Can Synthesizers Compose Music? Nearly 50 Years Ago, This One Could
Electronium inventor Raymond Scott in his music lab
Throughout the 1960s, Berry Gordy's Motown Records virtually controlled pop music. But as a new decade was dawning, the soul impresario sought to modernize his "Hit Factory." In August 1970, he read an article in Variety about an innovative music device called the Electronium. Invented by composer, pianist and engineer Raymond Scott, the Electronium, a kind of computerized synthesizer, was capable not just of playing music but of creating it.
"It's a dedicated computer designed to compose music. That's the unique part of it," explains Brian Kehew, a keyboard expert who has worked with The Who and is spearheading a current attempt to restore the Electronium. "It had this composition-generating, melody-generating function. It's the musician that controls the choices and yet it generates without your predisposition."
A week after reading the Variety article, Gordy, along with a sizable entourage from Motown, visited the 62-year-old Scott at his music lab on Long Island to hear and see a demonstration of his creation. Gordy was so impressed by the machine that he offered the inventor $10,000 to build an Electronium for Motown.
Scott went out to L.A. in 1971 for what he thought would be a six-week project. Six months later, Gordy offered him the job of head of electronic research and development at Motown, so Scott and wife Mitzi relocated there permanently.
Gordy knew of Scott's early career as a jazz bandleader and composer who had written numerous hit songs — many of which, such as "Powerhouse" (often heard in cartoon depictions of assembly lines), were made famous after Carl Stalling adapted them for Warner Bros. cartoons. "He was well aware that he wasn't only getting a technological wizard; he was getting a guy who knew how to compose pop hit tunes," says historian and musician Jeff Winner, who has curated Scott's archives since 1995.
One of the major stipulations of Scott's deal with Gordy was that he couldn't publicize the fact that he was working for Motown. "Berry Gordy did not want word to leak out that hits were being generated by robots," Winner explains. "So Raymond had to keep it quiet, which he was a little bit disappointed about."
It was Scott's second stint in Los Angeles. The first was back in the 1930s, when he was signed to a multifilm contract with 20th Century Fox. He occasionally appeared as a bandleader in movies such as Ali Baba Goes to Town but mainly supplied soundtrack songs, as on Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, starring Shirley Temple. But as Winner notes, Scott didn't like being on set and never enjoyed the film experience.
The second time around was different. Scott was in L.A. doing something he was truly passionate about. He began building an Electronium and taught Motown's engineers and artists how to use the device.
"It was a masterpiece of intuitive thought," says Hoby Cook, a former engineer at Motown, who worked with Scott on the Electronium. "This is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," Cook recalls thinking when he first saw it. "This is absolutely the future."
As remarkable as the Electronium was, it eventually became apparent that Scott's vision would never match Motown's. Cook tried to tell Scott that he needed to be able to bend the machine to do what Berry Gordy wanted, but Gordy and Scott were both visionaries and each had his own ideas for the machine.
"Ray designed this to do a specific thing, which was not at all what Berry Gordy wanted out of it or what anybody [who] used it wanted," Cook recalls. "It was designed to be a composer, and with Ray at the controls, it did that amazingly well. But once you tried to sort of subdue it and make it do what you wanted it to do, it became infinitely more difficult, which was where it fell apart in terms of getting acceptance at Motown." In the end, no Motown song featuring the Electronium was ever released.
Despite this disconnect, working on the Electronium was one of the best times of Scott's life. "He wrote a letter to a fan in 1980 explaining that," Winner says. "He said it was the most enjoyable time of his life, working with electronic instruments and electronic music."
Artist reaction to the Electronium was mixed. Some musicians, including Michael Jackson, were fascinated by the Electronium and excited to use it, while others disliked having to subvert their creativity to a machine. "For them to all of a sudden be asked to acquiesce their talent to a machine and play along with a machine and let the machine be a leader ... some of them resented it," Winner notes. Despite Scott's best efforts to train others, no one else seemed capable of playing the Electronium to its full potential.
Scott died in 1994, but his creative vision lives on. Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh bought the Electronium and kept in L.A. It was later moved to Oregon for some time, but now it's coming back to L.A. for Kehew's restoration attempt, which is being partially financed by "Somebody That I Used to Know" singer-songwriter Gotye. Kehew's studio in North Hollywood is currently a mess of wires and about 200 switches controlling various aspects of the analog machine.
"It's a bird's nest, although it does have logic to it," Kehew says. Once he has a better understanding of the Electronium's voice, he can sample or simulate it and further understand Scott's vision.
In 2012, Winner honored Scott by producing a live multimedia show at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The show had two separate bands, one led by Steve Bartek, formerly of Oingo Boingo and Danny Elfman's orchestrator for movies such as Edward Scissorhands and Fifty Shades of Grey, and the other by Ego Plum, a soundtrack composer for Nickelodeon and Disney. "There isn't a day when I'm not influenced by Raymond Scott," Plum says. "I'm always trying to channel that or reach that height."
Scott's music also has inspired generations of hip-hop, jazz and electronic musicians. "I think it's tremendous," says L.A.-based electronic producer and Low End Theory mainstay Daedelus of Scott's influence. "You've heard his music as part of your DNA. Be it from his use in popular culture — cartoons, film, that kind of thing — but then also just his influence in terms of where he took jazz and other popular forms of music."
For hip-hop fans, Scott is probably best known for "Lightworks," which was slightly manipulated by J. Dilla for Donuts. "When you hear the original, [Dilla] didn't flip it super hard," Daedelus notes. "He found it and he transformed it with his touch."
Later this month, fans will finally get to hear Scott's Motown-era Electronium on Three Willow Park, named after Scott's address at the industrial park on Long Island where he developed the first Electronium. The album "features a wide array of music and sounds," says experimental music expert Irwin Chusid, who co-produced the album with Winner and Gert-Jan Blom. "Some are accessible and pleasant. Others will peel layers off your cerebral cortex."
Meanwhile, Kehew continues to restore the Electronium in the hope that someday others can unlock its secrets, a task no one ever fully accomplished during its inventor's lifetime.
"It was hard to comprehend, and the only way a person could learn to play it would be to have the guts to be taught four hours a day for two or three months," Scott said in a 1982 interview with electronic music scholar Tom Rhea. "I tried a couple of times [but] nobody had that kind of patience."
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