Obituary: Bebe Barron
The Los Angeles Times brings us the sad news that pioneering electronic composer Bebe Barron has died, at the age of 82. Along with her then-husband Louis Barron, Bebe scored the 1956 science-fiction classic FORBIDDEN PLANET. Before the modern synthesizer, the duo created music using tubes and circuits that emitted tones, which they would record and manipulate, speeding them up, slowing them down, or splicing them together. The result was a unique, futuristic sonic landscape that perfectly captured the beauty and terror of Altair IV. In fact, the avante garde soundtrack, which bridged the gap between music and sound effects, was credited as “Electronic Tonalities” rather than music.
The Barrons also worked on Broadway shows such as VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET (1957), but they never scored another film (perhaps because the theremin took over as the electronic instrument of choice for weird sci-fi sounds). The couple divorced in 1970 but continued making music together until Louis died in 1989. Bebe resumed composing in 2000 – a piece she called “Mixed Emotions,” which she considered a continuation of her work on FORBIDDEN PLANET.
In the cover story for Spring 1979 issue of Cinefantastique, Frederick S. Clarke and Steve Rubin detailed the making of FORBIDDEN PLANET, including a long section devoted to the work of Bebe and Louis Barron, which is excerpted below:
While producer Nicholas Nayfack oversaw final touches being added to complete the film’s special effects, supplied by the Newcombe department and the Disney animators, studio chief Dore Schary hired Louis and Bebe Barron in October to create electronic music for the film. The vivid “electronic tonalities” created by the Barrons for FORBIDDEN PLANET represent one of the great revolutions in film scoring. It is to Schary’s credit as an innovator that he saw the value of their work and assumed the commercial risk to use it. Says Schary, “I loved the idea of being a little bit ahead of the times.”
Between 1949 and 1953, the Barrons produced electronic music for a series of experimental films. One of their early compositions was used in a film based on the writings of Anais Nin called THE BELLS OF ATLANTIS. Impressed by the compliments they were receiving from fellow musicians, the Barrons wanted to enter the motion picture business, hoping a contract could net them a few thousand dollars for their work. Through the grapevine they dis¬covered that MGM’s Dore Schary was the man to see. Says Barron, “He was the number one guy in the industry, so we decided we might as well shoot for the moon. Besides, we also heard he was a nice human being.” From a friend they learned that Schary’s wife was a painter and that she was having a one-woman show at a New York gallery. Living in Greenwich Village at the time, the two musicians decided to crash the showing in the hope that Dore would be there for the opening.
Says Barron proudly: “We crashed the show’s opening alright. There were all these terribly impressive people standing around, everybody feeling really important, so we looked around for the person who would probably look the least important. We spotted him and sure enough it was Schary. Now we knew that Schary had personally produced a film called BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK. It was a controversial film at the time and the critics were wild about it. We told Schary we liked it and he ap¬peared to be pleased. After all, everybody likes to be appreciated, but we really meant it. We were quite lucky that we had something to latch onto for openers.”
After establishing this “in,” the Barrons told Schary about their musical discoveries. Interested, Schary gave them a standing invitation to come to MGM when they were on the west coast. Impulsively, they immediately decided to drive cross-country and stay with Bebe’s parents who lived in Los Angeles. Barely two weeks later they were on the phone to Schary, who agreed to see them that same afternoon. “I was absolutely stunned,” says Schary today, “but I got a big kick out of those two kids. Their persistence was just marvelous.”
The Barrons had prepared some tapes, a record and had also brought along some film clips from THE BELLS OF ATLAN¬TIS. Politely refusing the films, Schary preferred to listen to the tapes, visualizing in his mind footage from FORBIDDEN PLANET. Schary was impressed and hired the two New York musicians to score a portion of MGM’s new science fiction film. Twenty-four hours later the Barrons received word that Schary had given interdepartmental orders to the effect that everything possible was to be done to assist them in their efforts.
The Barrons were introduced to Johnny Green and the MGM music department and met all the studio staff composers at Green’s house one evening where their experimental tapes were played and it was explained that the new music was to be featured in FORBIDDEN PLANET. It was a debut filled with enthusiasm, for the electronic music received the approval of the entire gathering who realized its potential for use with the MGM science fiction feature. With the studio now in complete agreement, Schary invited the Barrons to transfer their equipment west and begin working on the score. “This was impossible,” says Barron. “It would have been ridiculous to transfer all our equipment to Hollywood for a three-month job. We were happy in the Village and we naturally refused Schary’s offer.” Fortunately, their electronic music was now much desired for the film and MGM agreed to let them con¬struct their musical composition in New York, the first time the studio had ever contracted for a musical score outside of Hollywood.
With what Lou Barron refers to as a beautiful contract, the two musicians returned to their Greenwich Village studio to begin work. When the contract was completed it was agreed that the new electronic music would provide only a portion of the film’s soundtrack. If MGM used absolutely nothing of their score, they would receive $5000. If as little as three seconds were used, they could expect a minimum of $10,000. Beyond that, earnings were to be determined on a per screen minute basis. The twenty-five minute score for the film would eventually net the two musicians $25,000. “They really got a deal,” recalls Barron. “We did all the recording and editing ourselves. We brought them a complete soundtrack.”
The score for FORBIDDEN PLANET represents a great many circuits designed by the Barrons. These interesting compositions ranged from the hesitating “beta beat” of the Id monster, to the bubbly sounds associated with Robby the Robot. Many of the sounds that reached the screen were collages of different circuits taped by the Barrons and stacked like building blocks-the same principle on which the moog synthesizer now works. Some of these themes involved as many as seven different component sounds, each representing a separate circuit. “From the beginning, we discovered that people compared them with sounds they heard in their dreams,” says Barron. “When our circuits reached the end of their existence (an overload point) they would climax in an orgasm of power, and die. In the film, many of the sounds seem like the last paroxysm of a living creature.” Some of these circuits were nameless, but a few were derived from some of their favorite music. The theme used as night fell on Altair IV came from a song called “Night with Two Moons.”
By January, 1956, the score was finished. With Scary’s approval, the electronic score was to be used throughout the entire picture, eliminating a time consuming quest for additional orchestrated material. For the next six weeks, the Barrons would supervise the integration and mixing of their music onto the soundtrack of FORBIDDEN PLANET. Before the final dubbing session, the raw tapes were taken to a preview. In the middle of the theatre a sound technician worked a tape recorder which had been synchronized with the projector. As the film progressed, the technician would adjust the volume, treble, bass and balance controls, testing the range of the innovative new sounds. During the early scenes where the starship lands on Altair IV the mixer opened the volume controls and the eerie sounds poured out of the giant theatre speakers. The audience erupted in spontaneous applause. Composers have frequently been appalled by the quality of their scores once they are transferred to tape, comparing mixing to spreading peanut butter with a knife. But Louis and Bebe Barron were quite pleased that night.
A final problem did arise over screen credit for the musical contribution of the Barrons. In the original contractual agreement the credit was to have read “electronic music by Louis and Bebe Barron.” Prior to the film’s release, however, contract law¬yer Rudy Monte circulated a memo among the MGM executives which read: “Do you suppose that perhaps the musicians union will say that they have jurisdiction over this if we call it electronic music?” This new anxiety raised, the Barrons were con¬fronted to renegotiate their contract. Everyone agreed that “electronic music” was a harmless credit, but to be on the safe side they searched for something else, and it was Dore Schary who came up with that great euphemism, “electronic tonalities” to describe their work. Says an exasperated Barron, “It was lawsuit proof!”
The score of FORBIDDEN PLANET represented a complete breakthrough in film music. Aside from the unique classical orchestrations of Bernard Herrmann for some early science fiction films, most of the musical accompaniment associated with the genre had lacked a degree of originality that was present in the Barrons’ work. All the fantastic elements of FORBIDDEN PLANET: the starship’s voyage through deep space, the mystery of Altair IV, the horror of the Id, are brought more vividly into being because of the exotic electronic sounds of Louis and Bebe Barron.
Two years ago, in February 1977, the Barrons were finalizing plans for the release of the soundtrack album of their music from FORBIDDEN PLANET. To help with the artwork and liner notes, Bill Malone, world’s number one fan of FORBIDDEN PLANET, had been invited to lend a hand. To refresh everyone’s memory, a screening of the original film was arranged and by mistake both Malone and Barron brought prints. It was decided to screen Barron’s print from the fifties.
FORBIDDEN PLANET begins with the roar of Leo the Lion, sounded against the background of the Barron tonalities. Malone and everyone else found it strange that the first few minutes of this print were awkwardly silent. Malone got up to check the sound and was fiddling around with the controls. Barron suddenly threw up his hands, “Wait a second, Bill, this is that old workprint editor Ferris Webster gave to us. There isn’t any music on this print at all.” Malone could hardly control his excitement. “That’s right,” remembered Bebe, “this was the print we worked with to develop the musical score.” Malone, feeling like Howard Carter on the verge of discovering King Tut’s tomb, persuaded everyone to leave the print on, and all settled down to watch a strange version of FORBIDDEN PLANET. It was the first time the workprint had been viewed in twenty-two years.
The rest of the article is available in the double issue Cinefantastique, Volume 8, Numbers 2 & 3.