In recent years, numerous projects have aimed at recreating classic electronic instruments, from the TB-303 to the Oramics Machine. But Raymond Scott’s Electronium, a digital reconstruction of which is currently at the London Barbican exhibition AI: More Than Human, is something different: an automatic composing machine capable of inventing new tunes long before the age of autonomous artificial intelligence driven devices. Or was it?
By Robert Barry
There is an old story about a chess-playing automaton, known as the Turk. A life-sized figure carved in wood and dressed in Ottoman robes, it sat before a cabinet bearing an ivory chess set and made its moves powered – apparently – by no greater force than the cogs and wheels in its chest.
It was the toast of Habsburg Europe, displayed before emperors and capable of comfortably checkmating the likes of Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. Until one day, when it was proved to be a hoax. Inside the cabinet, in among the useless mechanical machinery, was concealed a human operator guiding the hands of the apparently lifeless machine.
A little over a century later, Raymond Scott spent 35 years building a machine just as ingenious and equally capable of independent creative thought as von Kempelen’s mechanical Turk. A successful composer and bandleader, Scott’s Quintette scored a string of hit records in the 1930s and his own compositions later appeared in Broadway musicals, at Carnegie Hall recitals, and on countless Warner Bros cartoons, adapted by WB’s MD Carl Stalling to soundtrack the wisecracks and pratfalls of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and The Roadrunner. But Scott’s true passion lay in electronics, building new instruments and creating new sounds for advertising jingles, World’s Fairs and even a suite of Soothing Sounds For Baby, developed with Connecticut’s Gesell Institute of Child Development.
From 1959 until his death in 1994, the focus of his electronic research was a contraption he called the Electronium, intended to be the “perfect sideman”, an “orchestra with a thousand voices”. It was supposed, as Scott said to composer Herb Deutsch, to “take the work out of being a musician.” As Deutsch recalls in a 1993 interview with Irwin Chusid, Scott said, “Look, I just want to sit here, and I’d like to turn this machine on, and whenever it does something good, I want to record it at that point.” Scott’s wife Mitzi spoke of it as if it had a mind of its own. An automatic composing machine, capable of creating an endlessly diverse stream of music with only the most minimal input from its operator, years in advance of today’s deep learning systems and artificial neural networks.
It was a vast machine, as big as a family car, incorporating many different modules and devices, that became Scott’s over-riding passion for much of the second half of his life. He established the Electronium Corporation of America, Inc to attract investment in the thing, and even won the support of Motown’s Berry Gordy, who commissioned Scott to build one just for him. But he never completed it. And it seems increasingly possible that he never could have, nor even intended to – at least, not in the way he often spoke of it. Like the Turk itself, the Electronium may never have been quite as automatic nor as independent as it seemed. Perhaps there was always a concealed operator, hiding among the gears.
Today, what remains of the Electronium, scarcely more than a shell, is owned by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo. There are various attempts ongoing to restore or recreate it. The Moog Cookbook’s Brian Kehew is attempting an all-analogue reconstruction, and the current London Barbican exhibition of AI art, More Than Human, has a digital recreation of the Electronium built by sound artist Yuri Suzuki. When I met Suzuki recently at the London offices of the design firm he joined last year, he mentioned at least two other projects to build an Electronium, taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. But Suzuki’s project is different insofar as he starts from the software, trying to create something that works like Scott’s machine albeit using different technology, rather than trying to build an exact duplicate of Scott’s own hardware.
Like many people (including myself), Suzuki first came across Scott’s music thanks to the Basta Music CD release of Manhattan Research Inc documenting the composer’s electronic experiments from the 1950s and 60s. While still a teenager, Suzuki stumbled upon the release at a record shop in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district. Leafing through the photos in the disc’s lavish accompany booklet, he immediately became “curious”, he told me, “about these amazing machines”.
Suzuki has gone from a stint working at the Maywa Denki design firm, creators of the Otomatone, to bespoke projects for the likes of Jeff Mills and Will.I.Am. In 2014, he helped create the Ototo, a synthesizer which can be controlled by anything from a potato to the user’s own breath. But his first brush with generative music came in late 2017, working on an installation in a Milanese seminary in which the gentle swaying of 30 different pendulums developed endless variations on a set of chords built from the voice of singer Miyu Hosoi. Shortly afterwards, he found himself at Los Angeles’ Raymond Scott Festival, celebrating 110 years since the composer’s birth, where he met and spoke with Mothersbaugh as well as surviving members of Scott’s family. It was then that he realised perhaps now, with the generative capabilities of contemporary AI, Scott’s impossible machine might just finally be realisable.
A little over a year later, Suzuki’s own Electronium fills up three flat screens on a slender black office console and its functioning is based on a convolutional neural network architecture called Coconet, designed by the Magenta research group at Google. Tero Parviainen, who worked with Suzuki on building it, told me it was trained on a corpus of Bach chorales, but that there is “additionally some controlled randomisation involved”.
When I entered the meeting room it was occupying, a stately dance of bruised square waves was gurgling from the speakers at its side. On the screen I could see a dizzying array of controls. Flicking a few virtual switches, the patterns change, sequences of virtual analogue synth sounds rearranged at my touch. But it changes further, continuing to evolve, after I leaned back from the screen. Apricot-coloured dials adjusted themselves on the screen, and from the speakers, accents in the melody shifted slightly, sounds changed and re-arranged themselves, subtly but noticeably. The machine was composing itself.
As Suzuki affirms, Scott was notoriously secretive about his experiments. Though he spent time on the Motown payroll and was in communication with other electronic instrument makers like Robert Moog, he was very much in his own world. The Electronium, in all its idiosyncrasies, reflects this. It’s clear, for instance, that Scott had his own language for things – accent controls on the machine are marked ‘kik’ and filters are marked as ‘doo-wah’. Even after many months of research, poring over memos and schematics from Scott’s archives and examining the original machine in Mothersbaugh’s lockup, many of the Electronium’s components remain a mystery to Suzuki and seem to have been put in place purely for reasons of aesthetics – or obfuscation.
The likes of Herb Deutsch and Robert Moog recall Scott as a paranoid, guarded and highly secretive figure. “Larger than life” is the phrase used by Moog, who remembers Scott’s workshop being full of high tech expensive machine tools that looked like they’d never been used. Scott did, at some point, produce a demonstration disc of music supposedly created using the Electronium, but Suzuki tells me at least one of the tracks on there is clearly just an older, pre-Electronium Scott composition played backwards. Despite decades of work and a reported million dollars of investment from various sources (Gordy included), by the time the machine itself ended up in Mark Mothersbaugh’s hands, there were virtually no functioning parts to it left at all. Practically all it consisted of was the frame and front panels. I have heard suggestions that Scott’s widow junked many of its interior components after her husband’s death, but that only raises the question as to why? Out of jealousy over the machine that took up so much of her partner’s time and attention? Or to hide the fact that none of it was ever more than just smoke and mirrors?
In Scott’s time, various projects did things not a million miles away from what the Electronium promised – random, generative sequencer-type instruments like the Triadex Muse built by Edward Fredkin and Marvin Minsky at MIT. Suzuki is convinced that something like the machine Scott imagined “could have been possible” – if he had only asked for help instead of insisting on doing everything himself in his own strange secretive way. But perhaps after promising an engine of unlimited music, Scott realised that actually producing such a thing would put him out of a job. After all, he made his living as a composer for adverts and so forth. Such was the double bind he found himself caught by. Dreaming of a machine that would ensure his own redundancy, he may nonetheless have found that the promise of such a device was enough to attract investment which could be used for other things, other projects, other machines. But just as Kempelen’s Turk lit the spark that led to Deep Blue and AlphaGo, artists like Suzuki are bringing fiction into reality – and inventing new paths for creation along the way.