synthesized trivia roundup

A few days ago, the trivia roundup ate a fist-sized peyote button and spent 96 hours rollerblading naked with Tony Danza, drinking gin rickeys on a paddleboat with Zelda Fitzgerald, and doing deadlifts with the ghost of Jack LaLanne. So it’s a little behind. Hop aboard for a belated trivia roundup.

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1. Raymond Scott, born 1908, was a Juilliard trained musician who changed the face of both electronic music and cartoons. A musically precocious child who found math in high school, when it came time for college, Scott’s brother—a musician who thought Raymond’s talent should not go to waste—bought him a piano and paid his tuition for music school. After graduating, Scott struck out as a bandleader and big band/swing/jazz music composer. Among the most famous of his compositions is Powerhouse, which you’ve no doubt heard before:

Powerhouse was just one of the many Scott compositions to find a home in cartoons. It’s also notable for possibly having altered jazz history, as famed drummer Art Blakey claimed to have given up on the piano after seeing the sheet music for Powerhouse: “This big show came in from New York—they had special music written by Raymond Scott. It was called Powerhouse. Really impressive stuff—bamp, bomp, be-doodle-lee-doo-doo-de-lee. All written out. Looked like fly shit on those sheets. It scared the hell out of me.” Powerhouse also happens to be among the sanest of Scott’s song titles, which include:

Tobacco Auctioneer • Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals • Siberian Sleigh Ride • New Year’s Eve in a Haunted House • Boy Scout in Switzerland • Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxicabs Upon Meeting with a Fare • Celebration on the Planet Mars • Careful Conversation at a Diplomatic Function • Pre-Festival Music for the Coming Merger of Two Professional Marriage Brokers • Dedicatory Piece to the Crew and Passengers of the First Experimental Rocket Express to the Moon

In the 1940s and 1950s, Scott developed a lucrative side business composing commercial jingles and film scores and presumably being paid handsomely by Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Around this time his prior interest in electronics and engineering met his musical career, and he began to dabble in then-primitive electronic music. Technical savvy was mandatory for composing electronic music at the time; synthesizers didn’t exist, and if you weren’t building equipment from scratch, you were at the least cobbling together different components to produce new sounds. Scott built a studio called Manhattan Research and started producing ahead-of-its-time electronic music while mad-scientisting new devices.

Scott’s lab

Scott claimed to have developed the first polyphonic synthesizer, described as “six-feet high and covering 30 feet of wall space, the sequencer consisted of hundreds of switches controlling stepping relays, timing solenoids, tone circuits… (and) 16 individual oscillators….If you walked behind the wall during the operation…, the music produced would be all but drowned out by the cacophonous klickety-klack of the relays as they switched positions.” Among his first releases was a series of all-electronic “lullabies” called Soothing Sounds for Baby, which are good but didn’t sell, possibly because of the terrifying album covers:

Some of his electronic compositions sound frankly modern:

Scott’s piece de resistance was the Electronium, a synthesizer/sequencer intended to generate its own compositions through algorithms and randomization of tones and rhythms. That was just the first step. Scott hoped that eventually the machine would read the composer’s mind and generate the music he thought about. The only Electronium ever sold went to Motown Records; Berry Gordy hired Scott to serve as a sort of scientist-in-chief for Motown, though this arrangement lasted only two years and it’s not clear if anything came of it. The actual functioning of the Electronium is shrouded in secrecy, as no details were ever revealed and Scott continued tinkering with it for most of his life. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo purchased the only remaining Electronium in the 1990s with plans to restore it, but there’s no word on his progress.

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2. Lev Termen (anglicized as Leon Theremin) was a Tesla-like Russian inventor most well known for the invention of the instrument that bears his name:

Theremin’s theremin design actually grew out of a project to create a burglar alarm or “radio watchman.” He noticed that the pitch of his test alarm changed depending on his distance from the device, and he recognized the musical possibilities.  The theremin allows the player to control the pitch of the instrument with one hand, and the volume with the other. Unlike most stringed instruments in which changes in pitch are mostly quantized, theremin pitches “slide” from one to the next. That eerie sound ended up in about 98.7% of sci-fi B-movie soundtracks and albums by psych rock bands that were really into acid, such as Lothar and the Hand People. Lothar, by the way, was the name of the theremin. They named the theremin. Drugs are the best.

Theremin had that sort of intellectual/inventive facility in which people seem to be able to pull together strands of ideas from many different disciplines. Besides the theremin, he was at the forefront of wireless transmission of television signals, pioneered the use of interlacing, which enhances the resolution of television broadcasts, and also invented the Rhythmicon, the world’s first drum machine.

In the 1940s, he was placed in a sort of scientist-gulag or forced intellectual-labor camp. While there, he developed a laser microphone for eavesdropping and “The Thing,” perhaps the world’s first bugging device. It was, after all, the cold war. In one of my favorite this-seems-made-up stories, “The Thing” was placed inside a wood carving of the Great Seal of the United States, which in 1945 was given to the US Ambassador as a gift by a group of school children. It hung in the ambassador’s office for SEVEN years before being discovered.

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3. The Battle of Depot Street, on March 1 1897, was the end result of a life-and-death struggle for control of the unimaginably lucrative (I’m guessing) streetcar system of Knoxville, Tennessee. A chief player in this titanic struggle was William Gibbs McAdoo, notable for (a) serving as Treasury Secretary under Wilson, (b) being played by Vincent Price in Wilson’s 1944 biopic, and (c) saying that Warren Harding’s speeches were “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea,” which is also what my 10th grade English teacher said about my Grapes of Wrath essay. Anyways, McAdoo had monopolized Knoxville’s rail system, but was bankrupted during the conversion from steam to electric power. The company was broken up, one part owned by McAdoo and the other by bitter rival CC Howell, a paragon of Gilded Age mustachioed tycoonery named Cornelius.

Howell and mustache

Howell harrumphed and maneuvered to cut off McAdoo’s rail access to downtown. In response, McAdoo sent in 200 workers to lay new tracks on Depot Street downtown. Howell snitched to the authorities, who unsuccessfully attempted to disperse the workers before arresting McAdoo. Work continued, though, while outnumbered constabulary waited on reinforcements. By this point, some 2,000+ people had gathered to watch the standoff, and people from the crowd would take the places of workers who were arrested and hauled off to jail. Eventually, fire hoses were turned on the laborers, prompting one worker to attack the fire chief and be shot dead. The mayor arrived, begging for “some kind of sanity” (not an actual quote), but work was not halted until an injunction was issued by the court. Cut off from the lucrative downtown sector, McAdoo harrumphed and sold out to Howell, ending the struggle of these extremely localized titans of industry. History does not record the name of the worker who was murdered.

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4. Speaking of streetcars, what ever happened to streetcars?  GM happened to streetcars, maybe. In the late 19th and early 20th century, streetcars made up the bulk of urban travel: in 1920, for example, some 90% of all trips were made by rail and only 1/10 of Americans owned cars. Shortly thereafter, GM president Alfred P. Sloan—whose lasting legacy is the funding for many fine public television programs—tented his fingers in a dimly-lit conference room and established a secret committee inside the company tasked with eliminating railways cars in favor of buses.

GM began buying streetcar systems, then eliminating them in favor of buses. By 1936, they began establishing front companies solely for this purpose, with investor including pro-bus businesses like Firestone, Standard Oil, Phillips, and Mack Trucks. Streetcars were replaced with buses in Baltimore, NYC, LA, San Diego, and dozens of other cities. And when GM couldn’t buy the streetcar operation outright—for example when a hostile takeover of Oakland’s Key System was rebuffed—they patiently and surreptitiously bought enough stock to do so later. Streetcars were pulled out of service and stacked like sardines in scrap metal yards:

fallen soldiers

The scene repeated in the 1990s, when GM rounded up all existing models of its EV-1 electric car and trashed them.

EV scrap heap

In 1949, GM and four other colluding investors were found guilty of conspiring to monopolize bus sales and were fined $5,000, or an estimated one billionth of a percent of their combined revenues. HC Grossman, GM’s treasurer, was found individually guilty and…fined $1. GM admitted that by the 1950s they had “motorized” more than 900 electric railway systems, though it’s not clear to what extent they were responsible for the decline of streetcars. Urban sprawl, white flight, suburbanization, and the rise of cars may have spelled doom for streetcars even without GM pushing them over the cliff.

By the way, the bus/streetcar conspiracy was the plot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?


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