Bebe (16 June 1925, Minneapolis – 20 April 2008, Los Angeles) and Louis Barron (23 April 1920, Minneapolis – 1 November 1989, Los Angeles) were two American pioneers in the field of electronic music. They are credited with writing the first electronic music for magnetic tape, and the first entirely electronic film score for the MGM movie Forbidden Planet (1956).
As a young man, Louis had an affinity for working with a soldering gun and electrical gear. He studied music at the University of Chicago. Bebe, born Charlotte May Wind on 16 June 1925 in Minneapolis, studied music with Wallingford Riegger and Henry Cowell.
The couple married in 1947 and moved to New York City. Louis’ cousin, who was an executive at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M), gave the newlyweds their first tape recorder as a wedding gift. Using their newly acquired equipment, the couple delved into the study of musique concrète.
The first electronic music for magnetic tape composed in America was completed by Louis and Bebe in 1950 and was titled Heavenly Menagerie. Electronic music composition and production were one and the same, and were slow and laborious. Tape had to be physically cut and pasted together to edit finished sounds and compositions.
The 1948 book Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, by mathematician Norbert Wiener from MIT played an important role in the development of the Barrons’ composition. The science of cybernetics proposes that certain natural laws of behavior apply to both animals and more complex electronic machines.
By following the equations presented in the book, Louis was able to build electronic circuits which he manipulated to generate sounds. Most of the tonalities were generated with a circuit called a ring modulator. The sounds and patterns that came out of the circuits were unique and unpredictable because they were actually overloading the circuits until they burned out to create the sounds. The Barrons could never recreate the same sounds again, though they later tried very hard to recreate their signature sound from Forbidden Planet. Because of the unforeseen life span of the circuitry, the Barrons made a habit of recording everything.
Most of the production was not scripted or notated in any way. The Barrons didn’t even consider the process as music composition themselves. The circuit generated sound was not treated as notes, but instead as ‘actors’. In future soundtrack composition, each circuit would be manipulated according to actions of the underlying character in the film.
After recording the sounds, the couple manipulated the material by adding effects, such as reverb and tape delay. They also reversed and changed the speed of certain sounds. The mixdown of multiple sounds was performed with at least three tape recorders. The outputs of two machines would be manually synchronized, and fed into an input of a third one, recording two separate sources simultaneously. The synchronization of future film work was accomplished by two 16 mm projectors that were tied into a 16 mm tape recorder, and thus ran at the same speed.
While Louis spent most of his time building the circuits, Bebe did all of the composing. She had to sort through many hours of tape, and as she described it, “it just sounded like dirty noise”. Over time, she developed the ability to determine which sounds could become something of interest. She may have invented the tape loop too, as she did not recall ever having heard of it before. The tape loop gave the Barrons’ sounds rhythm. Together they mixed the sounds to create the otherworldly and strange electronic soundscapes required by Forbidden Planet.
Soon after relocation to New York, the Barrons opened a recording studio at 9 West 8th Street in Greenwich Village that catered to the avant-garde scene. This may have been the very first electronic music studio in America. At the studio, the Barrons used a tape recorder to record everything and everyone. They recorded Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Aldous Huxley reading their work in a form of early audio book. In June 1949, Anaïs Nin recorded a full version of House of Incest and four other stories from Under a Glass Bell. These recordings were pressed on red vinyl and released on the Barrons’ Contemporary Classics record label under the Sound Portraits series.
For a short time, the Barrons held a monopoly on tape recording equipment. The only other competition in town were the studios owned by Raymond Scott and Eric Siday. The connection through Louis’ cousin working at 3M proved to be vital in obtaining batches of early magnetic tape. Due to the lack of competition in the field, and to the surprise of the owners, the recording business was a success.
Aside from the tape recorders, most of the equipment in the studio was completely built by Louis. One of the home made pieces included a monstrous speaker which could produce very heavy bass. Electronic oscillators that produced sawtooth, sine, and square waves, were also a home built prize possession. They had a filter, a spring reverberator, and several tape recorders. The thriving business brought in the income to purchase some commercial equipment. The Stancil-Hoffmann reel to reel was custom built by the inventor for looping the samples and changing their speed.
The Barrons’ music was noticed by the avant-garde scene. During 1952-53 the studio was used by John Cage for his very first tape work Williams Mix. The Barrons were hired by Cage to be the engineers. They recorded over 600 different sounds, and arranged them with Cage’s directions in various ways by splicing the tape together. The four and a half minute piece took over a year to finish. Cage also worked in the Barrons’ studio on his Music for Magnetic Tape with other notable composers, including Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and David Tudor. It was Cage who first encouraged the Barrons to consider their creations “music”.
The Barrons quickly learned that the avant-garde scene did not reap many financial rewards. They turned to Hollywood, which had already been using electronic instruments such as the theremin in film soundtracks for several years.
In the early 50s, the Barrons collaborated with various celebrated filmmakers to provide music and sound effects for art films and experimental cinema. The Barrons scored three of Ian Hugo’s short experimental films based on the writings of his wife Anaïs Nin. The most notable of these three films were Bells of Atlantis (1952) and Jazz of Lights (1954). The Barrons assisted Maya Deren in the audio production of the soundtrack for The Very Eye of Night (1959), which featured music by Teiji Ito. Bridges-Go-Round (1958) by Shirley Clarke featured two alternative soundtracks, one by the Barrons and one by jazz musician Teo Macero. The film’s two versions showed the same four-minute film of New York City bridges. Showing the two versions back-to-back showed how different soundtracks affected the viewer’s perception of the film.
In 1956 the Barrons composed the very first electronic score for a commercial film – Forbidden Planet, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The soundtrack for Forbidden Planet (1956) is today recognized as the first entirely electronic score for a film. Eerie and sinister, the soundtrack was unlike anything that audiences had heard before. Music historians have often noted how groundbreaking the soundtrack was in the development of electronic music.
On the album sleeve notes of the Forbidden Planet soundtrack, Louis and Bebe explain:
We design and construct electronic circuits which function electronically in a manner remarkably similar to the way that lower life-forms function psychologically. [. . .]. In scoring Forbidden Planet – as in all of our work – we created individual cybernetics circuits for particular themes and leit motifs, rather than using standard sound generators. Actually, each circuit has a characteristic activity pattern as well as a “voice”. [. . .]. We were delighted to hear people tell us that the tonalities in Forbidden Planet remind them of what their dreams sound like.
The producers of the film had originally wanted to hire Harry Partch to do the music score. The Barrons were brought in to do only about twenty minutes of sound effects. After the producers heard the initial sample score, the Barrons were assigned an hour and ten minutes of the rest of the film. The studio wanted to move the couple to Hollywood where most of the film scores were produced at the time. But the couple would not budge, and took the work back to their New York studio.
The music and the sound effects stunned the audience. During the preview of the movie when the sounds of the spaceship landing on Altair IV filled the theater, the audience broke out in spontaneous applause. Later, the Barrons turned over their stunning audio creation to GNP Crescendo records for distribution. GNP had previously demonstrated its expertise in producing and marketing science fiction film soundtracks and executive album producer Neil Norman had proclaimed the film (and the soundtrack) his favorites.
Not everyone was happy with the score. Louis and Bebe did not belong to the Musicians’ Union. The original screen credit for the film, which was supposed to read “Electronic Music by Louis and Bebe Barron”, was changed at the last moment by a contract lawyer from the American Federation of Musicians. In order to not upset the union, the association with the word music had to be removed. The Barrons were credited with “Electronic Tonalities”. Because of their non-membership in the union, the film was not considered for an Oscar in the soundtrack, or special effects category.
The full impact of the Barrons’ contribution can only be realized when one understands that they did not even know what to call their creations. It was John Cage, working with the Barrons in their studio for his earliest electronic work, who convinced them that it was “music”.
The Musicians Union forced MGM to title the Forbidden Planet score “electronic tonalities”, not “music”. And seeing the handwriting on the wall, used that excuse to deny them membership in the 1950s; the union’s primary concern was losing jobs for performers rather than the medium itself. As a result, the Barrons never scored another film for Hollywood. As the years passed, the Barrons did not continue to keep up with technology, and were perfectly content to make their music in the way they always had. Interestingly though, modern digital technology is now imitating the rich sounds of those old analog circuits. Bebe’s last work, Mixed Emotions (2000), with raw material collected at the University of California, Santa Barbara studio, sounds remarkably like the Barrons trademark classic material.
In 1962, the Barrons moved to Los Angeles. Although they divorced in 1970, they continued to compose together until the death of Louis in 1989. Bebe Barron was the first Secretary of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States from 1985 to 1987.
In 2000, she was invited to create a new work at University of California, Santa Barbara, using the latest in sound generating technology to collect sounds there. From October through early November 2000, she did all the actual composing in Jane Brockman’s Santa Monica studio with Brockman serving as recording engineer. The sounds collected at UCSB were imported into Digital Performer on the Mac and organized to create Bebe’s final work, Mixed Emotions.
Bebe Barron remarried in 1975, Louis died in 1989, and Bebe died April 20, 2008.
“[Barrons’ music sounds like] a molecule that has stubbed its toes.” — From the Diary of Anais Nin, Volume 7 (1966-1974).
Heavenly Menagerie (1951-52) Tape
Bells of Atlantis (1952) Film score
For an Electronic Nervous System (1954) Tape
Miramagic (1954) Film score
Forbidden Planet (1956) Videotape; Laserdisc MGM/UA Home Video, 1991; 2-DVD Warner edition, 2006
Jazz of Lights (1956) Film score
Bridges-Go-Round (1958) one of two alternative soundtracks, the other composed by Teo Macero
Crystal Growing (1959) Film score
Music of Tomorrow (1960) Tape
The Computer Age (1968) Film score
Time Machine (1970) on Music from the Soundtrack of ‘Destination Moon’ and Other Themes, Cinema Records LP-8005
Space Boy (1971) Tape; revised and used for film of same name, 1973
More Than Human (1974) Film score
Cannabis (1975) Film score
The Circe Circuit (1982) Tape
Elegy for a Dying Planet (1982) Tape
New Age Synthesis II on Totally Wired (1986) Pennsylvania Public Radio Associates Cassette Series
What’s the Big Hurry? (date unknown) from Sid Davis Productions
Mixed Emotions by Bebe Barron (2000) CD
^ The first tape recorder given to the Barrons was the same type as used in recording Hitler’s speeches.
^ Speeding up and slowing down the tape in effect changed the pitch of the recorded material and individual sounds.
^ Manual synchronization was accomplished by actually counting out loud “one-two-three-go” and pushing the play back buttons at the same time. Precise synchronization was not necessary in composing atmospheric music.