You might not recognize Raymond Scott’s name, but chances are that you’ve heard his music — and that it makes you anxious. That’s because Scott’s “Powerhouse” (1937), easily his best known work, has been used to accompany scenes of mechanized peril in everything from the classic 1940s Warner Bros. cartoons to “The Ren & Stimpy Show” and a Visa check card commercial. As Warner Bros. animator, director and historian Greg Ford notes in “Deconstructing Dad: The Music, Machines and Mystery of Raymond Scott,” a new documentary film by the composer’s son, Stan Warnow, the disquieting “Powerhouse” became the go-to choice for scoring animated scenes of panic on the assembly line. Raymond Scott (1908-1994) never wrote with animated films in mind (Warner Bros. simply licensed Scott’s back catalogue in 1941), but it’s fitting that he should be forever linked to the image of a swiftly moving conveyor belt — a contraption that makes its operators struggle to keep pace.
A technophile and jazz musician who was out of step with his time, Scott made a living writing for popular film and television of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but spent his free time experimenting at the frontier of electronic music. As he refined his inventions — early synthesizers and sequencers — Scott envisioned a future in which machines could make music all on their own.
Born Harry Warnow to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, Scott learned the piano by placing his fingers over the moving keys of a player piano in his parents’ house. Fascinated by gadgets, he planned to become an engineer, but was persuaded to attend the Institute of Musical Art, the school that would later become Juilliard. Hired as a staff pianist for CBS radio in 1931, Scott started composing original pieces that went over so well with the CBS audience that producer Herb Rosenthal let him form his own group, the Raymond Scott Quintette. After a Hollywood tour performing with the quintet in 20th Century Fox films like “Ali Baba Goes to Town” and the Shirley Temple vehicle “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” Scott returned to CBS in New York and formed a big band. Breaking the network’s rule, Scott insisted on including black as well as white members in the group, assembling the first racially integrated studio orchestra in 1942.