Player Piano

Roman Mars [00:00:00] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Here at 99PI, we are huge fans of The Last Archive. It’s a show about the history of truth, how we know what we know, how we used to know things, and why it seems lately as if we don’t know anything at all. The first three seasons were hosted by historian and author Jill Lepore, who’s a friend of the show and frequent guest. For their just launched fourth season, producer Ben Naddaff-Hafrey has taken over hosting. There are stories about freelance wiretaps, time travel, and invasive species panics–with beautiful sound design that makes you feel like you’re inside of history itself. Today, we’re presenting the season premiere, which asks the question, “Can machines automate creativity?” And no, we’re not talking about AI. We’re talking about the player piano. I also love this episode so much because it features a personal favorite composer of mine, Raymond Scott, a guy whose music you have heard without even knowing it. So, let’s step inside the last archive. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:01:19] About 30 years ago, a man named Irwin Chusid encountered one of the strangest machines almost nobody had ever heard of. 

Irwin Chusid [00:01:27] I was 40. I was broke. I was kind of a professional failure. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:01:31] Chusid was a deejay for a small community radio station in New Jersey. A friend of his had put him on to a musician named Raymond Scott, one of the most famous musicians of the early 20th century, who had somehow been completely lost to history. 

Irwin Chusid [00:01:46] These were records that were 25 cents a pop in news record stores back then. And they didn’t even have them in a bin. They had them under the bins. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:01:55] Chusid loved Scott’s music. And he began to get drawn into the mystery of it all. Who was this guy? He was obsessed, but his research kept dead ending. 

Irwin Chusid [00:02:05] I went to a library and went looking through music history books, and there’s almost no mention of Raymond Scott. He wasn’t in the jazz books. He wasn’t in the classical books. He wasn’t in the pop books. I was kind of mystified. He was kind of a mystery man. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:02:21] He was stuck until his friend found Scott in a phone book. He was still alive, living in California. Chusid made a phone call. And then he got on a plane and flew across the country. By then, Scott was in his 80s. He’d had a few strokes, and he couldn’t speak. He would rest in the back of a dingy old ranch house with the heat turned all the way up and a humidifier on full blast. So, there was a kind of heavy fog all around. His wife was taking care of him, but she also kept a lot of stray animals. There was a dog with paralyzed hind legs dragging itself around and a lifetime’s worth of stuff piled everywhere. 

Irwin Chusid [00:02:59] There were old, rusted tape decks, there were wires, there were reels of tape, there were 78 RPM discs–many of them broken, some of them on shelves–old magazines of electronic industry publications, parts catalogs–some of them dating back to the 1940s and ’50s. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:03:20] I should say, this story–spooky as it is–it’s kind of my dream. I’m Ben Naddaff-Hafrey, and I’ve produced this podcast for the last few years. And I’m hosting a season of six episodes now, which… More on that later. All my life I’ve written about history and made music. To find a secret hidden archive full of strange musical electronics–I can imagine almost nothing better. To know, through artifacts, what someone else once knew–something lost–because the records and papers and magazines that Chusid found told a story. Scott had been one of the most famous musicians of the 20th century. He’d been on TV every week for a long time in all the big magazines and films with the movie stars. But almost nobody remembered him now. 

Irwin Chusid [00:04:10] And I saw Raymond’s entire life’s work spread out between a leaky guest shed, a garage, some outbuildings on the property in Van Nuys. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:04:24] How could somebody so famous be so forgotten? But something else didn’t make sense either. There are all these old machines and tools strewn about, with rusty edges. And in the corner of the guest shed, covered in dust, Chusid saw a huge hunk of metal encased in wood. 

Irwin Chusid [00:04:42] A large, dusty piece of furniture–a bit like a wooden console. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:04:46] But it wasn’t furniture. It was a heavy machine with wires spilling out, hundreds of switches on a black metal front, and wood paneling all around. It looked like the cockpit of an airplane, except that some of the switches and buttons said things like “record” and “power,” and others said things like “doo-wah.”

Irwin Chusid [00:05:04] I didn’t know what it was. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:05:07] Later on, someone helping to sort through Scott’s files found a contract. It was between Raymond Scott and Motown Records, and it detailed a binding, confidential agreement to build that machine that Chusid was staring at–a machine that was meant to write songs. The Electronium. Chusid had come out to California because of these 25 cent records he’d gotten obsessed with. It was honestly pretty random. But somehow, he’d stumbled on one of the strangest stories in the history of technology. 

Brian Kehew [00:05:39] How did it work? 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:05:41] That’s the voice of Brian Kehew–one time keyboardist for The Who, Fiona Apple producer, Beatles historian, and one of the people for whom this machine has become now a kind of holy grail because it makes no sense. Raymond Scott began building this thing in the 1950s, and it was a kind of mechanical, early artificial intelligence that actually worked. We’re freaked out about ChatGPT now? This thing was built in secret at a major studio in the 1970s. Michael Jackson used to watch it work. And nobody now can figure out how to get it to work again. In the years between Chusid stumbling upon the Electronium in that rundown ranch house and today, a lot of people have gotten involved in preserving the machine or bringing it back to life in some fashion. Brian Kehew, but also Mark Mothersbaugh, the lead singer of Devo, Gotye, the pop star, and teams of engineers and programmers and musicians from all around the world because it turns out that the man behind it knew how to make music like no one else and they want to hear it again. Welcome to Season Four of The Last Archive, the show about how we know what we know, how we used to know things, and why it seems sometimes lately as if we don’t know anything at all. This episode is about that machine and its inventor, Raymond Scott–not just because Scott is the most famous composer of the 20th century that most people have never heard of, but because I think his life traces one of the biggest stories about truth in our world today. He attempted to define the difference between man and machine. 

Friend [00:07:28] Remarks before Harry sits down. He is now sitting down. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:07:31] There’s another reason I want to spend some time with Scott.

Friend [00:07:34] He is making himself comfortable. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:07:37] He recorded his whole life. 

Friend [00:07:39] And will begin. There he goes.

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:07:41] Which made for some fun research. Raymond Scott was born in Brooklyn in 1908. His parents named him Harry Warnow. His father had sailed from Russia to New York two years earlier on a ship called America. Sometime after Scott was born, his parents bought a music store in Brooklyn, in Brownsville, a small Jewish neighborhood. They lived in the two-floor apartment above their shop, surrounded by music and sound machines. Scott especially loved the phone. Sometimes he’d make prank calls. 

Sis [00:08:23] Who is this? 

Raymond Scott [00:08:23] Dr. X called if you must know.

Other Sis [00:08:25] Oh, Dr. Ex Lax?

Raymond Scott [00:08:27] Please! Well, thanks very much.

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:08:30] Scott was growing up in an in-between time, a mishmash of the world we know now in the world of the 19th century. The electrified subway was brand new then. The year Scott was born, it had made its way out to Brooklyn. But the gas street lamps in Brownsville were still lit every night by a lamplighter. There were chickens in the street, the smell of the sea out over Canarsie, candy shops and tenements, hot spiced corned beef in the delis, and briny half-sour pickles at the Jewish market–farms and saltwater. It felt like the old country. It felt like the ends of the earth. 

Pearl Zimney Winters [00:09:06] It was like a little village. It was the neighborhood. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:09:10] Pearl Zimney Winters, one of the girls from the neighborhood. Later on, she and Scott got married, and she’s all over Scott’s recordings. Chusid, who never got over his obsession with Raymond Scott, interviewed her with a colleague just a little before she died. 

Pearl Zimney Winters [00:09:24] I used to go into the music store, you know, to buy music when I was a kid. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:09:30] That music shop is where I think the dream of the songwriting machine began. It was a snapshot of everything that was changing in music in the early 1900s. For centuries, if you wanted to hear music in your house, someone in your family needed to know how to play it. For a while. Buying a song meant buying sheet music bound together in little pamphlets. But later in the 19th century, technologies that could capture and reproduce sound were invented. And by the start of the 20th century, mechanical music was taking off. Suddenly, you didn’t need to know somebody who could play to listen to music. You could listen on records, wax cylinders, the radio. Scott was obsessed with these machines and the music that came out of them. He even started an amateur home radio station so he could make broadcasts from his bedroom to the living room. 

Raymond Scott [00:10:20] You mean to tell me that’s recording now!? My God, what have I done?

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:10:24] Even as a kid, he was always working on something. He’d dangle microphones out the window to record conversations on the street or the neighbor practicing piano. He would hang around the music shop with his dad, tinkering, and watching not just how music was made but how it was sold, what sold, and how it got reproduced. And there was one machine in particular that he became fascinated by. 

Pearl Zimney Winters [00:10:49] He told me that he taught himself to play the piano with a player piano. And I guess that’s how he first started. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:10:58] The player piano. You’ve probably seen one before in a saloon in an old Western. You know, when someone gets shot, falls on the piano, and it starts playing itself? That’s a player piano. A piano that plays as if there were a ghost at the keyboard. Songs were sold as scrolls of paper with little holes punched out for each note–a set of mechanical instructions for the piano. The result? You could hear nearly any song in your home, even if you had no idea how to play it yourself. Scott loved the piano in the shop. He’d take a roll and probably play it as slowly as possible, fitting his little fingers to the keys as they press themselves down–learning by machine. Most people these days think of the player piano as a novelty or a gimmick. But I want to spend a minute with it here because it’s a big part not just of music history but of automation history. We tend to think of automation as man versus robot–factory lines and coal mines. But the player piano was a kind of robot, too–one we often forget about, but an early, massively influential one that foreshadowed so much of what was to come. When Scott was a kid, people thought the player piano would be the future of music. There were hundreds of thousands of them sold each year and millions of song rolls. By 1919, when Scott was 11, there were more player pianos being sold than regular pianos. It wasn’t just sales, though. Copyright laws in the United States were built around the player piano and the record player in equal part. You can draw a straight line from player piano rolls to punch cards and the first computer programs. And people made all kinds of player pianos. What you’re listening to now is a special kind of player piano roll that could capture all the subtleties of human performance. This one was recorded by the composer Debussy and reproduced decades after his death by machine. That’s what Scott was learning in his family’s music shop–roll by roll–not just to play like a machine, but to wonder at all the magical things machines suddenly could do. When I was trying to understand how Scott grew up, I read up on his neighborhood. And in one memoir, I found a particular detail that snapped it all into view. The drug store just down the street from Scott had a poster in the window. It was titled The Human Factory, and it imagined a person as if they were a kind of complex machine with all these little engineers inside. Scott must have passed that poster plenty of times. He had dreams of becoming like a machine himself, attaching motors to his hand so he could play the piano faster, the kind of way only a player piano could. Everywhere, that line between man and machine was beginning to blur. But there was one place where the difference was unmistakable. A machine never made mistakes; the song sounded the same every single time. And to Scott, that was the ideal. 

Pearl Zimney Winters [00:14:06] The struggle between being a musician and an engineer was very real for him. He just loved equipment. Mark was the one who insisted that he go to Juilliard. I don’t think he wanted to. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:14:21] That choice–music or engineering–it set the course for Scott’s entire life because Scott never could give up on engineering. But his brother, who was a rising star in music, saw that he had a gift for composing that almost no one else did. He got Scott a job as the pianist for the CBS Radio Orchestra. And immediately Scott began to get noticed. He was anxious that people would think he only had the job because of his brother, so Harry Warnow flipped through the phone book until he found a name he liked, “Raymond Scott”–a name he also chose because it sounded less Jewish. And he was always anxious about that. He played his piano, he wrote his songs, and he kept his engineering passion more as a hobby. CBS was a good situation, except for one thing. He was always playing standards, songs that people knew they liked and had heard a million times already. 

Brian Kehew [00:15:16] He said that he wanted to write music that people would like the first time they heard it. He asked his brother Mark if he could put together a band. He wanted to put together a six-piece band with himself in it. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:15:31] Mark said yes. Scott started hunting for five musicians who could do exactly what he wanted. What he wanted was music with a spark that could form a connection with the listener immediately, out of nowhere. He had a couple songs ready, so he found his guys, rehearsed, and then he got an audience together in CBS’s Studio B. They dimmed the lights all the way, and they began to play. A journalist wrote about it a year later. 

Journalist [00:16:00] “Nobody who attended that premier 18 months ago was likely to forget it. Out of the darkness, there came a thin wailing note, barely masking a slow, suggestive thumping on the drums. When it was over, the audience rose to its feet and cheered. Fan mail poured in. Who was this man “Scott?” Where was he from? Where had he been all these years? 

Brian Kehew [00:16:23] They generated such an amazing listener reaction that they immediately got a recording contract with the master label, which was owned by Irving Mills, who was Duke Ellington’s manager. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:16:40] The response was unprecedented. 

Interviewer [00:16:43] In a minute, I’m going to take you right on in, and we’re going to have a very entertaining visit with one of the year’s sensational musical groups when they get in there. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:16:50] Scott was trying to sell a perfect musical package. He said he went out to clubs to track which tempos made people get up and dance. He had a whole thing about names. He called his band of six people a “quintet” not a “sextet.” He even renamed his saxophone player. 

Raymond Scott [00:17:06] And here’s the youngest of the group. His name was originally Dave Harris. But now it’s Eric Hoex. 

Interviewer [00:17:10] Eric Hoex. That’s an interesting name. 

Eric Hoex [00:17:12] Yeah, that’s Raymond’s idea of a name. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:17:15] He wouldn’t write his music down. He’d just play it at the piano for his quintet and then have them play their parts back till they could do it right–note for note. 

Raymond Scott [00:17:23] And because the fellas have marvelous ears and memories, they never forget a composition once they’ve learned it! 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:17:28] Once they had it down, it rarely changed. And that was just how Scott wanted it. If he could have replaced each of his musicians’ minds with a scroll of music, he probably would have. 

Pearl Zimney Winters [00:17:39] He didn’t know how to handle human relationships too well. 

Brian Kehew [00:17:43] They called him a bully. They call him a bastard. They called him all kinds of names because he was trying to make them play better. One of his musicians once said, “Nobody worked with Raymond. Everybody worked under Raymond.” Johnny Williams, the drummer, said, “We hated every minute of it because we were being told what to play.” He said, “At the same time that we hated it, we were making more money than anybody in town.” 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:18:09] The music was like jazz but without the improvisation or the looseness–tightly managed–the price of mechanical perfection. 

Raymond Scott [00:18:18] Alright boys! Play it again please. 

Irwin Chusid [00:18:19] He rehearsed. 

Raymond Scott [00:18:20] I want to cut that 12-minute phrase. 

Irwin Chusid [00:18:20] And he rehearsed. 

Raymond Scott [00:18:23] Keep on cutting please–again from the top.\

Irwin Chusid [00:18:25] He rehearsed.

Raymond Scott [00:18:25] Keep it from getting agitated but staying simple. Do it that way without thinking about it.

Brian Kehew [00:18:28] And he was driving his musicians crazy because they would say, “Nobody needs to rehearse this much.”

Raymond Scott [00:18:34] Alright boys, we’re recording now?

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:18:37] Scott held his musicians to an impossible standard. He wanted them to play like machines. But it’s hard to argue with the results. His rise was stratospheric. Stravinsky, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington–they were all Raymond Scott fans. In the 1940s, he had his own radio show, The Raymond Scott Show. He became the music director of CBS Radio, where he led a racially integrated radio orchestra. This, I think, not because he was especially progressive but because all he cared about was the music. 

Irwin Chusid [00:19:09] This, in so many ways, explains why he was working with machines late in life.

Pearl Zimney Winters [00:19:13] Oh yeah. 

Irwin Chusid [00:19:14] Rather than musicians. 

Pearl Zimney Winters [00:19:15] They were his best friends. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:19:17] The machines were his best friends. To me, when I heard this story, I kept thinking about Scott as a kid at the player piano. When that machine was invented, it scared people. Two years before Raymond Scott was born, John Philip Sousa, the famous composer, wrote an essay called The Menace of Mechanical Music. “The whole course of music has been the expression of soul states,” he wrote. “And now, in this 20th century, come these talking and playing machines to reduce the expression to a mathematical system of megaphones, wheels, cogs, discs, cylinders, and all manner of revolving things.” The player piano became a dark symbol of modern life. When Kurt Vonnegut wrote his first novel about a dystopian America run by engineers and their automatic machinery, he called it Player Piano. By the time Raymond Scott was getting famous, those fears about mechanical music were everywhere. 

Machines: Master or Slave? [00:20:12] Same story everywhere. New machines, high speed production, fewer jobs, and ten men for every job that can be had. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:20:23] Scott was fighting a classic battle: Mechanical perfection against human error. What was at stake were free will, agency, the human soul. That conflict was one of the main rhythms of 20th century history. And Scott was like a leading melody. And then he hit a wrong note. That story after the break. 

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Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:21:51] In the 1940s, Raymond Scott was properly famous. He and his wife Pearl packed up their kids and his equipment and moved to a big house out in Tuckahoe, New York. 

Pearl Zimney Winters [00:22:01] He had a wonderful apartment in the city. But we moved from there because he was a ham radio operator. He wanted to be where he’d have good reception. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:22:12] I kind of love that. He finally had enough money to buy a big house, but actually the only reason he was moving out of the city was so that he could have better ham radio reception. He was tinkering with his machines again, not just microphones and Hi-Fi equipment, but new sorts of instruments. Problem was that electronics was not a casual hobby in the late 1930s and early ’40s.

Stan Warnow [00:22:33] He saw an electronic parts catalog and he wanted to order every part in the catalog. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:22:39] Stan Warnow is Raymond Scott and Pearl Zimney Winters’ son. He made a great documentary about his father called Deconstructing Dad. I visited him last winter. 

Stan Warnow [00:22:48] And he thought the only way he’s going to make enough money to do that is to form a big band. And so, he did form a big band and went out on the road. 

CBS Announcer [00:22:58] It’s 4:30 in New York. And time for CBS to present the Raymond Scott Show. Across the continent and later to the whole world by shortwave, come song hits of the day, starring America’s number one composer with a band. Here he is, Raymond Scott!

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:23:16] In the 1930s, Scott’s hits seem to have been about the music first. But in the ’40s, his focus seems to have shifted from writing great songs to making as much money from his music as possible so he could fuel his mechanical hobby. It was like his own version of his dad’s music shop. Music sold any way you like, but a big band needed a singer. He was always churning through them–always on the lookout for someone perfect. And that’s how he met Marjorie Chandler. 

Pearl Zimney Winters [00:23:45] We were in Chicago, and we took an apartment there. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:23:50] Scott heard through one of the band’s managers that there was a young girl from Canada he should meet. She sung in a big radio contest and won first place. She was about 13 years old, and her voice was amazing. Scott decided to take her on as a student–full time. 

Stan Warnow [00:24:06] He thought she had real potential, and so she came to live with us. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:24:14] Marjorie’s family sent her to live at the house in Tuckahoe. According to Pearl, she and Scott were like surrogate parents. Except Scott and Marjorie spent endless hours practicing. It was like with his quintet. Except Chandler was a kid, away from her parents. This tape is likely from later on. But even then, you can hear how exacting he is. 

Marjorie Collins [00:24:36] Lonnnnng the skies were overcast. 

Raymond Scott [00:24:36] Ease in there and watch your face watch your face. You’re saying “cahst,” say cast “caaaaaa.” You can’t open your mouth. You’re holding your hair but you’re frowning, you’re changing quality like mad now the second quality but full.

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:24:53] Scott gave her a new name, Dorothy Collins. She’d go to school. She’d wander around the big house and write her name. Marjorie, over and over again. Then she’d go back to practicing.

Marjorie Collins [00:25:09] Lonnnnng. 

Raymond Scott [00:25:09] You’re changing quality like mad

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:25:13] It was a backbreaking regimen, but she was an incredible talent. 

Stan Warnow [00:25:17] And as she got older and better, he began featuring her in his band. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:25:26] She grew up with the family. When she was a bit older, she sang with the band for the first time on the air. After Scott started hosting the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, a popular TV show, she became the featured singer. She was 24. And at some point along the way, they got romantically involved. 

Stan Warnow [00:25:44] And then I have seen some letters where my mother was writing to him, saying, “I’m not really comfortable with her.” And who knows what was going on? Because again, they eventually got involved with each other, and he divorced my mom and married her. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:26:04] Scott and Marjorie–now Dorothy Collins–were married when she was 25. I don’t want to dramatize this or speculate on how and when they got together because no matter what, it’s a dark turn. She had been like an adopted daughter to them–away from her own parents. It was the culmination, I think, of the most dangerous strain in Scott’s thinking about musicians and people. What he must have seen in Marjorie Chandler in the beginning was Dorothy Collins, the chance to make his own musician–his own person–as if he were building a machine. Every week they appeared on TV together. Collins became a kind of American darling, achieving a level of celebrity even Scott had never had–a star. The money came pouring in. They moved into a mansion on Long Island. 

Deb Studebaker [00:26:57] It had 32 rooms and four stories. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:27:01] That’s Deb Studebaker, Raymond Scott and Dorothy Collins’ daughter. She’s a teacher and a poet, which you can hear by the way she describes her childhood home. 

Deb Studebaker [00:27:13] The house was at the end of a long gravel driveway. It had a forest behind it. It was very grand. There was a library with a secret door. You pull it out, there was a bathroom behind it. We would go on these explorations in the forest. There was wisteria hanging over an archway that was always filled with bees. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:27:39] Inside the house, Scott had begun to amass all the electronic parts he wanted. He was at once secretive and proud to show it off. 

Raymond Scott [00:27:48] Let me take you downstairs and show you these technical facilities. And I take it we’re supposed to have, oh, maybe a half a million separate items or so. An electronic music studio wants to grow and grow and grow and grow. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:28:01] The room was full of gear–switches, meters, welders, a furnace. 

Raymond Scott [00:28:05] But now I’d like to take you upstairs to show you what we’ve been building with all this equipment. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:28:11] Upstairs was a 30-foot wall of obscure electronic musical machinery. Alongside his other musical work, Scott had begun writing and recording music for commercials. I have, for several months now been unable to get this jingle for Sprite out of my head. Over the course of the 1950s, Scott wrote jingles for a lot of big companies: Schlitz Beer, RCA Victor, Vick’s, Ford, Chrysler. And a lot of the time it was Dorothy Collins singing them. He had a plaque over his piano that read, “Ideally, the words should make sense.”

Sprite Jingle [00:28:44] What makes a melon ball bounce / a melon ball bounce / a melon ball bounce / what makes a melon ball bounce / the ice tart taste of Sprite.

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:28:54] These companies were selling the future, and they needed a sound to match it. In the 1950s, Americans were drunk on the postwar promise of consumer technology. It was the age of automatic–of being able to buy all sorts of machines that would make your life easier. 

Bendix 1: The Tomorrow People [00:29:10] To make reality of imagination. This is Bendix. The Tomorrow People. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:29:20] Scott and Collins seemed at the time to have a happy life together as the tomorrow people–throwing parties at their mansion, making music in the machine rooms, and listening to it in the listening room. They were, in many ways, the sound of that postwar dream world. They made music meant to push the button that sent consumers marching off to make a purchase. During those years, Scott was creating the kinds of machines his music helped to sell–whirling, spinning devices that seemed as if they came from the future. Just keep in mind how different what you’re hearing is from popular music in the ’50s. I mean, this was the top song of 1959. 

The Battle of New Orleans [00:29:53] We fired our guns and the British kept a-coming. There wasn’t as many as there was a while ago.  We fired once more and they began to running, on down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:30:08] Music like Scott’s just didn’t exist in the mainstream. But he was sneaking it in there through commercials. He saw his machines as a way to push the envelope and thought that because the sounds they made were new, they’d catch the ear in a way jingles made with old instruments couldn’t. Scott seems to have created one of the first, if not the first musical sequencer–a device that is the foundation for much of modern pop. In a weird historical twist, one of the ways he had financed all of this experimentation was by selling his early hits to Warner Brothers, where they became a lot of the music soundtracking the Looney Tunes. Literally, this man put the tunes in Looney Tunes. But then he started to get sick. His brother and his father had died of heart disease, and Scott had his first heart attack in 1958. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within a year he began to work on the first version of the Electronium, his songwriting machine. 

Stan Warnow [00:31:07] I remember him telling me, you know, about this machine. “I’m working on a machine that’s going to compose and perform at the same time.” 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:31:16] This was the stuff of science fiction–a dream a few people had had, but nobody went for it quite like Scott–a machine not just for playing music but for composing it. Scott began to work harder and harder on the machine. And at the same time, his marriage to Dorothy Collins unraveled. 

Deb Studebaker [00:31:36] She discovered that she loved acting and the theater. And my dad didn’t travel with her or us. He was always working on his own stuff. But I think there was a certain lightness, I think, that she probably found being respected now, you know, for something new that was hers. The acting was hers; he had nothing to do with that. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:31:59] Collins left, and then they were divorced. She testified in court that he was such a perfectionist–so intensely critical–that he gave her asthma, and she couldn’t sing when he was around. 

Deb Studebaker [00:32:12] So my mother used to say it was like Frankenstein’s monster and the monster kind of woke up and decided, you know, that she could be her own person. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:32:23] But Scott was bereft. 

Stan Warnow [00:32:24] And he took a bunch of sleeping pills thinking he was going to kill himself. But he just went to sleep for a long time. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:32:33] He moved out of the house into an industrial space in a big office park on Long Island. His TV show was off the air, he didn’t have a hip band anymore, and he was alone. But he had one thing left: The Electronium.

Stan Warnow [00:32:54] I have very clear memories of being out there, and the Electronium was in the very next room, iterating away, which is what it did. You had to kind of set it up, and then it would go through these iterations. And we would be listening to it, and he would hear something he really liked. And he’d jump up and go in there and record it on the cassette. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:33:18] In the 1960s, Raymond Scott was living in a long, low, white cement warehouse, surrounded by machines. 

Jeff Winner [00:33:26] He had to seriously downgrade his life. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:33:29] Jeff Winner. He works with Chusid–that radio deejay who went out to visit Scott. And together with Scott’s family, they’re preserving, managing, and sharing his archives. 

Jeff Winner [00:33:38] He went from a massive mansion of his own design to living on Long Island in a warehouse that wasn’t even zoned for residential. It didn’t have a kitchen. He was not supposed to be living there. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:33:53] He got married for the third time to a woman named Mitzi Curtis, and this time it stuck. But money was tight. Popular music was moving on. He was still composing the occasional jingle, but now really it was all machines. And not just in his warehouse. The concern over automation was reaching a fever pitch in the United States. In 1960, John F. Kennedy even ran for president against the machine threat. 

John F. Kennedy [00:34:21] Because the problem that West Virginia is facing is the problem that all America is going to face. That is the problem of what happens to man when machines take their place. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:34:31] Meanwhile, Raymond Scott seems to have been trying to replace as much of himself as possible with the machine. 

Jeff Winner [00:34:37] Everything he had ever done up until that point, in one way or another, would become part of the Electronium. Even if he hadn’t even declared to himself that that was his goal yet, everything’s under that one roof. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:34:51] His bassline generator, his drum pattern generator, the melody sequencer–all of it tied together with thick wires hidden behind the concrete walls of the factory. 

Tom Rhea [00:35:01] And when Raymond came to the door, the first thing I encountered was, “Well, I want you to sign this disclosure agreement.” 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:35:14] Tom Rhea. He used to work at Moog, probably the most famous synthesizer company of all time. He’s taught electronic music history at the Berklee College of Music, where he was a professor. But at the time he met Scott, in the summer of 1970, he was a graduate student working on his dissertation for a Ph.D. in music. 

Tom Rhea [00:35:31] I mean, I’m not an industrial spy. I’m a graduate student. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:35:36] Ray had heard that Scott was touched with genius, and he wanted to see what he’d been inventing. 

Tom Rhea [00:35:42] What did I see? I saw everything. “Oh my gosh. You know, what is this thing over here?” And I said, “It doesn’t seem to have a keyboard or any kind of an interface.” He said, “Well, it does.” It had one little micro switch. And so, he goes over and he flips some of these many, many knobs and switches and things on the panel of the thing and said, “I’m going to have it suggest a theme.” And it gives out with a little melody. And then he says, “I think I will ask it to make the musical intervals wider.” Then he flips a couple of switches, and they’re wider. He put together, as I sat there, a rather lush composition with not only accompaniment but counterpoint and, you know, the whole thing. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:36:41] Scott was inventing madly during those years. The Electronium combined a lot of different gizmos he’d created, and it was a constantly changing set of modules. You controlled the music the machine made by means of switches. He called the composer “guidance control.” One of the major X factors of the Electronium is that it seems to have had some way of generating randomness within the preset patterns. They would change on their own over time, but it’s not clear to anyone how. This was a crazy idea. But you can get a clue to why Scott was after it from an ad he made around then with Jim Henson–the Muppets guy–for IBM. They were pitching a new word processor, but the ad is all about modern life. It’s a kind of crazy montage of vacant looking people, machines, and explosions. 

IBM Adwoman #1 [00:37:27] There always seemed to be enough time to do the paperwork. 

IBM Adman #1 [00:37:31] But today there isn’t. 

IBM Adwoman #1 [00:37:34] Today there isn’t enough time. 

IBM Adman #2 [00:37:36] Today there aren’t enough people. 

IBM Adman #3 [00:37:38] Machines should do the work. 

IBM Adman #4 [00:37:40] That’s what they’re at best at. 

IBM Adman #5 [00:37:42] People should do the thinking. 

IBM Adman #6 [00:37:43] That’s what they’re best at. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:37:45] But what about a machine that did the work and the thinking? When Scott was born, machines were being created mostly to help people do rote physical labor. In the first half of the 20th century, they began to do those things automatically at the push of a button. And by the age of the Electronium, machines began automatically to do things that looked a lot like intellectual labor. 

Modern Manufacturing Narrator [00:38:08] This robot manipulator can be easily taught because of its electronic brain. 

Airforce Modern Manufacturing Subject [00:38:13] Can this type of control be applied to other types of machines? 

Modern Manufacturing Narrator [00:38:18] Certainly. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:38:19] In that light, Scott was reaching for the brass ring–a machine capable of making art, of helping people make art, that expressed a human soul and stirred human emotions. But he needed money to do it. So, he started doing a little press–small articles here and there. “It’s like inventing the typewriter,” he told a journalist. “Only the typewriter furnishes the plot and reads the result.”

Tom Rhea [00:38:44] I’ve always told people that I consider Raymond Scott one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence in music. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:38:52] But if you wanted to buy an Electronium from Raymond Scott, it was going to cost you an arm and a leg. And it was a crazy idea. So, it was by a stroke of luck that the head of Motown Records, Berry Gordy, heard about it. 

Berry Gordy [00:39:05] It’s not a one-man organization, or a two-man organization, but it’s an organization of teamwork. There are unseen heroes, so to speak

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:39:13] Berry Gordy founded Motown in 1959 in Detroit. Before founding the company, he had worked at a car factory during the years when there was lots of hubbub over plants that had achieved near full automation. It was on the assembly line that Gordy started to think about doing music differently. In his autobiography, he wrote, “At the Plant, the cars started out as just a frame pulled along on conveyor belts until they emerged at the end of the line. I wanted the same concept for my company, only with artists and songs and records.”

Berry Gordy [00:39:45] If we had gone any year without hit records, we would’ve been out of business.  

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:39:50] Motown was a Black-owned business, selling music by Black artists to everyone in America. Like everything in the music business, it was precarious economically because hit records deal in matters of taste and taste is subject to biases and whims. Gordy, with his assembly line past, wasn’t having that. He wanted to systematize as much as possible. They’d A/B test songs with different artists until something stuck, like R&D. They had a house band, The Funk Brothers, providing ironclad rhythm section arrangements across Motown songs as if they were the engine department. The only thing missing was the automation. And that’s why it makes sense to me that one day in the early 1970s, Berry Gordy pulled up to Raymond Scott’s warehouse with a string of limos to see the automatic songwriting machine for himself. 

Jeff Winner [00:40:42] And by the way, Berry Gordy knew who Raymond Scott was, like anybody of his generation. Raymond Scott was a famous person, so Gordy also knew he was getting that in the deal–someone who is a musical mind who has already written hits. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:40:56] Scott showed Gordy and his crew the warehouse. And then he fired up the Electronium, just like he did with Ray. He must have shown Gordy how you flip the switches to set a pattern, then watched as the machine iterated, changing notes, repeating phrases, rifling through ideas semi-randomly. 

Raymond Scott [00:41:13] And during the last couple of minutes the pattern generator was on only slightly. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:41:25] Scott was selling an idea at that point–the potential of a songwriting machine that could hit on an idea that a personal loan never would. If it came up with a hook that sparked in the way a hit does, you’d know it when you heard it, and you could bottle it up and sell it to millions of people. This idea, I think, came straight from Scott’s quintet days–finding that sound that you liked the first time you hear it. It’s a tricky balancing act because it has to be new enough that it catches your attention, but a hit also has to sound familiar enough that you kind of know what you’re going to get as soon as you hear it. It’s like an elevator pitch to the listener. And Gordy was uncompromising about it. Here’s Smokey Robinson in a 2019 documentary remembering that process. 

Smokey Robinson [00:42:10] He used to say that all the time. “We’ve got to get them in the first 10 seconds!” We used to come up with these fabulous intros–you know, something that would catch your attention immediately!

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:42:18] So in that light, the Electronium makes perfect sense to me. What if you could take a machine that had baked into it all of the patterns and intuitive musical sense of a proven hitmaker like Scott? But then this crazy X factor of proto-artificially intelligent randomness. That dream was Scott’s life’s work. He needed it to work. Everything was riding on it. 

Jeff Winner [00:42:44] So Gordy was so impressed that he wrote a check on the spot for $10,000 to get started. And that was a lot of money back then. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:42:55] It was a huge windfall. Scott was overjoyed. Gordy wanted the instrument remade to suit Motown’s needs, so Scott began work immediately. The machine would be a culmination of everything he’d worked on up to that point, including the player piano from his childhood. Here’s a call from a couple of years earlier between Scott and Bob Moog, the synthesizer legend who’d worked with him. And this knocked me out when I first heard it in the archives, but he was still thinking about the player piano. You can hear the ideas just bursting out of him. 

Raymond Scott [00:43:27] I have some things I think would absolutely flip you. This is highly secret stuff. But, well, I’ll have to explain it to you when I see you. The programming is inevitable. Computing machines are programming things. And the player piano is programming things. And all the automated tools are programming things. So, the programming has got to be the way it’s done. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:43:53] A player piano for the space age. Scott, of course, quickly blew through the Motown down payment and ran out of time. But Gordy didn’t seem to mind. Scott moved out to Motown’s offices in Los Angeles to work on the Electronium in a room above Berry Gordy’s garage. He became the director of Electronic Music Research and Development. Eventually, he started to work on the machine in the Motown studios. 

Deb Studebaker [00:44:19] People were in awe of him. I’m thinking of a couple different engineers, who were up there, who would just come out and be, like, shaking their heads, kind of like, you know, “What is going on?” kind of thing. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:44:30] Scott’s daughter, Deb Studebaker, again. According to a former engineer at Motown, Michael Jackson would come by Scott’s studio–a small room on the second floor–and watch the Electronium work. It made music unlike anything they’d heard. The idea wasn’t that the machine would write a complete song structure–verse, chorus, bridge–but that it would iterate on combinations of rhythm, chord, and melody in search of that spark. It was a way of automating the part of songwriting Scott excelled at–the thing that caught your ear and made you like something the first time you heard it. It was meant as a collaboration between man and machine–one that took the hard work out of the most crucial part of the songwriting process: The inspiration. But over time the extreme cost weighed the project down. Also, the fact that Scott was never satisfied–refused to be finished. The Electronium worked. It just was always opened up, being redesigned, refined, changed. At one point, that same engineer tried to get Motown’s famous session musicians to play along with the machine as part of a drive to use the instrument on a recording. But they revolted. 

Jeff Winner [00:45:41] They didn’t like it. They didn’t like the idea of it. They didn’t like the concept. They didn’t like what it theoretically represented. And these guys were great musicians. They didn’t want to be replaced by a machine. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:45:56] It’s not known whether the Electronium ever suggested an idea that made it into a Motown song, but I think it’s unlikely. Gordy let Scott take the Electronium home with him eventually to tinker with it around the house. He’d stay up all night and work on it all day in his pajamas, building new bits and pieces, taking it apart, and building it again. Then his health got worse. The music industry moved on–started to forget about him. He had several strokes, and the Electronium sat in the gas shed out back, gathering dust, waiting to be found. 

Brian Kehew [00:46:29] Well, it’s Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, isn’t it? 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:46:32] Brian Kehew, again–synthesizer wizard, former keyboardist for The Who, Fiona Apple producer, and the second person this episode to bring up Frankenstein’s monster, more happily, in this case, about a machine rather than a person. He’s working now to bring the Electronium back to life. We spoke last winter. 

Brian Kehew [00:46:50] And so Electronium might be literally just a piece of inspiration. If I play piano or if I play guitar and write songs, my fingers are even limiting because I tend to play a certain chord shape or I’m jazzier and he’s more country. But if the Electronium was not confined by those things, it might come up with ideas that are beautiful hybrids–maybe a little jazzy, but a little polka. And who knows what it would come up with? But that’s an idea to say that the human creativity is limited. It’s a beautiful thing when it works, but as we know, you can’t just write great music all day, otherwise everybody would. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:47:27] I guess part of the problem is, like, in a creative line of work, your business–especially when you’re Motown, which is an empire at that point–is totally dependent on this fundamentally unknowable, unreliable thing, which is human creativity. You never really know when the muse is going to strike. And so, especially with the kind of assembly line, Motown idea–if you could just make that predictable and automate the aha moment, then that would take a lot of the uncertainty out of the business. 

Brian Kehew [00:47:59] I think you pointed out something that most people don’t want to ever mention, which is that creativity is unreliable. You might be Paul McCartney and able to write some of the world’s greatest songs, but if I brought him in the room right now and gave him an hour and said, “Write me a great song,” it doesn’t work that way. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:48:18] It doesn’t work that way. But you can understand why someone who devoted his whole life to making perfect music wished that it did. 

Singer [00:48:27] They’re quarter notes, aren’t they?

Raymond Scott [00:48:33] No, no. It’s… “Da-de-dum.” Let’s go. One, two, three, four…

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:48:52] Raymond Scott died in 1994 in obscurity and relative poverty, in a nursing home near that faded house in Van Nuys. Chusid, Winner, a slew of fellow enthusiasts, and the Scott family started to comb through his archives to piece the whole crazy story together. They shipped boxes and boxes of tapes and records and papers to the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Then they released his music and compilations. Scott had always kept his machines mostly secret in case anyone wanted to steal them. But when they finally released Scott’s electronic music in the early 2000s, he suddenly had a new set of posthumous hits. You probably don’t even realize you’ve heard a Raymond Scott song before, but he’s been sampled all over the place. Gorillaz, J Dilla, Lizzo–they’ve all sampled Scott. His music is in The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, HBO shows. The song you’re hearing now is called Portofino, and it was unreleased in his lifetime. But there are all these recordings of it, each trying it a different way–all electronics, with vocals, with saxophone. When the archivists found it, Chusid thought the melody was so classic, it must have been a cover. 

Irwin Chusid [00:50:03] And I went into various databases looking for Portofino. There’s, like, 80 or 100 things called Portofino. And I would go through iTunes and listen to every goddamn one of them, and not one of them was Raymond’s melody. But to this date, I mean, that thing’s been out for 21 years. No one has come to us and said, “That’s a cover version,” or “Someone else wrote that,” or “It’s a traditional melody.” 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:50:25] A true original. Meanwhile, Mark Mothersbaugh, the lead singer of Devo, bought the Electronium and dragged it from the shed to his studios. Brian Kehew is trying now to assemble a team of engineers to bring it back online in digital or physical form. Even with all the schematics, they’re still mystified. 

Brian Kehew [00:50:44] You know, somebody said it’s still a black box, and that’s true. We still don’t know what it did. And I feel like we’re looking through a keyhole at a room and we can barely see it until we get through the door a bit more. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:50:57] There are Scott cover bands and Scott festivals. Somehow, his music still resonates. Whatever spark he caught is still catching. What I think is strange is most of the musicians who knew Scott earlier in his life seemed to have hated him. But the engineers who knew him at the end of his life loved him. A lot of his early jazz hits were aggressive, frantic, firecrackers of song. But the electronic stuff is often sweet, guileless, innocent. Some of that stuff was written in partnership with the Electronium–his melody, its patterns. And it sounds like a songwriter at peace with himself. 

Brian Kehew [00:51:32] At one point, he resisted human control of it. But then he took one of the voice cards and adapted it to a keyboard input. As he found before when he would put a Hammond organ or mostly an ondioline on top of the Electronium, it really needed somebody doing a nice melody in order to sell the package. 

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:51:55] There is, I think, a lesson in Scott’s life–one that’s kind of a morality tale for our own AI-addled, ChatGPT world. He walked from automatic pianos to the first computers. He sought perfection. He sought industrial scale creativity. But the tradeoffs he made were the relationships around him–the failure to see the humanity of the people he was trying to control. People would sometimes talk about Scott as if he were a machine. But I think there’s something in his music that testifies to his soul–that ghost at the keys of the player piano. Those recorded phone calls to his family, that early string of hits, all the musical machines–what they have in common is the goal of each song: To connect people through sound. Scott prized perfection in that end above everything else, and it ruined him. Someday soon, someone might be able to bring the Electronium back to life and hear again the inside of Scott’s mind. But still, I think he must have known the Electronium game could never write a Raymond Scott song. For that, you needed Raymond Scott. 

Raymond Scott [00:53:06] Is that all Harry, or shall we go on?

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey [00:53:22] The last archive is written and hosted by me, Ben Naddaff-Hafrey. It’s produced by me and Lucie Sullivan and edited by Sophie Crane. Jake Gorski is our engineer. Fact-checking on this episode by Arthur Gompertz and Lucie Sullivan. Sound Design by Jake Gorski and Lucie Sullivan. Our executive producers are Sophie Crane and Jill Lepore. Thanks also to Julia Barton, Pushkin’s Executive Editor. Original Music by Matthias Bossi and Jon Evans of Stellwagen Symphonette. Additional music by Corntuth. Our Foolproof Player is Becca A. Lewis. Many of our sound effects are from Harry Gennett Jr. and the Starr-Gennett Foundation. Special thanks on this episode to Alan W. Entenman, Jack Hertz, Karl Miller and the Pierian Recording Society, and Byron Werner. For bibliography, further reading, and a transcript and teaching guide to this episode, head to The Last Archive is a production of Pushkin Industries. I’m Ben Naddaff-Hafrey.

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