“This life-like quality makes our approach very different from what’s called the classical electronic music studio, which uses oscillators, filters, equalizers, and other laboratory instruments,” Louis points out. “Luening and Ussachevsky were getting started with that at the same time we were. I felt that that was the wrong direction, because laboratory instruments are made to be very precise and very definite, and people aren’t. Art isn’t. In working with the circuits, you think they’ll do one thing, and usually they do something even more interesting that you hadn’t expected. It’ll be an abstract thing, which can be linked to a different emotional experience, or a scene in a movie, or whatever. So I tried to make a circuit—not unpredictable, but with a built-in uncertainty.”
To Louis Barron’s ears, the absence of this uncertainty makes synthesizers as distasteful as the test equipment used by his fellow pioneers of electronic music. “A synthesizer is, designed to do something precisely and repetitively, even if the repetition is just the cycles of a sine wave. It’s locked in, it’s lobotomized—it doesn’t have a chance to express itself. It simply expresses what you want it to express, nothing more. But to turn that around, to ask what the circuit itself wants to express regardless of my intention, now that has an authenticity. It’s an authentic expression; it produces certain qualities that have feeling to them.
“Before the first synthesizers came out, we had been afraid of what would happen when people found a way to make crazy sounds, unpleasant sounds—it’s so easy to get unpleasant sounds. First of all, they would get the jobs and we wouldn’t. We depended on contract work. All of our contemporaries were subsidized by a university or, in Europe, by the radio stations, like Stockhausen and the French composers of musique concrete. Ussachevsky got hold of that huge quarter-million-dollar synthesizer that RCA built. It might be true that you’re more creative when you’re not commercially sponsored—I hate to think that—but somehow, I think, we were able to do things that were more interesting. I knew a whole new breed would come in, the ones who’ll do anything to make a buck, and that they’d make all of these noisy things, and that the producers would buy them because they don’t want to admit that the emperor has no clothes.
“But worst of all, I knew that the public would develop a horrible distaste for electronic music, that it would represent unpleasant, ridiculous sounds, that it would just pollute the esthetic environment. And it did, for a long time. It’s just now beginning to clear.
“Synthetic, to me, is the opposite of organic. Synthetic music lacks this life-like quality. I think that, to some extent, I’ve been able to create circuitry that doesn’t have a complete description of what it’s going to do. It makes sounds that you can resonate to, it creates an emotional rapport—emotional communication can be thought of as a kind of resonance, as when you strike a tuning fork and set another tuning fork vibrating: sympathetic vibrations.
“With synthesizers, you tell the machine what you want and then hope that it can do it. With me, I don’t know what I want—I’ve given up wanting. I might have an expectation, but I’m process-oriented. I care about what goes on, and I accept what comes out. If it sounds good, I accept it gratefully.”
“I just saw the new Yamaha stuff,” Bebe adds. “It’s very keyboard-oriented, isn’t it? It would be difficult to create an original sound with that stuff. It’s very inflexible, it seems to me.” She finds more timbral potential in sampling instruments: “Now, the Emulator, that’s quite remarkable. I have a feeling that that may be more interesting.”
The Barrons’ circuits present an intriguing alternative to keyboard control—indeed, to the entire concept of control itself. Louis’ ideas regarding control as a component of artistic expression share a great deal with those of John Cage. “The question is, should I be concerned primarily with what’s going to come out, or with what’s going on inside of me? This need to have control all down the line—the composer has to control the performer, the performer has to control the audience — this is an influence that we’re going to have to shed.”
But doesn’t he miss the kind of interaction a player can achieve through keyboard control? “I see more interaction in the way a Theremin works. It made some charming ballet numbers if the proximity of the dancers was controlling the music. That’s an example of a looser relationship, an opportunity for the performer to do something different—not just different for the sake of being different, but meaningful—different in a way that makes sense.
“There are times when using a keyboard would make life a lot easier,” he admits. “A pianist communicates with finger activities as well as notes. I used to play piano myself, but I haven’t heard the more recent keyboards that are acceleration-sensitive and pressure-sensitive. Synthesizers will definitely have a very important place, but I think the computer will be the primary control system.”
“I can’t believe how easily young musicians take to synthesizers,” Bebe reflects. “I was taking a course with the Buchla, and kids would come in and operate that thing like they grew up with it. I guess they did, didn’t they?” she adds. “The Buchla may be the only computer that would work for our kind of music. Our studio’s set up so that it’s really a two-man operation. One person simply cannot handle all that equipment. This was so neat and wonderful, all one little package.”
“But a computer is a very rigid thing,” Louis points out. “The greatest performing musicians almost always take liberties to stretch something, or to tighten it up. They’ll play with it; they’re not rigidly tied to a metronome. It’s actually the attitude with which you engage yourself, and the machine, that determines what comes out. There will be people who want to explore, but that exploration can’t be conducted with a computer at the moment. I’m interested in things that present computers can’t, or don’t bother, to do. They’re working on machines which will take their input in natural language, rather than artificial language. We should be able to throw a switch that allows occasional errors—not so much errors as discrepancies.
Surprisingly, however, in the Barrons’ studio today — a converted garage filled with old tape recorders, equalizers, oscilloscopes, rack-mounted tube amplifiers, and metal shelving covered with electronic components — sits a modified Oberheim Four-Voice expander module. Louis has wired jacks along the bottom of the front panel in order to gain access to various control voltages and audio signals. It’s connected to a plug-in routing matrix by a tangle of wires and alligator clips that looks like a spaghetti dinner prepared by R2-D2. “It’s convenient,” Louis explains. “I suppose, ultimately, the optimal setup would include the synthesizer, my circuits, and a computer. But I haven’t put that together just yet.”
The technology that made the Barrons’ creations possible, on the other hand, was the vacuum tube. Unlike the major developments of later years—transistors, integrated circuits, digital processing—tubes can absorb the stress of being fed more electricity than they are capable of processing. As Louis puts it, “Tubes are forgiving. The grid of a power tube may be expected to take one or two volts,’ let’s say,” he explains. “If you accidentally touch it with 300 volts, it’ll heat up, it’ll get red in the face. Take the voltage away and it’ll cool down, ready to do its normal thing. A transistor would blow in a fraction of a millisecond. And even if they don’t cost much, they’re a damn nuisance to keep changing.” In order to create electronic life, says Louis, “you have to be free to abuse the circuit.
“That’s part of it, but there’s something else,” he continues. “Transistors have odd powers, whereas tubes have even powers. That’s a significant factor. Even harmonics are rather pleasant, and odd harmonics are not.”
Louis’ formal background in electronic circuitry is not extensive; as Bebe puts it, “He was totally unhampered by any kind of formal education, so he could just let his imagination run wild.”
There is some method, however, to the calculated madness of the Barrons’ circuit designs. “You have to have some intuitive direction, rather than randomly poking around. If you sort of do it with feeling, very often something happens.” And that is the crux of the matter: regardless of the importance of technology in their work, feeling remains central to the Barrons’ music. “It only works if there is a sort of spiritual involvement with what’s going on,” states Louis. “It’s like these authors who say, ‘I wasn’t thinking when I wrote that. It’s coming through me.’ The same thing applies to musicians. Our psychology doesn’t even have a name for that, actually.”
The couple is well aware that their approach is somewhat out of step with the times. As Louis puts it: “There are times when I wonder if anybody will do this sort of thing again. For one thing, tubes are almost extinct. They were abundant when we began; 79 cents apiece. Now you can get some of them for $20.00 each, if you can afford to burn one out.”
Both of them feel, however, that the times themselves are not necessarily marching in the right direction. “The pace of life and work was very different in the ’50s,” Louis observes. “Now nobody has the patience to go through all that. I find it myself; I don’t have the patience that I had then. I used to spend weeks building something that didn’t live up to expectations, but I just kept going. But I feel it in the air. I see it all around me. It’s happening in so many fields. You don’t have the thoughtful mulling over of ideas any more. We have to get back to it. If we don’t, we’re not going to survive—because we don’t even know how to think about what’s going on today.”
“What’s missing now is a dialog among musicians and artists,” agrees Bebe. “Back in the ’50s we were all interested in each others’ work, in discussing our philosophies, matters of form and structure. It seems like today everyone’s just interested in the latest equipment.”
“There’s going to have to be a spiritual awakening,” Louis continues. “You can see it coming in the spiritual hunger that is resulting in so many new religions. People have to get their values disentangled. Right now they’re into money value. There’s something wrong with manipulating people for money; just like it’s wrong to manipulate people for sex, it’s wrong to manipulate them for money. That’s being promoted by selfish interests who are not only into money, but into control; they’ve got control as part of their thing. You’ve got to really work hard to get your head straight, because they can be very convincing. I don’t find people thinking about that now the way they did in the ’50s. I’m beginning to feel so nostalgic, it makes me want to cry.”
“What I find most disturbing,” says Bebe, “is that as the equipment gets more and more sophisticated, I don’t see the music keeping up with it.” As for electronic music in particular, Louis comments that “most of it is being made with glorified piano/organs.”
Echoing sentiments expressed by such Hollywood luminaries as Jerry Goldsmith — who is challenged to this day for his use of electronic instruments in his film scores — Louis asserts, “I still don’t feel that electronic music properly replaces anything. Certainly not an orchestra, nor any solo instrument such as a piano or a violin. These instruments can be played expressively by a human being, and cannot be played expressively by a computer. A computer, on the other hand, can play electronic instruments, and has the capability of doing a lot of interesting things that live musicians can’t do.”
As often as it is restated, both explicitly and implicitly, one crucial point seems to get lost in the musical shuffle. The Barrons proved it back in 1955 with Forbidden Planet, their music still attests to its validity, and keyboard players continue to demonstrate it every day. “Electronics,” Louis concludes, “extend the range.”
Originally printed in Keyboard Magazine February 1986: 54-65.