The First Electronic Filmscore-Forbidden Planet: A Conversation with Bebe Barron
The New York Times described Bebe and Louis Barrons’ score for MGM’s 1956 mega-budget Forbidden Planet as an appropriate “accompaniment of interstellar gulps and burbles.” A front page article in The New York World-Telegram raved about “sounds which make the flesh creep with tension and the goose pimples jump with joy.” The writer goes on to depict the Barron’s studio looking “as if Halloween pranksters had dismantled the telephone company.” Bebe and Louis’ photo carries the caption: “partners in noise.” Time Magazine lauded the innovative score: “American listeners have a chance to feast their ears on their own native brand of electronic composition…” Dore Schary (head of MGM at the time) in his autobiography credited Louis and Bebe’s score at a primary factor in Forbidden Planet’s status as a cult film. And the world’s first electronic filmscore was nominated for an Academy Award.
Prior to Forbidden Planet Bebe and Louis Barron had scored experimental films for Ian Hugo and Walter Lewisohm; and later composed Broadway scores for Gore Vidal, John Houseman, Christopher Fry and Cyril Ritchard. This music laid the foundation for American classical studio technique.
A German tape recorder, given to the couple as a wedding gift, in 1947 was perhaps the first such device in this country. Their home studio in New York predated the Columbia-Princeton studio by almost a decade, and John Cage and Edgard Varese created their first works in the new medium with the technical help of Bebe and Louis at their studio. The Barrons also understood the archival value of the new technology; their recorded series of writers Anais Nin, Aldous Huxley, Henry Miller, and Tennessee Williams reading from their works was released on LP. Over the years, Forbidden Planet’s soundtrack has become a classic and is now on CD. Although Bebe and Louis were later divorced, they continued to collaborate until his death in 1989.
JB: Bebe, the late 40s-50s were a time of extraordinary artistic excitement in New York. You and Louis were inventing methods of working with tape and electronics at a time when there were no models. In Paris, Mssrs. Schaeffer and Henry began experimenting with musique concrete 1948, and later In 1953 Stockhausen began composing for electronics in Cologne, but you had no way of hearing their work. Then Luening and Ussa-chevsky began experimenting with the tape recorder In Otto’s basement in New York in 1952 – but they were recording and processing pre-existing instruments, not building their own.
BB: Everything was just a matter of timing – including the equipment, which was just emerging. We couldn’t wait to get our hands on it. And I think the time we worked with Cage was so wonderful because Cage gave you the feeling that there are no rules. Then, Louis really was a technical genius. We were both musicians, but he was self-taught totally in electronics, and I think because of that he felt free to use electronics in a way that they’d never been used before. He didn’t feel hampered by any formal knowledge. And Varese, who used to hang out in our studio, defined music as organized sound, This had a great deal of meaning for us.
JB: You and Louis were also tremendously influenced by Norbert Wiener’s 1948 book Cybernetics – which he defined as the science of control and communications in the animal and machine.
BB: Cybernetics was so appropriate to what we were doing — it is what we were doing. After working with Cage, and being totally imbued with his ideas on randomness and probability. Cybernetics gave a certain kind of authority to our tendencies regarding probability and randomness. That was the only thing our circuits could do.
JB: It allowed you to rethink the definition of music. It’s difficult to grasp the revolutionary magnitude of this – prior to that time, music always implied performance of specific pitches. Did Cage know about Cybernetics?
BB: No, that was just his own personal philosophy, based on the I Ching and the Oriental philosophies. But there it all was in Cybernetics. For example, probability; Gibbs had just inserted probability into the whole physics realm. Probability not only made random sounds O.K. in our minds, it also increased entropy – which was what we were trying for. Then, in Cybernetics there was also information theory: the more probable something is, the less information it transmits. Clichés, of course, are the least illuminating of all.
JB: That had a crucial influence on the evolution of your musical style. I’ve often thought it historically fascinating that the acceptance of Schoenberg’s idea of non-tonailty was delayed thirty years, until the advent of electronic music – where pitch priority was not an option.
BB: Yes, and then there were the fine points of entropy: all closed systems tend to deteriorate and lose their distinctiveness. Our circuits really did just 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. At one point, a group of scientists came down to visit us from the Salk Institute. They were working on the origins of life and had heard about what we were doing; so they came down to investigate.
JB: Your circuits behaved like primitive organisms.
BB: That’s right. And we never could get them to start up again after they died — each had a lifespan of its own. Vacuum tubes were our main components. There were also resistors, capacitors, inductors and semiconductors. Semiconductors were very big with us because they were temperature sensitive and we didn’t have air conditioning. So the things were always in a riot of activity. 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 i.p.s. with acoustical reverberation and slowed it down a couple of generations, the reverb would give it a rhythmic beat — and that was extremely useful. It was one of very few ways we had for getting a regular rhythmic beat.
JB: I also hear quite a number of tape loops in Forbidden Planet. Did you invent the loop earlier?
BB: I think we did. I never heard of anyone else doing it at the time. In 1949, Stancil-Hoffman offered to make us a tape recorder to our specifications so we took advantage of it, I believe it was the first commercial tape recorder ever made. The way the tapes were aligned vertically on the transport, it just kind of looked at you and said “Hey, I’m perfect for a tape loop.” Then we had a voltage generator for varying the capstan speed, so we were able to shift the pitch. This didn’t work with our next deck, a stereo Ampex: we had to build up the capstan with splicing tape in order to vary the speed. Of course, we could play it at half speed also.
JB: Were you able to predict the sound of a circuit based on its design?
BB: We did have a pretty good idea of what kind of activity each circuit would have, whether the sounds were going to be pleasant or harsh, very active or passive and quiet, I was the one who was in charge of translating that into emotion. We relied on my ear for what sounds had possibilities that would make them worth processing. I would listen to the stuff. It came out of the circuits sounding like gibberish — harsh miserable sounds, and I got so that I could somehow hear the possibilities for it.
JB: A critical aspect of the work was identifying the effect these otherworldly sounds would have on human emotions. No one had the experiential references they have when they hear familiar instruments, an oboe or a solo violin.
BB: I had a kind of universal mind I think, because what sounded right to me usually sounded the same way to other people — like a love scene — I could tell what kind of circuit was going to be suitable, or the charge of the Ids/monsters.
JB: So those roaring Id/beasts were not sound effects; those were all your sounds?
BB: Yes, 95% of the sound in that picture was ours—everything except a couple of things like the computer blips. We were doing sound effects and scoring and source music. The author of an article In Keyboard Magazine a few years ago hit on the same thing. I always wondered if that bothered people who were watching the film.
The roaring Id/beast came out of the circuit sounding not remotely like a beast, it was very high pitched, tinkling, with very complicated harmonic sounds, I would go through all the tapes and select things that had the most potential for further processing. When I heard all that high pitched activity, such complicated sounds, I said to Louis, “We’ve got to slow this way down.” We probably lowered the frequencies 60 or 70 times (playing it back at half speed while rerecording at 15i.p.s.). And each time we slowed it down, more of the sound would emerge to the foreground while other parts would disappear. But finally we got to what we thought was the optimum speed — the rhythm was all there. That’s the way the monster sound came about.
JB: You intuitively knew the potential of this complex sound?
BB: More than that, all of our circuits were based on mathematical equations so there was an organic lightness about it. When you listen to the last cut on the soundtrack album, you can hear the monster sounds. They have a unique attack — kind of a lumbering sound. The rhythm was absolutely organic to the circuit. In Forbidden Planet, when Morbius dies in the laboratory — that really was the Id/monster circuit dying at that point. And that worked especially well because Morbius was the monster: it was coming from his subconscious. That was the end of that circuit. It was the best circuit we ever had. We could never duplicate it. And it was one of the more long-lived circuits. It must have gone on for several hours — it was so full of variation, you would never know it all came from the same circuit. Of course, we recorded every second of it.
JB: Tell us about your method of scoring to film.
BB: We had several tape recorders and a little 16mm projector with a belt on it that made it always run the same speed. They were not tied together at all. They didn’t have to be. We had this system of starting multiple tapedecks by hand, and we’d mark the film in such a way that we’d count 1, 2, 3, start. And we worked as one — we really were like a string quartet—fading tracks in and out. But we didn’t have to be synchronized with the film that closely. It was a very time-consuming way of scoring.
We reserved all mixing until the very end. Thank God for fade-outs because we never could work out endings. I’ve never believed in real musical Beethoven-like endings for things. It’s against my principles.
JB: And it was impossible for your circuits. I’m always cognizant of the personal nature of your timbres, your choices. You really established the sound of space music.
BB: I just knew instinctively that that’s what it has to sound like when you’re traveling through space. If our circuits started doing things that even remotely resembled existing instruments, we just tossed it out. We didn’t even want to sound like any existing instrument it was totally out of our realm.
JB: What was it like, working with the MGM music department?
BB: It was wonderful. They thought all the way up to the end that they were going to use Harry Partch’s music for some of the scoring and our stuff for some of it. They liked what we did for samples so much that they decided to let us do the whole score. One of the samples was the love scene in the garden. We came up with something that I thought was so beautiful and romantic. We played it for Johnny Green (head of the music department) and he said, “Oh my God, I didn’t want the end of the Earth, I wanted love.” So obviously, it didn’t sound like love to everybody, but it sure did to me. He was very clever though. He said, “I want you to take it home and add all kinds of sweeteners to it.” We went back to our studio in New York, and at that time I didn’t fly, so I had lots of time to think about it. We added sweeteners. In a conventional score, obviously, it would be like adding violins. But we didn’t have anything like that. I found a little piece of tape that had just a single legato sound, several times at different pitches — I think there were only three of them that I could locate, And we tried adding it at random, and you know the amazing thing? It created a kind of harmonic relationship with the existing material.
JB: Tell us about the score’s reception.
BB: The preview showing was one of our great experiences because they played the music directly off the magnetic tapes. They had synced up the projector and tape and they gave it so much volume it was embarrassing. It was so effective — they played it stereophonically, which they never did in those days. Then there was the landing of the space ship. That was one of the best cues in the picture — and the audience broke into spontaneous applause.
Reproduced by kind permission of Jane Brockman.
First published in “The Score”: the Society of Composers & Lyricists, Vol. VII, No.3,
Fall/Winter 1992 (ISSN1066-5447). This article copyright © 1992 by Jane Brockman, all rights reserved.