I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Sound of Surreal: Interview with Jeff Winner on Raymond Scott

by Kristen Bialik
Nov. 5, 2011

Music historian and archivist, Jeff E. Winner, has written feature articles for Electronic Musician magazine, liner notes for the Ellipsis Arts series, OHM: The Early Gurus Of Electronic Music, and contributed chapters to the MIT Press volume, SOUND UNBOUND, and to Oxford University Press's GROVE DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN MUSIC. Mr. Winner also edited ARE WE NOT MEN?, the Devo biography from Firefly Publishing. That makes him totally the dude to talk to about Raymond Scott himself. And on top of being a total badass on Raymond Scott-ology, he was a nice enough guy to answer a few of our questions. The conversation goes everywhere - from Looney Tunes to Benny Goodman to Mark Mothersbaugh. Check it out... 

NAmag: Wayne Barker, the pianist in a Raymond Scott tribute band (the RS “Orchestrette”), talks about Scott’s play with different fields and tempos within a single piece like “Powerhouse.” Along with this overlapping quality, what other experimental features of Scott’s music can you describe?

The A/B/A structure that Wayne mentions was a hallmark of some of Raymond Scott’s 1930s tunes — tempo changes that shift abruptly — usually from a fast part at the beginning, then into a slower section in the middle, then back to the fast part again at the end.

In the ‘30s, there were no electronic studio effects available yet, of course, and he also tried weird experimental things like attaching a big sea shell to a microphone to manipulate the sounds he was recording. And he brought the band into CBS Radio at 3 AM so they could record in the bathroom because he liked the echo from the tiles on the floor, ceiling, and walls. He also sometimes instructed his trumpet player to perform with the bell submerged in a bucket of water, for a bubbling sound effect.

He had tons of recording equipment, with microphones all over the place, and he coined the term “creative acoustics” to describe his techniques to use microphones to capture and manipulate sounds that differ from those heard by the naked ear. An example — he’d place a 'dead' mic next to a piano and turn it on only after the keys were struck, to catch a “ghostlike effect” of after-tones that were, in his words, “ethereal, disembodied, and had a sense of great space.”

NAmag: Raymond Scott’s music was so unique and experimental. What do you think Warner Brothers heard in Scott’s compositions that made them so apt for their cartoons?

Among other things, they heard hit pop tunes of the day. Warner Bros. bought the rights to a batch of Raymond Scott’s compositions that included a series of big radio hits. So when they were adapted into Bugs Bunny cartoons, they were recognizable by audiences of the era. Today, it might be like hearing a Radiohead song in an episode of Family Guy.

Also, the tunes sounded playful, colorful, animated — pun intended! He described his style as “descriptive jazz,” and the tunes like, “The Penguin,” and “New Year's Eve in a Haunted House,” seem to paint visual portraits, so they lend themselves to soundtrack use.

NAmag: Though Scott never actually composed for cartoons, he did work on several experimental films with Muppet creator Jim Henson. Was Scott interested in film (I know he appeared in several) and how did he choose various projects?

Yes, he and his band appeared in some 1930s Hollywood films, and later, he scored soundtracks for movies like Never Love a Stranger, and The Pusher.

In the 1950s, he invented an audio/visual console called The Videola for movie scoring, that allowed a composer to see a TV screen as he played music, in sync with the picture, on a keyboard. And an application of another of his inventions, The Electronium, was the ability to generate and record music, in real time, for movies.

As you mentioned, for the young Jim Henson — this was before Sesame Street and The Muppet Show — he created electronic scores for a series of short films, and some industrial projects.

Late in his life, after he retired from Motown, he videotaped movies from television to study the soundtracks for a proposed book on the subject, but his health failed before its completion.

NAmag: I’m really interested in Scott’s process of composing without sheet music. Can you talk a bit about how he composed music alongside his bands? And is sheet music available now?

Instead of writing music on paper, and then bringing the sheets to his band, he’d sit at his piano and play each part for the other members, and ask them mimic it. He required the band to memorize the complex arrangements, and they weren’t allowed to read sheet music because he said they could play faster if they “skipped the eyes.”

Yes, we do have sheet music available now. Email me [info@RaymondScott.com] for details.

NAmag: I love Scott’s quirky and almost poetic song titles like “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals” and “Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxicabs Upon Meeting With A Fare.” Besides the music itself, was Scott inspired by any writers/artists that led to such unusual titles?

He appears to have been influenced by his own wild imagination, naturally, and also by visual movements like Surrealism and Dada. I think he enjoyed the notion of travel to exotic lands — with titles like, “Hypnotist in Hawaii,” “Siberian Sleigh Ride,” “Twilight In Turkey,” and “A Boy Scout In Switzerland” — and beyond — “Celebration On The Planet Mars,” and “Dedicatory Piece To The Crew And Passengers Of The First Experimental Rocket Express To The Moon."

NAMag: Raymond Scott’s electronic music machine, the Electronium, was a kind of artificial intelligence composer. Can you tell me more about how the Electronium works?

He described it as a collaboration between man and machine. There was no piano-style keyboard — instead, you’d flip switches, press buttons, and turn knobs — and the device would generate its own rhythms, base-lines, melodies, riffs and grooves which could be “guided” and modified by the human user. An early prototype of the device caught the attention of Berry Gordy, president of Motown, in the late-1960s. Gordy ordered a special version to be built for Motown, and hired Scott to be Director of Electronic Research and Development throughout the ‘70s. The Electronium invented its own musical elements that could later be replicated by Motown's adept studio musicians for their records.

NAmag: The Electronium shows how Scott was also a talented inventor and engineer. What were the design and building processes like for him? And where are the Electronium machines now?

It was a very slow process. He built several different versions over a period of decades. At first, they were what was termed ‘elecro-mechanical,’ meaning there were moving parts — switches, relays, and vacuum tubes. Later, when integrated circuitry made it possible to make smaller devices, he built newer versions. Today, only one Electronium is known to survive — the final, Motown model. It’s owned by movie/TV soundtrack composer and Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh, and there’s an attempt being made to restore it.

NAmag: The documentary you co-produced, Deconstructing Dad: The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott, was directed by Scott’s son. How did the documentary come into being and how was it working on such a personal film project?

Scott didn’t have a close relationship with his son during his lifetime, so the film is his attempt to ‘cure’ that lack of closeness. One of my roles, aside from appearing in the film, was to help his son fill-in the blanks regarding Scott’s career. So the documentary is both the story of Raymond Scott’s life, and also an exploration of a famous father/son dynamic.

NAmag: The documentary features so many well-known composers and musicians. How has Scott’s music/influence been used by musicians and artists today (e.g. covers, adaptations, visual art, etc.)?

During the 20th century, and more recently, Scott’s tunes have been covered or sampled by everyone from Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Paul Whiteman, to Rush, They Might Be Giants, Dilla, and Gorillaz. His music will probably live forever, and continues to appear in DJ sets, commercials, video games, TV shows, and movies.

NAmag: As music director of CBS, Scott put together the first ever racially integrated radio band. Do you think this set a precedent for others to follow in the music industry?

He did, yes. In 1942, before he accepted the position of Music Director, Scott insisted that he be allowed to hire the best players for his band. And he felt some of the best happened to be black. Eventually, he persuaded CBS to allow him to hire anyone he wanted, and he formed the first racially integrated radio band. It featured some of the biggest names in Jazz, like Charlie Shavers, Cozy Cole, Emmett Berry, Billy Taylor, Benny Morton, and Ben Webster. As usual, Raymond Scott got what he wanted.


Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.