“We were delighted to hear people tell us that the Tonalities in Forbidden Planet remind them of what their dreams sound like.” — Louis and Bebe Barron
Forbidden Planet rules.
It’s loaded with rich matte paintings, rocks beautiful avant-garde designs, is well acted, well directed and its finger-prints are all over every single science fiction movie made since.
The film also made major contributions to the world of music, as MGM made the ballsy move, in 1956, to hire a pair of avant-garde artists from Greenwich Village to create the first all-electronic score in motion picture history, essentially inventing electronic music in the process.
The artists were married couple Louis and Bebe Barron, a pair of brainy musicians that were cagey with labels like “artist” or “musician” for many years. Both students of music (Louis at the University of Chicago, Bebe at the University of Minnesota), the pair first started to dabble in electronic compositions after stumbling on a ponderous tome by MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener called Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.
The book highlights how the circuitry that allows animals to function mirrors the kind of circuitry at the heart of electronics. Louis, who enjoyed fiddling with circuitry, began using Wiener’s formulas to create his own circuits, which, when overloaded with electricity, would make wild, unpredictable belts and blips.
Essentially, the two were hearing the screeches of dying circuitry, sounds that are wholly unique and nearly impossible to recreate. After each use, the circuits would burn out, forcing Louis to start from scratch each time.
To counter this, Louis and Bebe would record all of their experiments, amassing a massive collection of recorded whirs, boops and warbles. The pair did nothing to control the noises that the circuits made; they simply set the process into motion and listened to the results.
While Louis spent his time on the technical end, neck deep in circuitry and equations, Bebe began the tedious task of wading through the recordings, cutting and looping tape together to create coherent compositions, and, at times, adding reverb and delays to give the other-worldly tones a greater sense of musicality.
The result was music that was organic, but wildly alien—like nothing anyone had ever heard before.
As time went on, Louis built a large recording studio in Greenwich Village, the first of its kind really. Loaded with custom built oscillators, tape recorders and gigantic speakers, their studio closer resembled the lab of a couple of mad scientists rather than a pair of avant garde musicians.
Throughout the 50’s, the Barrons scored a couple of avant garde films for friends in the neighborhood and were perfectly content in their experiments. It wasn’t until a chance encounter with Dore Schary, then head of production at MGM, who took a listen to the pair’s music and offered them the chance to score his new science-fiction film Forbidden Planet.
The Barrons’ score floored audiences, many of who had never heard electronic music before, and it instantly left its mark on the history of film.
The big shame out of the Barrons’ influential score is that they never received their due credit. Spotting that they weren’t members of the Musicians’ Union, a spineless lawyer representing the American Federation of Musicians forced MGM to change the Barrons’ “Electronic Music” credit to “Electronic Tonalities,” for fear that this newfangled electronic music could put traditional composers in the bread line.
Later, the Barrons were denied membership to the union, preventing their score from receiving Oscar contention and essentially ousting them from the Hollywood system entirely.
Forbidden Planet was the only film Louis and Bebe ever scored.
Still, the Barrons’ work persevered, and the pair continued to work together, even after their divorce, experimenting with the constantly evolving technology surrounding electronic music. Louis died in 1989, and Bebe died in 2005.
Interview with Bebe Barron from OHM+ The Early Gurus of Electronic Music