Raymond Scott: Raymond Scott: Soothing Sounds from Manhattan Research
Raymond Scott’s place in the pantheon of electronic music pioneers is a little more obscure than many of his contemporaries and descendants but his contribution was essential for the music’s development. After many years out of print, his only commercially available electronic music from the time - the utilitarian Soothing Sounds For Baby series - is being reissued as well as a repress of the incredible compilation, Manhattan Research, that brought his story to prominence in the electronica era.
A piano and music composition student, Raymond Scott began his music career working for CBS Radio before trailing the crest of the Jazz wave in the 30s. A prolific composer, his music never quite broke through into the lucrative touring and publishing jazz circuit though its inherent oddness, hyperactivity and memorability meant it was adapted liberally for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. While his music was popular with the public he was never welcomed in the serious jazz circles and turned to more commercial writing pursuits. He also took production and A+R work for record label Everest before establishing Manhattan Research in 1946. Manhattan Research was Scott’s instrument-building and electronic music production enterprise, an outlier in many ways for this music just beginning to be explored. While other forerunners were heavily funded by academic institutions in, mostly in mainland Europe (the technology needed for producing musique concrete, for example, was not available commercially), Scott foresaw a future where electronic music would be commercially produced from more attainable methods and machines. A major influence on early synthesizer developers like Bob Moog, Raymond Scott is the missing piece of the electronic music puzzle.
Scott described Manhattan Research as "More than a think factory—a dream center where the excitement of tomorrow is made available today” and through it he invented ring modulators, drum machines and revolutionary early synthesizers like the Clavivox. With a keen commercial mind as well as a genius for engineering, Scott created music with his machines that broke through the veneer of seriousness and academia which electro-acoustic, “electronic” music had donned in the 50s. Raymond Scott’s music is playful, filled with gorgeous textures and rhythms light years ahead of its time. On some compositions you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a Warp Records track from the mid 90s: his early work with drum machines and loops is hypnotic and utopian simultaneously. His music was used in countless radio and TV advertisements, mixing space age spring reverb with tape loops and theremin-like warbles (as well as some now wonderfully kitsch vocal interludes and overdubs) and has since been sampled by luminaries like J Dilla, Flying Lotus, Madlib, Missy Elliott, Gorillaz, Danny Brown and Luke Vibert.
On Soothing Sounds For Baby, Scott articulated an almost science fiction notion: music as a tool for struggling parents. Over three separate volumes designed for different age-ranges, his music is created to entertain, placate and lull-to-sleep young children. Despite the utilitarianism of the music, it’s endlessly enjoyable for anyone with ears. Volume 1 (ages 1-6 months) uses minimalist loops predominantly in the mid-high frequency range designed to induce a trance-like state. Lullaby uses a bedrock of percussive sounds and a theremin-style instrument to weave a soothing melody into the mix. Nursery Rhyme carries on the dynamic, with the repetitive bleeps inducing a transcendence in the mind while Tic Toc feels like an experimental electronic piece from any time in the last 40 years: see-sawing sounds ring modulated and phased slightly into a trance. On Volume II (ages 6-12 months) the frequency range widens slightly, with musical ideas becoming more developed. One of the musical comparisons to be made might be that of Moondog, another outsider who fused a sense of whimsy and wonder with endlessly inventive rhythm. The track The Happy Whistler has different layers of sequenced synthesizer (it boggles the mind to think of the lengths Scott must have gone to to develop these techniques, so easily reproduced even two decades later) and has a proto-krautrock feel. Indeed, you can hear the ghost of Scott in groups like Kraftwerk, Cluster and Tangerine Dream and more in this period. Take Toy Typewriter for example, in which Scott records percussive sounds that may or may not be typewriter onto tape and then modulates the frequency, pitch and other parameters to compose an improvised piece that foretells minimal techno by a mere 40 years. On Volume III (12-18 months) he uses more reverb and delay effects, centrepiece Little Miss Echo’s lapping shores of twinkling, shimmering synthesizer fragments floating in and out of the ear’s view. It’s beautiful music for another world or for our world if we could make it so much better.
“The music you are listening to is completely electronic and has been created and produced on equipment designed and manufactured by Manhattan Research, a division of Raymond Scott Enterprises Incorporated.”
Manhattan Research, Inc. is quite simply an essential document of some of the most pioneering music made in the 20th century. A compendium of Scott’s experiments with abstract electronic music and a wide sample of his commercial work, including collaborations with Jim Henson, advertisements for Sprite, IBM, demonstrations for his equipment (seriously, listen to The Bass-Line Generator and just feel the sound of rave and acid house made in the 50s) and just endless examples of a brilliant musical and engineering mind. It must have seemed like discovering the key to universe for musicians and fans to discover that, on a track like Cindy Electronium, Scott was creating electronic dance music 30 years before its boom in the 80s. The tracks on Manhattan Research, Inc. range from beguiling time capsules that are redolent of the Atomic age of discovery and belief in the future (the Bendix tracks feel like an advertisement screened in the Jetsons but with a patina of nostalgia) to incredibly prescient, audacious works that still sound otherworldly. A particular highlight is Jim Henson’s journey through The Organized Mind, with Scott’s bleeps and bloops in turn soothing and accommodating Henson’s character. It’s both incredibly funny and speaks of a time when science and research were leaping forward into new realms of knowledge: space travel, psychiatry and psychology and of course, electronic engineering.
One of Raymond Scott’s astounding achievements is that a collection of his electronic music spanning two decades can sound so endlessly fun, like a deep treasure trove of ever-mystifying jeweled rewards. Dialogue, noise, hints of his previous jazz career but most of all the evidence of formidable musical and engineering mind are woven together to create an essential yet often overlooked story in the development of 20th century music.