Bebe Barron: Co-composer of the first electronic film score, for 'Forbidden Planet'

Thursday 08 May 2008 00:00 BST
Bebe and Louis Barron in their New York studio, 1956
Bebe and Louis Barron in their New York studio, 1956 (Getty Images)

Bebe Barron, with her husband Louis, composed "electronic tonalities" for the film Forbidden Planet (1956), the first completely electronic score for any mainstream film. This modernist score reflected both the alien nature of the science-fiction setting and the dream landscape of The Tempest, on which its story was based, when music technology was in its infancy.

Born Charlotte Wind (Louis Barron gave her the nickname "Bebe"), she attended the University of Minnesota, where she studied piano and took a postgraduate degree in political science. She studied composition with Roque Cordero in Minneapolis and then with Wallingford Riegger and Henry Cowell once she moved to New York City in 1947. In the same year she met Louis Barron, who, having taken a degree in music at the University of Chicago, had begun to research electronics.

The Barrons married and entered the thriving New York avant-garde arts scene. For a wedding present, they were given one of the earliest tape recorders using magnetised plastic tape. Immediately the couple began experiments in manipulating the tapes by slowing them down, running them backwards and adding basic effects such as echo, predating Pierre Schaeffer's move from disc to tape in musique concrète. They founded one of the first private electro-acoustic studios in 1949, recording and releasing spoken word discs of Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, and Aldous Huxley in a series called Sound Portraits.

They created electric circuits and valve-driven oscillators modelled on cybernetic organisms, a concept originated by Norbert Weiner. These circuits, designed by Louis, "would exhibit characteristic qualities of pitch, timbre, and rhythm, and had a sort of life cycle from their beginnings until they burned out", according to the historian Barry Schrader. Bebe Barron manipulated hundreds of raw tape clips, "a terrible job", as she told a National Public Radio interviewer in 2005. Early work included Bells of Atlantis (1952), a short film by Ian Hugo on a prose-poem by Anaïs Nin.

The Barrons became engineers for John Cage, who was interested in their adaptation of Weiner's cybernetic organisms. This resulted most famously in Cage's Williams Mix (1952), a four-minute piece in which taped sounds were cut up and arranged according to chance procedures, on which the Barrons worked for most of a year, and also in pieces by the experimental composers Christian Wolff and Earle Brown.

Cage's idea of "non-intention", in that once he set up a compositional process, the music had its own life, mirrored the Barrons' musical cybernetics, as they intentionally composed using recordings of random circuits. Louis Barron told Schrader that "the behaviour [of the circuits] should not be regulated, but rather nonlogical. The most interesting sounds came from circuits that were not stable." However, the Barrons soon left Cage's tape project.

In 1955, the Barrons approached MGM's executive producer, Dore Schary, at an exhibition of Schary's wife's paintings. Schary soon hired them for Forbidden Planet, then in post-production. Originally the Barrons' music was to be incidental to a more conventional orchestral score, but the Barrons scored the entire film and Schary allowed it to carry the picture. They not only wrote music cues but also many of the film's sound effects.

Forbidden Planet, with its combination of Shakespearean and Freudian dream imagery, as well as its futurism, was a perfect match for the Barrons' compositional methods. Electronic instruments, especially the theremin, had previously been used for psychological dramas (Miklós Rózsa's score for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound, 1945) and science fiction (among others, Bernard Herrmann's score for The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951).

However, while the theremin could be scored and played like any traditional orchestral instrument, the Barrons manipulated the sounds of their circuits directly to tape. Despite the primitive state of electro-acoustic music at that time, their soundtrack shows little of its limitations. Schrader wrote, "Unlike some of the work being done elsewhere, the Barrons' music reveals long phrases, often stated in tape-delayed rhythms, with the stark finesse of the tube circuit timbres. They created a style that was uniquely their own yet married to the technology they were using".

They allowed some of the characteristics of their cybernetic circuits to support the story, particularly when they set the death of the monster unleashed by the Prospero character, Morbius. "That really was the Id/monster [Morbius's subconscious] circuit dying at that point," she said. "You can just hear it going through the agonies of death and winding down." On another occasion she recalled, "It was the best circuit we ever had. We could never duplicate it."

Nor could they duplicate their success. Since the music was made directly to tape, the Barrons had no notated score for Forbidden Planet; Louis and Bebe Barron were credited for "electronic tonalities" rather than music. As they were not members of the American musicians' union, the studio styled them as providers of sound effects rather than a score and their work was not nominated for an Academy Award. There was even some question of whether their work should be called "music" as their shared creation seemed to be more scientific than compositional. The Barrons unsuccessfully sued the studio for appropriate credit, which effectively ended their commercial film career.

Instead, Louis and Bebe Barron worked on short films, theatre, and television music, moving their studio to Los Angeles in 1962. Their working methods were superseded by advancements in technology and strained by the long studio hours necessary to create acoustic electronic music. "I think that was the thing that ended our marriage", she said in 2005, "so I want to issue a warning: be careful when you collaborate." Although the Barrons divorced in 1970, they continued to collaborate until Louis' death in 1989.

Bebe Barron in 1973 married Leonard Neubauer, a scriptwriter. In 1977, she became a founding member and secretary of the Society for Electro-Acoustical Music in the United States (Seamus), and, in 1997, she was presented with its lifetime achievement award. Although Barron ceased composing for a decade after Louis's death, she returned, this time to computer music, creating her final composition, Mixed Emotions, in 2000. "I noticed immediately that it had certain resemblances to Forbidden Planet. It sounded like a continuation of the work I had done fifty years before." Although it is almost impossible to distinguish the Barrons' individual roles in their collaboration, this final work shows her own compositional voice. She was not only a pioneer of electronic music but also a pioneering female composer in her own right.

Virginia Anderson

Charlotte May Wind (Bebe Barron), composer and sound engineer: born Minneapolis, Minnesota 16 June 1927; married 1947 Louis Barron (died 1989; one son; marriage dissolved 1970), married 1973 Leonard Neubauer; died Los Angeles 20 April 2008.

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