Elementary Electronics: Louis and Bebe Barron, Forbidden Planet and the Dawn of Electronic Music

forbidden-planetI'm holding in my hands one of the most remarkable artistic achievements of the 20th century. That's a big claim to make for the soundtrack of a 1956 MGM film, but there's never been a soundtrack quite like Louis and Bebe Barron's Forbidden Planet.

Made when Robert Arthur Moog's devices were simply electronic kits (and 11 years prior to his namesake's coming out party at the Monterrey Pop Festival), the Barrons' Forbidden Planet is synth music without synths, electronic music that is more "electronic" than "music" and yet immediately identifiable as the precursor to the beats and tones that we know today.

Unable to reproduce or even classify the sounds they were making, the Barrons constructed their ethereal and demonic soundtrack through custom built circuits, most of which died immediately after use. In an interview with composer Jane Brockman, Bebe Barron recalled that

Louis would invent a circuit and put it together. Then we would activate the circuit: it would come to life, and we would amplify it and start to tape it. And it would produce a burst of the most glorious kind of energy and electronic activity.
That would level out a little bit - go on along a plateau. And then, in a moment of glory, it died - the electronic explanation would be that it overloaded in some way. But you could hear it climaxing, and the thing then would just give out, and run down to zero.
We could never get them to start up again after they died - each had a lifespan of its own.

This is rather high art for a science fiction film from a major studio, and it was a roundabout way that the Barrons got there. They met in Minneapolis, worked with John Cage in New York (their work surfaces in his Williams Mix, recorded at their studio in 1952 to 1953, and his Music for Magnetic Tape) and opened a studio in Greenwich Village, New York. They weren't the only people experimenting with tape recorders (though it seems likely that they invented the tape loop, and probably the "audio book" as well), but most others were experimenting with manipulating organic sounds. The Barrons had a deep appreciation for the "synthetic purity" of their creations. "If our circuits started doing things that even remotely resembled existing intruments," Bebe Barron told Brockman, "we just tossed it out. We didn't even want to sound like any existing instrument. It was totally our realm."

The Barrons obtained MGM's blessing to work on Forbidden Planet (something of a nightmare project, with scores of contributors moving in and out of the production) after crashing a party attended by MGM producer Dore Schary in Greenwich Village. They were originally to compose some 20 minutes of the film's soundtrack or sound effects - avant garde composer Harry Partch was one of those attached to the project at one point - but eventually were given the entire show.

Their creation was quite unlike anything heard before 1956 - a "soundtrack" without songs, blurring the line entirely between what we know as a "film score" and "sound effects". Hollywood's first tentative steps with electronic instruments of any sort had been limited to the use of the Theremin, but Barron estimated that 95% of the sound in Forbidden Planet was created using the Barrons' homemade circuits, built in a space that must have resembled a factory more than a recording studio.

Vacuum tubes were our main components. There were also resistors, capacitors, inductors and semiconductors... Reverberation was also very big with us. We invented our own since there wasn't anything else. We used acoustical reverb and plate reverb. When we recorded sound at 15 lps with accoustical reverberation and then slowed it down a couple of generations, the reverb would give it a rhythmic beat - and that was extremely useful. It was one of the very few ways we had for getting a regular rhythmic beat.

When released to audiences, Forbidden Planet (which used mostly standard pulp marketing techniques) dazzled audiences, leading to numerous (and maybe apocryphal) tales of standing ovations in response to the special effects. What is not apocryphal is that in its day, the "soundtrack" was not officially classified as a "soundtrack" at all. As the story goes, the Musicians Union objected to the score being classified as a soundtrack, either because the Barrons did not belong to the union and possibly because as electronic musicians they wouldn't be able to. The American Federation of Musicians at even the use of the word "music" in the credits. Instead, this strange creation was credited in the film's titles with the awkward tag of "electronic tonalities". Because of these complications, the most remarkable film score (if that's what you want to call it) was never considered for the Academy Award for either score or special effects (Until 1963, the Academy didn't distinguish between visual and sound effects. Arnold Gillespie, Irving Ries and Wesley C. Miller, who worked on Forbidden Planet, were nominated for special effects, but not the Barrons; the award wound up going to The Ten Commandments.)

electronic tonalities

"Electronic Tonalities", whatever that is.


MGM never released the Barrons' soundtrack, and in the era before video players, the only way to hear it was to see the film itself. The Barrons released their "electronic tonalities" in 1976 for the first time, and it's now been reissued in a handsome, limited edition vinyl package from re-issue house PoppyDisc. Remastered by Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub and Jonny, the album also features interesting liner notes by John Cavanagh, but far more interesting is Jane Brockman's 1992 interview with Bebe Barron and her loving memorial to Barron after her passing in 2008. An interesting footnote is Bebe's attitude toward the rise of synthesizers and then their eclipse by DAWs:

One day (ca. 1997?), Bebe decided she wanted to compose again. Through the Recycler, we found a used Roland JD-800 synthesizer (which emulated analog sounds), and I loaned her my old Mac for sequencing, and Tascam 388 (8 channel reel-to-reel tape recorder and mixer) - but they sat unused in her living room for ca. five years until Bebe and Leonard sold their Beverly Hills home. Digital sounds weren't complex enough for her taste.

A few years later, as composer-in-residence at Cal-Santa Barbara, Bebe Barron did create her final work, using computers which had advanced enough to "mimic the analog sounds she had always loved". Titled "Mixed Emotions", Brockman has made it available on YouTube - and it actually does sound quite close to those pulsing, throbbing and then dying circuits she so loved.


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czarina mirani Terry Matthew is the managing editor of 5 Magazine. You can contact him at terry@5chicago.com and via Facebook, Twitter and Google+.