"Electronic Tonalities"

Louis and Bebe Barron were music graduates who married straight out of school and immediately delved into electronic music, inspired by cybernetics; the postulation that the natural laws which apply to living organisms can also apply to electronics. But this was still in the 1940's. Synthesizers were decades away. They had to build all their own equipment. Louis created the oscillator circuits, and fed varying degrees of electric current through them to create variations in sound. Often he'd intentionally fry the circuits with an overdose of electricity while recording to tape. The sounds would be treated in playback with additional splices, reverbs, and tape delays.

Bebe was exclusively the composer. She manipulated random bits of circuit noise into avant-garde soundscapes, using a variety of self-taught techniques. Nothing like this had been done before. For instance, changing the pitch of a tone was achieved by her manually slowing down or speeding up the tape during playback. Among other things, she's often credited with inventing the tape loop.
Operating out of their west village studio, the couple scored short experimental films before they were contracted for the soundtrack to MGM's Forbidden Planet. Here are some clips highlighting the score:

Unfortunately, Louis and Bebe weren't in the musicians' union, which demanded MGM to change "electronic music" to "electronic tonalities" in the opening credits. Because of this, the Barrons didn't qualify for an oscar, and they were denied union membership. It would be their only hollywood soundtrack.

The Barrons continued working together until Louis' death in 1989. Bebe passed away a few days ago, at the age of 82. Read her obituary here.


Lance Ehlers said...

You always hear about how sound is half the picture. In the case of Forbidden Planet, it's certainly more than 50%. I don't think the film would be nearly as popular without the moody incidental sounds.

stexe said...

Originally the Barrons were going to just do the sound effects, and Harry Partch was considered to do the music. That might have made for an even more unique film.

Anonymous said...

First BeBe and now we regret the passing of Tristram Cary, one of the co-founders of EMS (Electronic Music Studios) in London. Perhaps lesser known on your side of the pond Tristram created many of the first electronic "tonalities" used in the Dr. Who series-- He was the man who showed us what our future robot overlords "The Daleks" would sound like. His early work was very similar to the Barons (using self-destructing circuits and tape manipulation) but he shortly went on to create self contained synths like the VCS3 "putney" and the "Synthi."
So the question remains:
Who is killing off the great analogue electronic music pioneers? And why now?!

stexe said...

The VCS3 is my most desired british synth (second would have to be the OSCar). It's a beautiful instrument.
Yes, such is the era. Bob Moog passed on a couple years ago, Raymond Scott is long gone. I can't think of any living forefathers who are still around.