There exists at the University Of Missouri in Kansas City a huge research library of sound recordings, called the "Marr Sound Archive." My wife, Karen, and I took a little trip there on Monday, June 4, to listen to a few rare tapes made by the legendary Raymond Scott. We had a unique and very pleasant experience.
The Marr Archive houses copies of millions of records, cylinders, tapes, CDs, digital audio files -- all sizes, shapes, lengths, etc. -- all types of artists from all over the world. There are several "special" collections there as well, including the most extensive collection of Raymond Scott recordings anywhere. The Scott collection contains not only commercially-released productions, but lots and lots of one-of-a-kind items recorded on lathe cut lacquer disks and reel to reel tapes -- radio shows, practice sessions, electronic sound experiments, etc.
Raymond Scott was a genius musician and arranger, and was also the inventor of some of the earliest electronic synthesizers. His work influenced artists all over the world from the 1930's to the 1980's, and continues to do so today. His jazz and orchestral recordings are quirky and inventive; some have become permanently embedded in the public consciousness due to Warner Brothers purchasing and adapting them as soundtracks for Looney Toons. In the 1940's, Scott started creating all sorts of electronic instruments and playing around with recording technology, producing sounds that human beings had never heard (nor imagined) before. For more extensive background on Scott, go here:
Official Raymond Scott Website.
The Marr Archive is a research library, and the staff is very mindful of copyrights. Appointments for listening must be arranged in advance, and listening is only allowed in-house (no internet audio files are available). For the sake of preserving rare recordings, guests don't get to handle original materials and only get to listen to digitized audio. Many of the Scott recordings at the library have been digitized, but some haven't, and if you want to hear something that isn't digitized, you are obliged to pay $70/hour for a technician to digitize it for you. To offset all of these rules, the staff at the archive is very helpful and welcoming to guests, which makes a trip to the library a fun and easy experience (at least it was for us). For more information about the Raymond Scott collection, go here: Marr Archive Raymond Scott Collection.
Karen and I arranged to hear four recordings while we were there -- about 1 1/2 hours of material. The library specialist with whom I arranged our visit, Andrew Hansbrough, had prepared a computer terminal with the materials I requested, but he went well beyond that in welcoming us to the Marr Archive. He gave us a personal tour of the entire place. This included demonstrations of some very ancient sound equipment and of the GIANT robot system that retrieves huge palettes of recordings from a vault that extends up several floors into a huge dark void. Among other unique items, he showed us some 20 inch disks made of lacquer on glass during the 1940's (the USA needed all its metal for the war effort back then). Really nice guy!
The recordings that Karen and I heard included tapes of experiments made with various versions of Scott's "Electronium" and one tape of advertisement out takes from 1960. None of this stuff has ever been made available to the general public outside of the Marr Archive. The electronium materials were as engaging as any electronic music I've ever heard, ranging in form from rhythmic sounds, to lovely washes, to complete dissonant wildness. The 1960 adverts we heard were obviously being arranged on the spot with some very talented musicians -- the same products (and verbiage) being presented and re-presented in all sorts of genres and styles to determine how best to sell them.
Obviously we had a great time there, and we will be going back for more. If any of you readers out there ever plan a trip to Kansas City, get in touch with me, and perhaps we could go there together...