Wednesday, September 10, 2008

100 Years of Insanity

Today marks what would have been the hundredth birthday of musician/inventor Raymond Scott, familiar to anyone (like me) who grew up watching far too many Warner Brothers' cartoons. Scott was the musical inspiration for many of Carl Stalling's arrangements, and Scott's original tunes are glibly named, reflecting jazz age sensibilities with -- I suspect -- an impish sense of humor. Scott was a pioneer in early electronic music, literally filling the walls of his home studio with his own creations. I envy and admire both his musical chops and his tinkering talent, and note with some sadness that only posthumously is he being recognized and re-discovered.

Scott was also a bit of a perfectionist. Listening to one of the "bonus" tracks on the Microphone Music albums, you can hear a candid recording of him drilling his ensemble's clarinetist through a complicated passage in "Powerhouse," repeating the same sequence of notes again and again. Without the sheet music in front of me, I honestly have a hard time determining what's wrong with the performance; is he muffing the intonation? The dynamics? Considering that the passage in question practically flies by when played at-tempo, I think it's very telling to listen to Scott semi-patiently drill the clarinetist over... and over... and over... seeking that perfect passage. No wonder he went into electronic and mechanical music: adjustments could be made by setting a dial or flipping a relay.

I certainly see a lot of myself in this, not coincidentally because my own meager compositions sound very Scott-like to me, especially when held up against his later all-electronic stuff. He and I seemed to take the opposite paths, though: immersed in human imperfection, Scott embraced the clean precision of the machine in his work, whereas I'm looking to muddy up my work with a little lower-tech imperfection, embracing the ink bottle and the typo.

Happy Birthday, Raymond. Hope you found perfection in the end.


Olivander said...

Admittedly, "Powerhouse" is a very difficult piece to play on a reed instrument. I think Bobby Hammack was smart to replace the clarinet with a xylophone on his version of it. It also added an extra layer of goofiness.

But yes, Loony Tunes wouldn't have been the same without Mr Scott. When you think about it, it's probably the first jazz we were exposed to as youngsters.

Are you familiar with another electronic experimenter, Pierre Henry?

mpclemens said...

Wow, that is completely insane. I like. Added bonus: it's listenable without being under the influence of Adult Beverages or mood-altering substances, unlike some of Scott's stuff (see the "Soothing Sounds for Baby" tracks.)

For more head games, check out the various tracks on YouTube by Delia Derbyshire. No altering substances required.

"Powerhouse" is a very difficult track, and I think you can see where Scott was heading, writing music that required mechanical speed and precision to realize. "Manhattan Research, Inc." gives more examples of his commercial work, including some fun stuff with Jim Henson.