Raymond Scott’s name might not be well known to most consumers of contemporary pop music, but without his innovative contributions to early synthesizer technology and their practical application in a pop format, it’s likely modern music would sound very different (not to mention how he conceived of the scores to countless cartoons). As an early innovator of synthesizer technology, Scott helped lay the foundational elements on which the ensuing half-century plus of pop music was built. The latest archival release from Basta, Three Willow Park: Electronic Music from Inner Space 1961-1971, collects a decade of experiments in sound and technology, providing a look behind the music on their previously issued Raymond Scott retrospectives.
This sprawling double-disc collection brings together more than 60 tracks ranging from the experimental to the fully-realized, showing Scott’s creative process as well as his willingness to try every combination available to him in an attempt to create something new and different. Because of the experimental nature of these recordings — and not in the avant-garde sense — they often play like a demonstration recording or the dictation of a mad scientist tinkering in the lab, never meant for mass consumption. A number of tracks bear little more than a title like “Idea” or “Rhythm Sample” and then a corresponding number. On “Idea 35” we hear Scott talking through his ideas, building each note and sound from the ground up, explaining what he is doing all the while.
Yet it’s the uninhibited, endlessly creative nature inherent in these recordings that make them such a fascinating aural document. They show his willingness to continually tinker with these complex and burdensome primitive synthesizers (one track is jokingly titled “The Sound of Money Being Wasted”). Just listen to him try to explain exactly how everything works to a clearly confused bystander on “It’s a Little Complicated” without also scratching your head in bewilderment.
Interspersed throughout are fully realized compositions of striking beauty in their primitive simplicity. “Carribea” builds from a ping-ponging electronic rhythm to an ethereal, flute-like melody that serves as a magnificent counter for the more strident elements of the clattering rhythmic figures. Meanwhile, “Limbo Effects” veers wildly from sounding like early Aphex Twin to 8-bit video game soundtracks.
One can’t help but think of Bugs Bunny and Marvin the Martian in the closing moments of “A Rhythm Ballet” as the oscillating synthetic shrieks sound the warning to a looming rocket ship lift-off. While credited to the insanely prolific Carl Stalling, he in fact adapted much of Scott’s work for a number of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts for Warner Bros., thus explaining the striking similarity between the work of Stalling and Scott around this period.
Scott’s beyond-futuristic Electronium — his own invention — was designed to perform and compose automatically, presaging modern technology by nearly half a century. “First Class Electronium Pt. 1” gives listeners a unique glimpse into what the machine was capable of, sounding like a wildly oscillating MIDI experiment following a series of notes scattered about seemingly at random and yet with a common endgame and rhythmic underpinning. At more than six minutes, it is likely to test the patience of even the most ardent Scott fan if listened to more than once, given the highly repetitive and scattershot approach of the composition/performance. Yet when it ever so briefly breaks down to a series of almost sub-bass tones, it elicits a thrill given the knowledge that this creation of Scott’s was operating independently of its creator.
“Electronium Movie Score” sounds like just that, providing the soundtrack to some B-movie sci-fi or horror picture with aplomb. It’s a truly remarkable performance given the nature of the machine behind it. Working within a defined range of sounds, its compositional approach is beyond that of anything most schooled composers would ever consider with its wild melodic shifts and atonalities playing like audio versions of non sequitors. Meanwhile, “Three Motown Electronium Adaptations” hints at a proposed partnership that never came to fruition. Sounding not unlike an early version of Super Mario Bros., it would’ve certainly afforded Motown an utterly unique sonic palette from which to pull.
None of Three Willow Park is particularly easy listening by any means, and those just getting into Raymond Scott would be advised to start with The Music of Raymond Scott: Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights, Manhattan Research, Inc. or any of the three volumes of his Soothing Sounds for Baby series of recordings. But once you’ve consumed these, Three Willow Park: Electronic Music from Inner Space 1961-1971 will serve as a fascinating listen and an invaluable look into the early years of electronic music.