Cult status rarely shadows any work that comes out of a major movie studio — unless, of course, you consider MGM's sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, which even today, a half-century after its 1956 theatrical release, still holds a strangely hip and quirky appeal for a multigenerational audience. The film not only launched the acting career of Leslie Nielsen (now infamous for his deadpan comedy shtick in the Airplane! and Naked Gun movies) but also marked the apex — at least until 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey — of Hollywood's big-budget fascination with robots, ray guns, flying saucers and the far reaches of the universe. What wasn't widely known or understood at the time was that Forbidden Planet was also the first full-length picture to be scored entirely with electronic music. These “electronic tonalities,” as they were credited in the film, were the work of Louis and Bebe Barron, a young married couple who, in late 1954, had convinced MGM executives to give their sonic experiments some traction.
Although both studied music in college, the Barrons got into electronic composing quite by accident. Their first recording device — a German wire recorder — was given to them as a wedding present in 1947. They immediately grasped the medium's potential and got their hands on a reel-to-reel tape machine (possibly an AEG Magnetophon, also from Germany) before moving to New York, where in 1949 they opened one of the country's first privately owned recording studios, at 9 W. Eighth St. in Greenwich Village. The Barrons' earliest clients were primarily writers — among them Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin and Aldous Huxley — who recorded audio books that were pressed on red vinyl for a series called Sound Portraits.
Along the way, the Barrons had come across the ideas of MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener, whose 1948 text Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (MIT Press) inspired Louis to revisit his youthful passion for soldering and electrical circuitry. He began designing vacuum-tube-powered circuits from scratch, and Bebe committed the sounds they made to tape. Many of these sounds were the result of ring modulation — multiplying oscillator tones of varying frequency together to create an otherwordly sonic “animal,” as the Barrons liked to call it.
Sometimes, they would deliberately overcrank the incoming voltages to get weird feedbacklike tones. “You could hear [the circuits] doing it,” Bebe told National Public Radio's Susan Stone in an interview last year. “You could even see it! It was like they were alive and had a lifespan of their own. They would smoke; they would do all kinds of strange things.” There was always the risk of a circuit burning out or popping, so Bebe constantly rolled tape to capture the effect. “Otherwise it might be gone forever,” she said. Afterward, the audio itself could be manipulated with tape delay, reverb, reverse playback and regeneration for a truly futuristic sound.
The Barrons' first fully electronic piece, completed in 1952, was called “Heavenly Menagerie” and took nearly a year to construct. As word of the duo's talent spread among New York's avant-garde community, Bebe and Louis' clientele also grew to include John Cage, Edgard Varèse, Lou Harrison and other progressive composers. Cage recruited the Barrons to assemble a massive sound library for his radical tape-splice experiment “Williams Mix” (1952) and its later companion “Fontana Mix” (1958), and filmmakers Ian Hugo and Maya Deren hired them for score and audio work on Hugo's Bells of Atlantis (1952) and Deren's The Very Eye of Night (begun in 1954 and first shown in 1959).
All of this creative stimulation was gratifying but hardly lucrative. Nearly broke after five years in business, the Barrons crashed an art opening curated by the wife of MGM studio head Dore Schary, and the rest was history. Forbidden Planet's eerie, sinister-sounding score even caught the attention of Time magazine, but the party didn't last long: A dispute with the musician's union — which didn't see what the Barrons did as music — left them shut out of the film's Oscar nomination for special effects, and they never got another gig in Hollywood.
The Barrons divorced in 1970 but continued to collaborate until Louis' death in 1989. In 1999, UC Santa Barbara's Center for Research in Electronic Art Technology (CREATE) invited Bebe to write a new piece — her first in 10 years — using the Creatovox synthesizer. After completing “Mixed Emotions” in 2000, she insisted that she was ready to step aside for a younger vanguard. Here's to hoping she'll reconsider.
Visitwww.anti-theory.com/soundartfor more about the circuit-bending techniques used to score Forbidden Planet, and pick up the reissue of Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music (Ellipsis Arts, 2005) for recordings and commentary by the Barrons and their contemporaries.