RIP Bebe Barron
She's been called the First Lady of electronic music (by Echoes) and that's certainly an appropriate title for Bebe Barron who passed away on April 20th at age 82. She's known for helping John Cage create his mind-boggling composition "Williams Mix" (1949) and also for composing, along with her late husband Louis, the score to the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, famous for being the first all-electronic movie score.
I had the pleasure of interviewing her in November 1999 for the OHM box set that I co-produced. Here's what she had to say about her work.
"We (Louis and I) came out to New York from San Francisco to see a lecture that John Cage was doing. We met up with him and we talked to him about the experiments were doing and he was interested in this, especially after we played him some of the work we had done. He asked us to put together tape fragments of different sound recordings- sirens, animals, screaming in all different lengths. He was using the I Ching to figure out how to put all the material together. Once he was done, I was astonished when I heard the piece ("Williams Mix"). Some of the sounds would appear and disappear so quickly that you couldn't recognize the source- it made me wish that we hadn't spent so long on some of it."
Initially, Barron was reluctant to speak about this because she didn't like how some sci-fi fans treated the film and anything surrounding it as a freakish occurrence. She wanted to be respected as a serious composer and I had ensure her that the OHM project would do just that. She later told me that she was pleased with the end result, which I was very flattered to hear of course.
"We heard about an 'open door' policy at MGM- they were willing to listen to any composer or animator or artist who approached them. Amazingly, he agreed to hear what we'd done. He listened to it later with his eyes closed and was enchanted by the whole thing. He gave us some stills that were from the movie and had us work on some background music. The studio loved the result and we found ourselves doing the whole soundtrack. It was a lot of work and took a lot of time to put that together. We were very proud of it when we were done. We had some people telling us that it sounded like what they would hear in their dreams! What was really amazing is that we were able to do this at all- you have to realize that the equipment we were using at that time was very primitive, nothing like what you have today. That's why it took so long to do this.
The 'Main Title Theme' was made very closely to what they wanted for the picture so we had a lot of instructions about what exactly should be happening and how it was going to be arranged when the credits appeared at the beginning of the film."
Composer Barry Schrader had been a long-time friend and supporter of Barron. I had also spoken to him in the fall of 1999 about her work.
"Forbidden Planet was the first commercial film to have a completely electronic music score. As a result, this score was the first experience that most people had with electro-acoustic music, and its dissemination was to a vast audience all over the world. The music for Forbidden Planet has been available, in one way or another, to the general public for forty-five years. Its continuing accessibility and popularity attest to its relevance. No other work of electro-acoustic music has had this kind of influence on the general populace.
From the point of view created by the Barrons' compositional philosophy, based on the ideas of cybernetics then being presented by Norbert Weiner, the music consists of a variety of gestalts, each resulting from the amplification of a particular circuit design. As in all musical gestures, each of these ideas can be described in terms of their musical dimensional information (pitch interval combinations, pitch contour, rhythmic durational combinations, timbre spectrum, timbre event-envelope, etc.). The sonic materials that the Barrons created were unique and original, as were the ways that they combined them. The resulting music carries their obvious signature."