Sharps & Flats

Early electronic composer Raymond Scott dreamed of today's digital future -- in the 1950s.


Andy Battaglia
June 13, 2000 11:01PM (UTC)

"Someday, science tells us, we'll be able to clean our walls electronically. But right now we all depend on ... Spic & Span." This was the kind of ad jingle that came out of Manhattan Research Inc., the wholesale electronic music workshop founded by Raymond Scott in the 1950s. A prototypical midcentury electronic musician, Scott lived in a world of room-size synthesizers and interplanetary test frequencies. He built music machines with things like thyratron tubes and unijunction transmitters, while dreaming of compositions that could stream telepathically from the writer to the listener. But unlike his mostly academic peers, such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Scott saw a viable future for electronic sound outside the research lab and in the marketplace. His music was like aural Tang for a generation geared up to go to the moon.

Beautifully packaged as a two-CD set with a 140-page booklet, "Manhattan Research Inc." compiles Scott's work from 1953 to 1969. As an adman, he made "audio logos" for products ranging from Sprite ("Make a melon ball bounce with Sprite!") to Twinkies ("Smart spacemen always have plenty of good tastin' Twinkies along, wherever they go") to Bufferin ("Maybe it's time to try a painquilizer). Buried beneath the novelty jingles -- camp treasures themselves -- were the sounds of a future electronic musicians are still working toward. Stripped from their context, Scott's primitive clicks and cuts could pass now for the most vanguard techno minimalism.

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The divebombing sine waves and sizzling circuit breakers sound all the more startling for the fact that Scott was working mostly on instruments of his own invention. He traded notes with Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer, on early-stage sequencers and tooled around with loops on his own Circle Machine, Clavinox and Electronium. His basement studio, which looked like a NASA control center, inspired one touring newspaper reporter in 1959 to write, "We felt a certain sense of security only because we were wearing rubber-soled shoes."

When not busy building his very own world of sound, Scott found an unlikely collaborator in a pre-Muppets Jim Henson. Instantly recognizable for his already Kermit-like voice, Henson recruited Scott to dribble electronic scraps over his experimental films and commercial work, including a collage spot praising a primitive IBM word processor. Scott's ear-tickling score -- a musique concrhte classic if there ever was one -- burbles under the voices of groaning office workers who find salvation in this weapon against "The Paperwork Explosion." Another piece takes us on an eerie (acid?) trip through Hensons brain, navigating an "out of control!" course through distant memories.

The set's booklet chronicles all of this with countless photos, interviews, schematic drawings, patent applications and detailed notes on all of Scott's experiments. And it's a good thing -- as shockingly modern as his work still sounds today, anything less would make it hard to believe Scott lived when he did.


Andy Battaglia

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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