Great Scott!

One hundred years of Raymond Scott's exotica genius

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Though orchestra leader and electronics pioneer Raymond Scott may not exactly have been a household name, his sonic inventiveness succeeded in seeping across the larger social synapse of America's television generation. Credited with founding 20th-century music's dubiously named exotica genre — a kind of pop counterpart to art brut that included everything from Claude Debussy's Javanese tribalism to Clara Rockmore's theremin, Arthur Lyman's vibes and chimes to electronic voice phenomena séances — Scott created a corpus that was as unique as it was bizarre.

In fact, Scott's variety of assorted musical approaches was extraordinary: he composed everything from syncopated so-called cartoon jazz to proto-synthesizer radio jingles to ambient albums for toddlers. "The concept of electronic music for babies in the early 1960s usually strikes folks as either extremely clever and useful or totally insane," says Jeff Winner, aficionado, archivist, and coproducer of many Scott reissues. And truly, Scott's role as a radiophonic designer and a thoroughly American surrealist in the autodidactic tradition of Joseph Cornell or Stan Brakhage is unparalleled in the almanac of recorded music.

It's appropriate, then, that this new year marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of a man in whose absence the ether of the 20th century may have sounded radically different — or, at the very least, would have had fewer blurbs, blips, and zoinks. In celebration, the Raymond Scott Archive and Basta Records — the geniuses behind the comprehensive Manhattan Research Inc. (2000) and the 1997 reissue of Scott's Soothing Sounds for Baby, Volumes 1–3 (Epic, 1963) — are planning a yearlong audio bacchanal that will revisit every major era in the composer's 50-year career. According to Winner, this will include the release of a documentary by Scott's only son, Stan Warnow; a series of electronic and jazz rarities recordings; and live tribute concerts on the East and West Coasts.

Born Harry Warnow in 1908 to a Jewish Russian immigrant family in New York City, Scott pursued his early passion for science and music by attending a local Brooklyn technical school before entering the Institute of Musical Art (later the Juilliard School) in the late 1920s. He began his professional career as an in-house musician at CBS, where he worked in varying capacities for the television and radio network — as a session man, orchestra conductor, and creative director — for decades.

In the interim, the always resourceful musician recruited five compeers and formed the Raymond Scott Quintette — so called because, according to Scott, using the correct "<0x2009>'sextet' might get your mind off music." Under Scott's direction, the Quintette produced a striking oeuvre that blended the compositional and stylistic aesthetic of big band jazz, the amorphous motifs of soundtrack and sound effects records, and the playful narratives of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The song titles alone are surrealism in miniature — "New Year's Eve in a Haunted House," "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," "In an Eighteenth Century Drawing Room," and Scott's most celebrated and oft-repeated piece, "Powerhouse." So successful were these instrumentals that within months of their debut the Quintette were contracted with 20th Century Fox to score major motion pictures. These songs would also become the adolescent soundtrack of Saturday morning after Warner Bros.

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