synthesized trivia roundup

A few days ago, the trivia roundup ate a fist-sized peyote button and spent the subsequent 96 hours rollerblading naked with Tony Danza, drinking gin rickeys with Zelda Fitzgerald on a paddle boat, and thinking really profound thoughts. After waking up alone and in tattered clothes in a Kiev subway station, it’s made its way home, so hop aboard for a days-late edition of the trivia roundup.

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1. Raymond Scott, born 1908, was a Juilliard trained musician who changed the face of electronic music and cartoons. Like his older brother, Scott was a musically precocious child but seemed to find his calling with math and engineering in high school. When it came time for college, his brother—believing that such musical talent should not go to waste—intervened, buying him a piano and helping pay his tuition. After his graduation, 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 many Scott pieces to be used over…and over…and over in cartoons. It may also have altered the course of jazz history, as famed drummer Art Blakey claimed to have given up on the piano and switched to drums in part because of 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 most sane of Scott’s song titles. Actual Scott song titles 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. It was around this time that his prior interest in electronics and engineering became more prominent and he began dabbling in the nascent electronic music movement. This was a time when technical savvy was a mandatory part of composing electronic music—if you weren’t building your equipment totally from scratch, you were likely frankenstein-ing different components together to make new sounds. Scott built a studio called Manhattan Research and started producing wildly creative electronic music (both full songs and commercial jingles) while mad-scientisting some pretty amazing devices.

Scott’s lab

He 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. They’re pretty good, but they didn’t sell well, possibly because of the horrifying album covers:

Other 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 held out hope that one day, the machine would be able to read the composer’s mind and generate the music he thought about. If only. The only Electronium ever sold went to Motown Records, where an impressed Berry Gordy hired Scott to serve as a sort of scientist-in-chief, though this arrangement lasted only two years and it’s not clear if anything came of it. Most of the 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 90s 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:

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. The “eerie” sound mostly found use in an estimated 98.7% of sci-fi B-movie soundtracks and prog rock bands that were really really into acid (e.g., “Lothar and the Hand People”…Lothar was the theremin. They NAMED the theremin. I can only assume that SNL’s “Lothar of the Hill People” was a riff on this).

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 rather quickly recognized the musical possibilities. 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 (why did things back then have such awesome names?).

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 (Cold War and all, you can tell what they had the scientists working on). 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. William Gibbs McAdoo (who later served as US Treasury Secretary under Wilson, was played by VINCENT PRICE in Wilson’s 1944 biopic, and said Warren Harding’s speeches were “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea,” which was also what my high school English teacher said about my Grapes of Wrath essay) had monopolized the railway system in Knoxville, but was bankrupted by the high cost of converting from steam to electric power. When his company was disbanded, it was broken into two smaller pieces, one still owned by McAdoo and the other by bitter rival CC Howell, who was a paragon of Gilded Age mustachioed tycoonery and named Cornelius:

Howell and mustache

Howell harrumphed and cut off McAdoo’s access to downtown, so McAdoo sent in 200 workers to lay new tracks on Depot Street in downtown Knoxville. Howell notified the police, who attempted to disperse the workers, were unsuccessful, and then arrested McAdoo. Work continued while the outnumbered cops waited for reinforcements. A mob of some 2000 people had gathered to watch by the early evening, and as individual workers were arrested, crowd members would take their place. Eventually, the fire departments turned on the hoses in an attempt to disperse the workers, prompting one of the hosed workers to attack the fire chief and be shot dead. The mayor arrived and begged for “some kind of sanity” (not an actual quote), and work was eventually halted with a court injunction. Thus cut off from the lucrative downtown Knoxville sector, McAdoo was forced to sell out to Howell, ending the struggle of these titans of industry.

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4. Speaking of streetcars, what ever happened to streetcars?  GM. GM happened to streetcars (maybe?). In the late 19th and early 20th century, streetcars (first pulled by horses, later electric) were used for 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) established a secret committee inside the company tasked with eliminating railways cars in favor of buses (I hope this committee was helmed by G. Gordon Liddy’s grandfather).

By the early 1930s, GM had dipped its toes in that particular water by buying several smaller streetcar systems and ditching them in favor of buses. By 1936, they began establishing front companies solely for this purpose; investors into these companies included Firestone, Standard Oil, Phillips, and Mack Trucks. Streetcar operations were replaced with buses in Baltimore, NYC, LA, San Diego, and many smaller cities. When they 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 (the streetcar-bus scheme was also a central plot element to the 1988 cartoon/live-action hybrid hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). The elimination of streetcars in favor of buses led to scenes like this, with streetcars stacked like sardines in scrap metal yards after being quickly yanked from service:

fallen soldiers

A similar scene would be repeated in the 1990s, when existing models of GM’s electric car EV-1 were rounded up and sent to the scrap heap:

EV scrap heap

In 1949, GM and four other colluding investors were found guilty of conspiring to monopolize bus sales (but acquitted of conspiring to monopolize ownership of bus companies), and were fined $5,000, or an estimated one billionth of a percent of their combined revenues. HC Grossman, the treasurer of GM, was individually found guilty and…fined $1. GM admitted that by the 1950s, their agents had investigated more than 1000 electric railways and had motorized more than 900 of them, it’s debated to what extent the conspiracy was responsible for the decline of streetcars more broadly. Factors like urban sprawl, white flight, suburbanization, and the rise of cars may have spelled doom for streetcars even without GM pushing them over the cliff.


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