Sunday, April 20, 2008

RIP Bebe Barron

Making good "electronic music" is a bit like writing good iambic pentamenter: it seems like it would be the easiest thing in the world... until you actually try it. (I speak from experience.)

Bebe Barron only made it look easy. The shining example of this, of course: with her husband Louis Barron, she was the co-composer (in itself quite an accomplishment -- I mean, a functional marriage is hard enough to come by, let alone a functional husband-and-wife creative team) of the soundtrack (er, "electronic tonalities") of one of my absolute favorite films of all time: Forbidden Planet.

I'm no expert on "electronic music," but it's pretty obvious that the process of making it back in the forties and fifties was light years away from what it is today. Back then, folks like the Barrons were, first, creating new textures from scratch (in the Barrons' case, they built their own circuits). Not to belabor this point, but that meant that they could not simply go down to the local Guitar Center and buy the appropriate synth module for the scene they were scoring. (A world without Guitar Center? Hard to believe, I know.)

Once the sounds were created and recorded on tape, they had to be organized compositionally, a painstaking process that involved comparatively rudimentary cut-and-splice techniques (apparently, this was Bebe's job). Again, the difficulty here is something that has to be experienced directly (or at least seen on YouTube) to be appreciated:

Clearly, with the advent of digital cut-and-paste technologies in recent years, this sort of thing has become much, much easier (the single edit in the preceding video, which took around four minutes, can now be done in a few seconds). But one wonders if the digital methods of cut-and-paste would have evolved so efficiently had it not been for the pioneers who spent most of their lives doing it the hard way in order to demonstrate what the possibilities were.


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 'ID' sound from Forbidden Planet. Because of the unforeseen life span of the circuitry, the Barrons made a habit of recording everything.

Barry Schrader:

The music for Forbidden Planet is truly a landmark in electro-acoustic music. This was the first commercial film to use only electronic music, and the score for the movie displays an attitude towards film scoring that was different from anything that had happened before. In Forbidden Planet, while there are themes for characters and events in the film, as was traditional in the scoring of that day, the themes are composed and perceived as gestalts, rather than as melodies in traditional movie music. Even more important is the fact that the scoring of Forbidden Planet breaks down the traditional line between music and sound effects since the Barrons' electronic material is used for both. This not only creates a new type of unity in the film sound world, but also allows for a continuum between these two areas that the Barrons exploit in various ways. At some points it's actually impossible to say whether or not what you're hearing is music, sound effect, or both. In doing this, they foreshadowed by decades the now common role of the sound designer in modern film and video.

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