One of the pioneers of electronic music and co-composer of the first all electronic film score, Bebe Barron, died this past April 20th of natural cases at the age of 82. She along with her husband, Louis Barron, who passed away in 1989, composed the sound effects / soundtrack to the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet.
Charlotte May Wind (her husband nicknamed her Bebe) was born in Minneapolis in 1925. She earned a degree in music at the University of Minnesota then moved to New York, where she worked as a researcher for Time-Life. Soon after, she met and married Louis Barron in 1947. As a wedding gift the Barrons received a tape recorder and began delving into the world of musique concrete (music created by sounds other than musical instruments, often referred to as “real world” sounds). In 1948 Louis Barron was inspired by the book Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, by MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener. After studying Wiener’s equations, Louis began building electronic circuits to generate sounds. That combined with recorded tape, created a unique and otherworldly aural experience. After moving to Greenwich Village, the Barrons built a recording studio and became entrenched in New York’s burgeoning avant-garde scene. In their studio they recorded the likes of Aldous Huxley, Anais Nin, Henry Miller and Tennessee Williams reading their work; they also recorded and worked with many like-thinking composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and David Tudor. In addition, the Barrons scored their first soundtracks to several experimental short films by Ian Hugo, husband of Anais Nin.
In 1955, and in true bohemian fashion, the Barrons crashed a party in Manhattan for the wife of Dore Schary, the president of MGM Pictures. They obviously talked the talk because within two weeks they were in Hollywood, signed to work on Forbidden Planet, a sci-fi version of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Initially the Barrons were only to create about 20 minutes of the sound effects, (at one point Harry Partch was being considered as soundtrack composer) but after hearing samples of their work the Barrons were hired to compose the entire score. Though the music drew critical praise, the Barrons were prevented from receiving proper credit on the soundtrack by the American Federation of Musicians-- they weren’t union members. Therefore at Oscar time they were not considered for any nomination in either soundtrack, or special effects categories.
Contrary to popular belief they did not use a Theremin in the soundtrack. Predating synthesizers or sampling, the Barrons used vacuum tube circuits, tape recorders, spring reverbs and home built electronic oscillators that produced sawtooth, sine, and square sound waves … plus hours and hours of work. Together they would record, cut and splice tape; vary speeds to different segments to change pitch; record, cut and splice tape again, run sections in reverse, record, cut and splice tape yet again, create delays, feedback, echoes all on tape and then record, cut and splice still again, and again and again … a very labor intensive process.
Though Forbidden Planet would be the only feature film they ever scored, their ambient approach to composition had a huge impact on how music and special effects relate, not only in film but art and theater as well. Bebe and Louis Barron’s ideas were far ahead of their time. They both went on to produce music for film, tape, art and technology well into their later years, separately and together even after their divorce in 1970. Many of us discovered classical music by way of Bugs Bunny cartoons; I also suspect many of us discovered electronic music by way of the Barrons in Forbidden Planet. Thanks.
(And here's a scene from Forbidden Planet.)