If It Sounds Good - It Is Good!
— Duke Ellington

The Secretive Genius

The Secretive Genius

Around 30 years ago, we did not have the Alexandrian Library that we call the Intertubes. Back then (aka The Stone Ages) we had to rely on face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and Trade Mags to collect and share information. As a young programmer and engineer I would spend pretty much all my downtime pouring through Mix, EQ, Electronic Musician, and Keyboard Magazine checking out the latest gear, deciphering DIY projects, and hyperexamining studio and stage setups for any tidbits I could apply to my work. Like Scotty reading technical manuals for relaxtion in the original Star Trek series, this was my decompression, my centering, my moments to breathe. I still do this today. :)

But I digress... One of the more interesting things to be found was Keyboard Mag’s Soundpages. These were Flexi-Disc records attached to the middle of the rag with excerpts of artists’ work or some product or effect processor demo tracks (nice listing here, and Peter Kirn talks about the Flexi-Discs here). They were a nice accompaniment to a featured article or a product review, and at least from me garnered a quick listen before being tossed into the dustbin. But one month changed my musical life significantly.

I knew about all of the big players in the Electronic Music Industry - Moog, Buchla, Oberheim, Smith, Linn, Palm, Rossum and Wedge, and a good bit about the musicians themselves - Walter/Wendy Carlos, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Stockhausen, Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, as well as the modern wave of Rhodes, Clarke, Gore/Wilder, et. al., so I figured I had a pretty good handle on the ‘Scene’ so to speak. But with this particular Soundpage I was introduced to someone I had never heard of before. And I wasn’t alone.

Raymond Scott was a composer and bandleader who had quite a bit of success from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, and most likely would have been relegated to subchapters of the history books for just that if it weren’t for one tiny little other thing: he was creating and implementing electronics for music creation as far back as the mid 1940’s. I can’t even begin to dig into Raymond’s incredible life in this Post, so go check the official source and poke around if you want a lot more information. There is a lot of it.

This particular Keyboard Soundpage was showing off one of Scott’s most impressive creations, The Electronium (that’s it in the picture at the top - gorgeous, isn’t it?) The Electronium was not just some ‘bloop and bleep’ noisemaker as was common for electronic instruments at the time - it was an automated composition station as well. Take a moment and think about that for a bit. Scott had dreamed up and was developing - in 1959 - what our Industry took for granted just 30 years later with our MIDI modules and sequencers and still utilize with computers and DAW’s today. This alone is just completely mind-blowing, and when the article went on to talk about the many, many other inventions he had developed, I was hooked. Who was this guy and why am I finding out about this now? It wasn't just the sounds that came off that Soundpage that beguiled me, but his musical style did too. I had to know more, but back then there wasn't much to find.

Thanks to Jeff, Irwin, and Gert-Jan over at the Raymond Scott Archives, his music and history have become much more known to the masses thanks to their website and tireless devotion to all things Raymond Scott (thanks for all you do kids), but with all of the information and recordings and patents and writings that they have uncovered throughout these many years, there is still one big unanswered question to me: Why there was someone actively forging the future of music, and yet it took until after his death for any of this to come to light? Why was Raymond Scott such the Secretive Genius?

Although Scott himself expressed regret about this in his writings (he admitted that he was probably ‘too secretive’ and ‘worried about people stealing his ideas’), I personally believe that he was so enamored by the technology of it all - the ‘what-if’s’, the tinkering, the endless possibilities, that the very idea of finishing something and getting it out there just wasn’t as exciting to him. 

I think a lot of Artists have the same issues.

Just imagine what might have been if Scott had put The Electronuim on the market. Or the Clavivox (which he advertised for sale, but I don’t think any were actually sold), Or the Fascination Series. Or his Circle Machine Sequencer. Would Electronic Music have been as commonplace in the 1960’s as it is today? What would his ideas have spawned in the minds of creators like Dave Smith or Ikutaro Kakehashi? (Raymond worked with Bob Moog, so we can safely assume that some of his ideas found their way there, however miniscule they might have been.) What we create and listen to today might be radically different, yet surprisingly familiar.

Nice thought experiment, and well worth thinking about this regarding your own work. Are you a Secretive Genius too? Are you too worried about others ‘stealing your ideas’ or too caught up in the tinkering that getting things out is the last thing in your mind? I know I'm guilty...

Yes, there's always the possibility that after you slip off This Mortal Coil that your archives will be heralded as the work of 'forward-thinking brilliance' just as much as it could be panned as 'run-of-the-mill insipidness'. Neither of which would matter, as you are neither there to bask in the adulation nor defend your body of work. 

As I've said before, you are currently in the perfect time to be an Artist. Stop being so clever and just get it out there - your audience is waiting. Would Raymond Scott agree? From the regret he expressed in his later years, I believe he would.

This Post was inspired by the release of Raymond Scott’s Three Willow Park on June 30th on CD, Vinyl (!?!) and most Streaming Services. 3WP (like its predecessor Manhattan Research, Inc.) is absolute joy to listen to not only for the achievements of Raymond’s engineering and musical prowess, but for how much he predicted the electronic music that would follow. Again, keep in mind that it’s very likely that nobody heard what Scott was doing (other than a few 50s/60s era commercials or Warner Brothers cartoon adaptations by Carl Stalling), so if you hear a bit of Devo, or Metamatic-era John Foxx, or early Techno, then just smile and think of what could have been... :)

(Almost) Full Mobility