Creating the Music and Sound Effects of Forbidden Planet
Great piece from a documentary on 1955 b-movie classic "Forbidden Planet" detailing the ground-breaking work done by husband and wife composers Louis and Bebe Barron.
Bebe Barron (16 June 1925 – 20 April 2008) and Louis Barron (23 April 1920 – 1 November 1989) 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
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 and was responsible for all of the recording, Bebe did the composing. She had to sort through many hours of tape. As she said, "it just sounded like dirty noise". Over time, she developed the ability to determine which sounds could become something of interest. They may also have invented the tape loop. The tape loop gave the Barrons' sounds rhythm. 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 was a monstrous speaker which could produce very heavy bass. Electronic oscillators that produced sawtooth, sine, and square waves were also home built prize possessions. They had a filter, a spring reverberator, and several tape recorders. The Stancil-Hoffmann reel to reel was custom built by the inventor for looping the samples, and changing their speed. The thriving business brought in enough income to purchase some commercial equipment.
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".