January 09, 2008

The Man-Machine

The career of Raymond Scott is too huge to tackle in one post (you can learn more starting here, as well as dozens of other websites). So I'll just stick with the Electronium, his most ambitious music machine and something that went beyond audio synthesis and into the realm of artificial intelligence. From raymondscott.com: the Electronium was "guided" by a complex series of buttons and switches, arranged in orderly rows. The system was capable of "instantaneous composition and performance" of polyphonic rhythmic structures, as well as tasking preset programs. With Scott controlling the sonorities, tempos, and timbres, he and his machine could compose, perform, and record all at once. The parts weren't multitracked; rather, voices, rhythms, and melodies originated simultaneously in real time. "A composer `asks` the Electronium to `suggest` an idea, theme, or motive," Scott wrote in the user manual. "To repeat it, but in a higher key, he pushes the appropriate button. Whatever the composer needs: faster, slower, a new rhythm design, a hold, a pause, a second theme, variation, an extension, elongation, diminution, counterpoint, a change of phrasing, an ornament, ad infinitum. It is capable of a seemingly inexhaustible palette of musical sounds and colors, rhythms, and harmonies. Whatever the composer requests, the Electronium accepts and acts out his directions. The Electronium adds to the composer's thoughts, and a duet relationship is set up." The Electronium is now owned by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, and sits (in a state of disrepair) in an office of his soundtrack company Mutato Musika, whose headquarters is a beautiful green U.F.O.-looking building on the sunset strip. I saw Mothersbaugh give a talk last night, and I went past the building this morning while a Raymond Scott tune randomly came up on my ipod, inspiring me to post this. Read about some of Scott's other musical inventions here.

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