Interview with Guy Costa about Raymond Scott’s Electronium

Gaetano “Guy” Costa worked under Berry Gordy at Motown in Los Angeles from 1969 to 1987, variously as Head of Operations and Chief Engineer, running the recording studios. At the date of this interview, he lived in Westlake Village, CA, and owned a company, Quadim Corp., which manufactured and produced CDs and cassettes for major labels. This interview by Irwin Chusid was conducted by telephone on Feb. 17, 1996, about a week after Costa was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; he passed away Feb. 11, 1997.

The Electronium ca. 1971

The Electronium ca. 1971

IC: Do you recall when Raymond Scott was approached about the Electronium?

Costa: I don’t know the exact year, maybe around ‘71 or ‘72.

IC: He was in Long Island at the time.

Costa: Yes. Berry [Gordy] had gone out to meet him. He was in an industrial space. His home was on one side. The start of the Electronium and his office and stuff were in another.

A few months after Berry came back to Los Angeles, he sent me out and I met with Raymond and spent a couple of days looking at the facility, talking to him about the Electronium, and getting his input. Then I came back and Berry decided that he wanted to work with him. They put together a contract, and he began his work in earnest. It was somewhere in the early ‘70s.

IC: When you went to New York, when Berry went, was the Electronium in its wooden cabinet?

Costa: No, not at all. It was just prototype boards, that kind of stuff. He had sketches, and I think he was in the process of putting it together, getting the wooden frame made. The problem was that the Electronium was always in development. It was an evolutionary kind of thing.

IC: The Electronium was the reason why Berry Gordy hired him.

Berry Gordy

Berry Gordy

Costa: Yeah. Berry felt, number one, that Raymond was a genius. Berry was always one to invest in talent, and he recognized that right off with Ray. He felt that the power of the Electronium, the ability to numeralize the process of music, to quantify musical sequence, was an important aspect of developing music. Berry was always a formula man—he’d find a rhythm or a progression and build on that. With the Electronium, it gave somebody the ability to sit down and literally play a chord like an accordion, and of course the ability to store rhythms, and resequence those kinds of things. To have all these new effects was a turn-on.

IC: Was Berry interested in the Clavivox, the keyboard theremin?

Costa: I don’t recall that.

IC: So it was really the Electronium that captured his fancy?

Costa: Yeah.

IC: According to Mitzi Scott, in 1971 or ‘72, she and Raymond went out to Los Angeles for six weeks, and ended up staying six months. That must have been when Berry offered him a job. So he and Mitzi relocated permanently to Los Angeles in 1972. I believe Raymond was working at Motown for a while, then began working at home, in his lab.

Costa: He started originally working out of Berry’s house. They set up a room over the garages, and he worked there putting stuff together so Berry could get involved and see the progress. At one point he worked out of a studio.

Eventually, because the unit never really got finalized—Ray had a real problem letting go. It was always being developed. That was a problem for Berry. He wanted instant gratification. Eventually his interest started to wane after a period of probably two or three years. Finally Ray took the thing down to his house and kept working on it. Berry kind of lost interest. He was off doing Diana Ross movies.


IC: Did Raymond have a title during his tenure at Motown? Was he Director of Electronic Research and Development?

Costa: Yes.

IC: Raymond worked for Motown for five years. After the Electronium, did he move on to other projects?

Costa: Not really. The Electronium was his project. Berry kind of sows a field, throws some seeds into it, and if it works, it works. It really didn’t work.

IC: Did anything that Raymond did for Motown ever get used?

Costa: No.

IC: A journalist circulated a rumor that the Temptations’ “Psychedelic Shack” used some of Raymond’s inventions.

Costa: Not that I’m aware.

IC: I kind of doubt it myself.

Costa: Ray was writing for a while, and Berry got turned on to little things. We did some experimenting in the studios and recorded some stuff, but nothing really of any consequence.

IC: And Raymond was just on a straight salary through this?

Costa: Yes.

IC: So it was a pretty simple story.

Costa: It really is. It’s genius meeting genius. In my opinion, it never jelled. Not for any reason. Berry certainly respected Ray and his knowledge. And I think Ray had an admiration for Berry. But they were on two different planets. It never came together.

Tom Rhea demonstrates a Putney VCS3 at George Peabody College, ca. 1970

Tom Rhea with a Putney VCS3, ca. 1970

IC: I’ve talked to people who worked with Raymond in the 1960s—Tom Rhea, Bob Moog, Herb Deutsch. They all have interesting observations about Raymond’s approach. He once described himself as having a “degree in primitive engineering.” He would do things intuitively, and they would be incredibly complicated. But they would work. After he developed the Clavivox, the keyboard theremin, it was Tom Rhea who was hired to market it. Rhea described to me the inner workings, and he said it was so incredibly complex, that the reason it couldn’t be marketed was because it was impossible to mass produce. Raymond himself left behind some writings in which he admitted to being paranoid about people stealing his ideas.

Costa: Oh yes, he was. Extremely.

IC: He didn’t publish, he wasn’t part of an academic community, and he sort of worked in a vacuum. A lot of what he did was eventually superseded by microtechnology.

Costa: That was the big problem with the Electronium. It was basically analog, original old telephone switching technology. And it wasn’t consistently reliable. It would drift terribly. Intonation was a problem; so was sequencing. And Ray, in his limited budget sense, was always using surplus parts—the cheaper the better.

He tried in the later years to make the transition to microprocessing technology, and he was very aware that that was the way it had to go. And I think that frustrated him quite a bit, coming up to speed. He was always two steps ahead of where the technology was supposed to be. But theory and implementation are two different animals. I think that ended up being a bigger source of frustration for him, because his mind outraced the practical end of it.

IC: After he left Motown, in 1978—at that point he had hooked up the Electronium to a DX-7 keyboard, linked by a computer, to create a primitive MIDI system. There are recordings of his own compositions “Twilight in Turkey” and “The Toy Trumpet” played through the Electronium. They sound futuristic. He was able to control the melodies; they’re perfectly recognizable. They’re great interpretations. When he originally devised the Electronium, it could not play existing music. I don’t know if it was his original intent to make it play existing music, but by 1978, he succeeded at it anyway.

Costa: Originally he was always trying to generate new and unique sounds. His intention was never to make it up; it was to be a self-generating performance instrument. Yet the basis was always there, in chord structure, and sequencing. He had elaborate sequencers all built up.

I think Ray tended to rely more on mystery, and didn’t give himself enough credit for a lot of his own talent.

I think Ray tended to rely more on mystery, and didn’t give himself enough credit for a lot of his own talent. He’d sit there and leave it to the ethereal rather than to the practical. And yet, it was a practical device. Although you had to push buttons that were arranged in a row that didn’t resemble a keyboard, it was a fairly linear device, a 12-tone device, and functioned as such. It could have done anything he wanted it to do.

IC: What did Berry Gordy envision would be done with it? It doesn’t require a performer since it is a performer by itself. You just need someone to set some parameters and switch the thing on. Did Gordy envision Motown artists or engineers or sidemen—

Costa: I can’t speak for Berry. That’s why he’s the genius that he is. But having been around for a long time, I think he was looking at it as a source of inspiration and new ideas. And also as a methodology—as a sophisticated programmable sequencer.

One of the first things we developed back in the early ‘70s was, we had an old drum machine that had a bunch of fixed rhythms in it. We put a bunch of switches on it and we could sit and work out our own drum patterns on it. The idea being that you get a rhythm and use that as a pulse, and build on top of that. It was an idea stimulator, a creative thought processor. That’s what he was looking to do—get people into new thoughts. Maybe find combinations that hadn’t been tried.
IC: Raymond had used a Wurlitzer drum machine called a “Sideman,” that had been marketed in 1959. He left behind some notes which said that it had inspired him to devise a polyphonic sequencer in 1960. He built something that was practically the size of a wall, using telephone switching relays. If you walked behind it, Herb Deutsch said, you’d hear all this ‘clickety-clack’ that would pretty much drown out the music it was creating. Nowadays that entire device could probably be encompassed on a chip. But he did it the hard way, through primitive engineering.

But he and Berry got along?

Costa: Absolutely. But because it was taking so long, that’s when Berry lost interest in it. And it’s unreliability—you’d come in for a demonstration and sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. Berry was intolerant of things that didn’t perform the way they were intended to. Ray, being the creative person that he was, he was more about function than form.

IC: Thanks for helping fill in these historical gaps. People ask me all the time about what he did for Motown.

Costa: He was just a wonderful guy, I can’t tell you how much fun we had together. And we had our arguments, too. We’d sit there, y’know: “Hey, it’s supposed to work! If you’d just tweak this a little bit…” Kind of frustrating at times. He was the experimenter, the Mad Professor.

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