Raymond Scott in 1949. Could you explain to us what he meant?

I think he basically meant just what he said, that somehow the composer running through the music in his mind would be able to convey it to listeners through electronic means. Not sure that will ever happen as he envisioned it but as you probably know there are now ways of translating brain waves to music through algorithms but it’s nowhere near the idea of the composer thinking of music and having that directly conveyed to listeners

LSD: The “Electronium”, one of his inventions estimated to the late 1950s or early 1960s, is regarded as the first artificial intelligence equipment. The  man-machine relationship erupts for the first time. Today machines are more familiar to us than ever. Our fingers may touch screens more often that the hand of someone else’s. Not only that, but almost everyone claims to be a musician or a Dj because they can simply manage software. What do you think your father would think about the 00’s? What is you personal opinion on the matter?

I’m certain he’d feel vindicated by how widespread electronic music has become, how it dominates music production today in so many ways. He always thought electronic music had a huge potential and today that potential has been totally fulfilled–perhaps even more than he could have predicted. I recently read in the New York Times how techno music is an essential part of Berlin culture (here‘s the link) and just this week found out that Electronic Dance Music now dominates the music played in Las Vegas so much so that the highest paid DJ made $45 million last year! My father I don’t think could have conceived of success on that scale. But he’d find it incredibly satisfying to see those instruments he created as the ancestors and prototypes of what exists today. He’d be fine with much of it only existing as software, it’s really closer to the idea of the composer thinking the music and having it transmitted, and near the end of his life he was fascinated with computers and their potential for music. I don’t think he’d be bothered by the fact that people without real musical training or abilities as players are now creating music through software as he envisioned machines he would develop after the Electronium that could be played by non-musicians, even wanted to put them in public places so people waiting for buses or trains could create music while they were waiting. One of his machine ideas, a kind of scaled down and simplified Electronium, was called the Participator. As for me personally, while I continue to have the greatest respect for musicians (like you!) who have the talent and discipline to become skilled on traditional instruments, I certainly see the appeal of software that allows for the creation of music my people who are essentially non-musicians. In fact what I do sometimes in my work is related to that, editing music, repeating sections, sometimes even combining different pieces of music I’m working with so I can relate to that way of creating or re-creating music.

Another reason I think he’d be OK with the creation of music through sampling, looping etc. is that he deliberately didn’t want a musical keyboard for the Electronium, and I think one of the reasons for that was ultimately to make it accessible to people who didn’t have the ability to play a music keyboard, just the way some non-musicians can create music today.

LSD: Would you know what kind of music your father listened to? He had a big record collection, as we can see in your documentary.

My father’s first musical love was classical music, and he had a huge collection of classical music, there was a time when he’d get every new recording that came out. Certainly loved Mozart– the Scott composition in an 18th Century Drawing Room was if I remember correctly inspired by Mozart’s – Piano Sonata No.15), Bach and  Beethoven. Then in the Big Band era he was an admirer of Duke Ellington and Glen Miller. He certainly respected the work of Les Paul and I think was inspired to do his own overdubbing in the pre multi-track era by Les Paul’s work. And in the 60’s I played Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven for him, he was not impressed, but I’ve heard from others that he liked the Moody Blues.

Panorama Raymond Scott in Studio c1970

LSD: Without the work of your father, the history of music would be different. That amount of work can only be accomplished if someone is 100 % dedicated to it. Would you exchange a childhood filled with family memories of your father if you knew that we wouldn’t have had the fruits of his work today?

Certainly a great question but I don’t really feel capable of answering it. I don’t think it had to be an either/or situation. There are examples of people who were great successes and changed to history of their particular discipline but were still able to also be good and devoted parents. I’m no expert on that subject, but I remember  a documentary on Charles Schultz, the creator of the Peanuts cartoons, who led a very disciplined life where he worked in his studio for a certain amount of hours each day, but always found time to be a good father to his children. I know there are others, but as I said I’m not an expert, though I think the actor Kirk Douglas was like that. So I disagree with your claim about that amount of work only being possible at the expense of parenting, though Raymond Scott did accomplish an incredible amount!

LSD: What are your plans for the near future? Will there be any more releases of your father’s work?

The way things are structured, I haven’t been directly involved with the releases of my dad’s work. That’s been done by others and released mostly by Basta Records. There are plans for a new album of Electronium material and some work has been done, but not much has happened recently, in fact for several years which is of course unfortunate. I’m hopeful that they will finish it soon, but can’t be sure.  And there has been a recent releases of Raymond Scott remixes (speaking of the 00’s).  Search for Raymond Scott Rewired.

Dear Stan thank you for your time and dedication.

Here’s a mix I made with the title “Anglo-saxon history of pop” as an homage to a new hero: Raymond Scott