Cradle of Electronica | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Cradle of Electronica 

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Raymond Scott
Soothing Sounds for Baby: An Infant's Friend in Sound
(Basta Audio/Visuals)

He turned on the car radio and that same feeling returned. Those electronic sounds did something strange to him, touched some subconscious place in his brain, made him squirm. Made his gums itch.

When Ren & Stimpy licensed Raymond Scott's music from Columbia in 1992, only aficionados recognized his name. But he had already been an invisible force for almost 60 years, and some of his compositions indisputably rank among the most influential and durable melodies in American popular culture. Through Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, his work continues to reach an inestimable sea of listeners. Quirky, memorable themes like "Powerhouse," which accompanies numerous automation sequences in classic Warner Brothers cartoons, arguably helped shape the postwar musical aesthetic as much as anything Elvis or the Beatles did. But rather than traveling on a public pop image, Scott's aesthetic spread subliminally, disguised as an innocuous sound track for animated animals.

Born Harry Warnow, son of a New York music-shop owner, in 1910, Scott became known in jazz circles in the mid-30s as leader of a studio quintet for CBS radio. A pioneer of zany prepostmodern jump-cutting pastiche, he composed novelty pieces, including "The Girl With the Light Blue Hair," "Business Men's Bounce," and "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," which appeared first on 78s, then on a series of ten-inch 33-rpm records, on Columbia. He fit somewhere between Spike Jones--whose vaudevillian City Slickers covered "Powerhouse"--and celebrated cartoon composer Carl Stalling.

In fact, Stalling adapted about 20 of Scott's melodies for use in his scores, and in 1943 Warner Brothers bought Scott's publishing outright. But Scott never wrote for cartoons himself and was in truth so indifferent to his compositions' use in this context that his widow and his ex-wife only recently learned that such pop icons as Bugs, Daffy, and Porky had danced to music from his pen.

It could have been any one of them--the Orb, Aphex Twin, Future Sound of London. He didn't hear them as individual bands, but as an amorphous cultural trend. A coterie of featureless android buzz makers. Experts could tell the difference, distinguish one repeating bleeper from another, but he was no expert. His zeal for the music wasn't aesthetic appreciation. If he thought about it, he didn't really like the music. His response came from another region altogether.

One of Scott's greatest achievements in jazz was as sociopolitical as it was musical: in 1942, he formed the first racially mixed house orchestra for CBS, seating tenor sax legend Ben Webster, trumpeter Charlie Shavers, and drummer Specs Powell alongside white musicians like pianist Johnny Guarnieri and even Frank Sinatra. This was especially significant because it brought the interracialness of the groups of Benny Goodman (with Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton) and Joe Sullivan's Cafe Society Band right into the lap of a media institution. Unfortunately, this experiment in equal opportunity self-destructed in 1945.

Scott's music continues to infiltrate the popular ear, more actively in the last five years. The producers of The Simpsons have adapted some of his compositions, and a 1992 compilation, The Music of Raymond Scott: Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights (Columbia), unearthed some of his long out-of-print original jazz material.

Scott's eclecticism and orientalism are also perfect totems for downtown New York genre-splicers like John Zorn and Phillip Johnston, the latter of whom included a version of "Powerhouse" on Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble (Black Saint) in 1993 and clearly has Scott's narrative style in mind in the colorful, storyboarded tunes he writes and arranges for his midsize ensembles. Clarinetist Don Byron went so far as to devote a third of his 1996 release Bug Music (Nonesuch) to Scott's compositions, situating them among pieces by Duke Ellington and John Kirby. And Scott's impact can be detected far afield from jazz--strange bedfellows Devo, Gwar, Soul Coughing, They Might Be Giants, and the Kronos Quartet have all covered him. If you measure the tree by the spread of its fruit, the secret society of Scott is a towering oak indeed.

Others must feel the same, he figured, judging by the popularity of the new electronic twiddlers. As a kid, he'd felt the stirrings when listening to his brother's Kraftwerk and Fripp and Eno records; he sat quietly while the older kids argued their merits, trying to convince themselves of the timeless value and innovative qualities of robot rock.

But while Scott quietly, almost anonymously implanted his music in the memory banks of several generations via cartoons, few knew his true master plan. Probably Scott himself didn't even know it. But Soothing Sounds for Baby, a three-record series he made for Epic in 1962, was the culmination of a secretive but extremely intense engagement with electronic music.

An early colleague of Robert Moog, Scott started building his own electronic instruments--prototypical synthesizers, a keyboard-activated theremin called a clavivox, a device for composing film scores called a videola--in the late 40s, and this activity would earn him a five-year salaried position in research and development at Motown Records. But as he himself later admitted, Scott was neurotic about his work. He labored in near isolation at his elaborate home studio on Long Island, refused to patent or market most of his inventions, and asked Moog not to discuss his ideas with anyone. As late as the 70s, Scott was head of his own electronics research company, but he suffered a debilitating stroke in the late 80s and died in 1994.

It was the instrument he called the electronium--the prototype of which was recently purchased by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh--for which he should probably be logged in the electronic-music history books; at present, he's primarily known in that arena for having bought one of Moog's first commercially produced synthesizers--two years after the Soothing Sounds recordings--for use in some TV jingles. Fifteen years in the making and functioning completely without computer help, the electronium was probably the first musical sequencer, allowing a composer to repeat and vary a selection of notes or sounds ad infinitum. Sound like the backbone of electronica? That's right--but long before digital sample and hold became a viable pop production process, Scott was making records with the electronium. Records for babies. What better place to start a movement than in the cradle?

He felt the pangs intensifying, as if the noodly, repetitive sounds were some lost language he'd known but forgotten, a dialect discarded or repressed. He'd tried to deny it, cultivating an interest in punk, then chamber music, and finally acoustic jazz, trying to get as far from the synthetic sounds as his intellect would carry him. But he was drawn to electronic music like a bug to a zapper.

Soothing Sounds for Baby was released in collaboration with the New Haven-based Gesell Institute, a highly esteemed, still active parents'-aid organization that was 15 years old at the time. Gesell provided the "special informative booklet," and Scott provided the music--very, very strange music. Synthesized music. Unprecedented music.

Bear in mind that Walter (now Wendy) Carlos didn't release Switched-On Bach until 1968. Those sorts of hyperbolic electronic sounds weren't yet circulating widely in pop culture, aside from occasional theremin glisses in 50s sci-fi flicks. The word synthesizer didn't even really take hold in the new-music lexicon until 1965. Yet today some freaky ambient producer could plausibly pretend he'd concocted the kitschy, crackpot sound world on Soothing Sounds, call it "dub pacifier," and become an instant underground smash. And any forward-thinking, backward-looking DJ could have a field day with the 14 minutes of looping tones on "Lullaby," the first track on volume one, designated for infants aged one to six months.

In truth, it's difficult to imagine conscientious parents buying these "aural toys." Nearly admissible as kids' music, volume one's "Nursery Rhyme" has a simple melody that recalls "Three Blind Mice" (which later became a popular dub reggae motif), but it's backed by a penetrating high-pitched peep that pokes out like a really vindictive cricket--not likely to calm the savage newborn. On the second volume, designed for ages six months to one year, the short "Tempo Block" could be a fab new hit just as it is, its electro-bongo loop sounding uncannily like rhythm tracks from Sly & the Family Stone's Fresh. And echoes--premonitions?--of Kraftwerk waft through "The Happy Whistler," its interminable synth-bass ostinato and shifting harmonies backed by a facsimile of sheet-metal percussion.

As volume two proceeds, things get even weirder--imagine mom and dad returning to the nursery to find the record they put on for little Johnny has turned to a shifting loop of scraping and grating noises, as if someone had contact miked the activity of the squirrels in the attic. The 18-minute "Toy Typewriter" sounds more like Ralf Wehowsky or Oval or Jim O'Rourke than anything you'd find in the children's section at Tower today.

The three albums all but climbed into his hands. He was preparing his parents' home for a yard sale when he discovered, nestled in a moldy box between hopelessly scratched copies of Carmina Burana and Dave Brubeck's Jazz Goes to College, a three-record set called Soothing Sounds for Baby. Without knowing exactly why, he took the albums out of the sell pile. The big-eyed, beaming infants on the gatefold sleeves just rang a bell--a decidedly electronic bell. Upon leaving he tucked them into his backpack like three little papooses.

The three volumes of Soothing Sounds have been reissued in all their nutting glory on the Dutch Basta label (which has also released several records of a group called the Beau Hunks covering Scott's jazz tunes). Though the originals reportedly sold only a few thousand copies, there's no telling how far their reach actually was; it's conceivable that they warped--er, soothed--the minds of untold tens of thousands of toddlers, setting the subliminal stage for wave upon wave of electro-pabulum and synth exploration alike.

As the needle hit the scarred vinyl, the sounds floated him back to a distant neonatality. The memory became clearer with each bleep, but it was still confused, matted, compounded, overlaid with decades of later electronic music. The piercing high melody of "Tin Soldier," from volume three (for one year to 18 months), rang out in his apartment, keyboard lines slapping back like something from an Augustus Pablo dub plate, a three-note electronic drum tattoo beating a new hole in his head. How many of us are out there, he wondered, the secret children of Dr. Raymond Scott? o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album cover/ Raymond Scott photo-uncredited.

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