Raymond Scott is not a name that is going to jump out at you as being famous; but if you are a Bugs Bunny fan (and who isn’t?), you probably know more about the man and his work than you think you do.
Raymond Scott was a man with a wide range of talents, and an eclectic collection of accomplishments; unfortunately, he is now mostly remembered, when remembered at all, as the guy who wrote that funny music that plays in Bugs Bunny and other cartoon features from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
(If you are curious, you can search out a video of him and his band playing his signature tune Powerhouse, featured in a host of Warner Brothers cartoons, on YouTube.)
But this man was much more than just a creator of novelty tunes. He was also an early pioneer in the field of electronic music, and a gifted and inspired (if perhaps slightly whacky) engineer, who showed the way toward the synthesized instruments that are now part of our everyday musical experience.
Scott started out his career as the piano-playing lead man on a swing-era jazz ensemble called the Ray Scott Quintet, even though he made up the sixth member.
He enjoyed respectable success as a performer, though he was often dismissed as a “novelty act” by more serious jazz aficionados. But he had an on-going problem: He didn’t like working with other musicians.
In this, he resembled another great musical innovator who ultimately turned to electronic music, too – the immortal Frank Zappa.
Though he never possessed the overpowering musicianship of Zappa, Scott shared the same quirky, unpredictable and sometimes nutty approach to musical composition, along with an intense desire to control every facet of the musical experience.
It was that longing for complete pe rsonal control over musical performance that lead Scott into the field of electronically generated sound.
In 1946, he founded a Manhattan Research Inc., dedicated to “the creation of Electronic Music and Musique Concrete.” (“Musique Concrete” being, in essence, music that uses non-musical recorded sound as material in a composition..)
Over the following 20 years or so, he created and patented a host of different sound-generating electronic devices, some of which were featured in various television commercials he scored for in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
These being the days vacuum tubes and big, clunky electrical components, his creations tended to be big, heavy, expensive, immobile, and therefore marginal in their cultural impact.
By 1956, he was ready to patent a more portable electronic instrument called the Scott Clavivox. This keyboard-based electronic music device was the inspiration for Bob Moog’s “Moog Synthesizer,” which entered the musical scene so forcefully in the mid 1960’s, and set the scene for hip hop music and all its subsequent derivatives.
His magnum opus, though was his never-quite finished Electronium, a church-organ sized behemoth which was intended not only to be not only an instrument, but a kind of artificial-intelligence-driven co-composer of musical pieces.
Having set out to do away with the need musicians, Scott was on the path to doing away with the need for composers, too.
He spent many years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, working on prototypes of this device (much of it financed, in fact, by Motown Records), only to leave the work incomplete when he had a near-fatal heart attack in 1977.
Advances in electronic technology eventually rendered pretty much all of Scott’s musical inventions as obsolete as they were obscure, but he continued working as an innovative and quirky composer well into his old age.
Many of his electronic compositions come uncannily close to the “house music” of the 1980’s, and sometimes even sound a bit like Frank Zappa’s experimental instrumental music, though I can find no evidence that Zappa ever heard of him.
Though he was both an interesting composer and a brilliant engineer, Scott passed away in relative obscurity in 1994, just when he was about to experience a minor resurgence of interest in his music and his technological legacy.
His is a classic case of a brilliant, eccentric talent that operates on the fringes of the artistic and technological world, achieving cultural impact only indirectly, and through obscure courses.
Because his technological interests took him into an area that was not much in fashion at the time, he never achieved much fame as an inventor; and, because he worked in “pop” media like swing jazz and television commercial scores, he never came to the attention of serious music lovers.
Still, weighing his achievements in both fields, and their ultimate, indirect effects, it has to be said that he was a pretty impressive guy, and certainly a man worth remembering for more than what he did for the Bugs Bunny cartoons.
You can learn more about him at the excellent commemorative site raymondscott.com.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie
who lives in Whitehorse.