Forbidden Planet and making the sound of the future

I helped out the Calgary Cinematheque Society’s soundtrack series today with a 10-minute speech on the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet. It actually barely scratches the surface on what’s interesting about the first fully electronic score ever composed, but if you’re curious what you missed, here it is. (Forgive the formatting; it wasn’t really meant to be posted)

Forbidden Planet was a landmark film, but only in retrospect. At the time, it was more of an oddity—an especially ambitious sci-fi film at a time when the genre was not particularly well respected. And while it’s incorporation of Freudian themes into an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s richest stories is enough to make modern cinephiles take notice, (not to mention a chance to see Leslie Nielson in a serious role), audiences of the time didn’t exactly flock to the film. It was released to middling reviews, and didn’t crack the top 60 in terms of box office.

There were some elements that struck a chord. Robby the Robot, for example, managed to secure a spin-off film and a guest appearance on Lost in Space. The special effects earned an Oscar nomination, at a time when the category included both visual and audio effects. And the use of sound in general seemed to resonate with audiences. Critics may have thought of the electronics whirring in the film as a novelty if they considered it at all, but the crowds were apparently more taken—when Commander Adams and his crew land their ship on Altair IV, the soundtrack was enough to drive the crowd to spontaneous applause.

That stretch of the score—and I’ll call it a score, even if technicalities made the studio refer to it as “electronic tonalities”–is one of the more impressive stretches of Forbidden Planet’s soundtrack. Two distinct tones, each continually ascending, ratcheting up the tension before a clammering touchdown; the sounds it used were completely foreign to audiences. This was the first completely electronic score in a film, and its composers, Louis and Bebe Barron, were determined to defy convention. Inspired by cybernetic theory and intrigued by the power of “evocative rather than literal sounds”, they constructed a soundtrack that is now seen as a keystone moment in the development of electronic music, even if the Barrons themselves couldn’t have guessed the significance of what they were doing.

The Barrons

Louis and Bebe (a nickname given by Louis; her actual name was Charlotte May Wind) moved to New York from Minneapolis shortly after they married in 1947. Both had studied music, although Louis seemed at least as interested in electronics. Louis’s cousin was an executive at 3M, and gave the couple a magnetic tape recorder as a wedding present. The two quickly became fascinated with the machine, and soon opened an avante-garde recording studio in Greenwich Village.

On top of their own work with tape loops and home recordings, they tried to record everyone and everything they could. They’d hang microphones out their window to capture street noises and fragments of conversation, then distort the sounds into something entirely different. To make some money, they recorded writers in a sort of early audiobook—Tennessee Williams, Aldous Huxley and Henry Miller all recorded sections of their work for the Barrons, and the two released independent records on their Contemporary Classics label. Most of what they recorded, though, was quite abstract. Louis built several oscillators from home equipment. Starting in 1948, he became obsessed with the theories of Norbert Weiner, and used his book, Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, as a guide for his musical development, both directly (using equations from the book in his circuit design) and in more abstract ways.

Cybernetics is mostly focused on self-governing systems—it essentially looks at systems that can observe the changes that they’re making and adjust themselves based on that feedback. It was an idea that somehow both made animals seem more like machines (albeit very complex ones) and made machines seem more like living creatures, and Louis and Bebe tended to think of their electronics almost as people rather than tools. Where the handful of other composers working with electronics at the time tended to prize their exactness—think Raymond Scott, the former jazz composer who, when he became frustrated with error-prone human players, founded the hugely influential Manhattan Research and in the early 60s developed the first electronic sequencer—the Barrons took the opposite approach, pushing their circuits until they’d literally disintegrate, and then playing with the few moments that caught their attention.

It wasn’t anything most people would call music. Then again, the Greenwich crowd the Barrons associated with wasn’t exactly “most people” either. On top of Williams, Huxley, Miller, and Anais Nin, one of the Barrons’ early collaborators was John Cage, who recorded his Williams Mix, a composition for eight magnetic tape players, in the Barrons’ studio. It was Cage who managed to convince the Barrons that their experiments were actually music, and not just interesting sounds.

It was another encounter in Greenwich that led to the Barrons’ work on Forbidden Planet. Originally, the producers wanted experimental composer Harry Parch to do the film’s soundtrack. One of MGM’s producers, Dore Schary, took his family on Christmas vacation to New York, and met the Barrons at a beatnik club. Impressed with them, he hired them on the spot to contribute about 20 minutes worth of sound effects to the film, and once the studio heard the unearthly sounds they’d been working on, the Barrons were quickly recruited to take on the rest of the film.

What does the future sound like

These days, when you hear the kind of sounds that make up the Forbidden Planet score, they can really only mean one thing. They sound like the future, or at least the future as it was conceived by someone discovering electronics for the first time more than half a century ago. But when the Barrons started, there wasn’t a clear association between electronic instruments and sci-fi.

The therimen, easily the most popular electronic instrument of the time (which isn’t necessarily saying a lot), the theremin was first used in a Russian film about 20 years before Forbidden Planet, and made its way to Hollywood in the mid-1940s. Sometimes it cropped up in sci-fi, and you can hear it in The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing (From Another World), but it’s also in Miklos Rozas’ scores for The Lost Weekend and Spellbound, for which he won an Oscar; not to mention Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Ten Commandments. The sounds it made worked well for spaceships in motion, but it was still new enough that its meaning hadn’t been cemented.

Forbidden Planet doesn’t have any theremin. It doesn’t really have any instruments in it at all, depending how you define instruments. Instead, it just has sounds, “bleeps, blurps, whirs, whines, throbs, hums and screeches” that are sometimes sound effects, sometimes music, and usually somewhere in between. Louis would spend days in their overheated apartment frying circuits and recording every sound he could (the heat was bad for the circuits, which in turn was good for the kind of sounds he wanted to create). Bebe would search through all of these recordings for potentially interesting noises, then painstakingly cut the tape into loops and start manipulating them. They’d slow down sections until rhythms appeared. They’d use three tape decks, playing two sounds and recording with the third to add multiple layers to their compositions. As they put it, “the thing was being tortured to death, and you could really hear it.”

The end result is quite remarkable. It does use some traditional techniques—characters have leitmotifs, and one of the film’s tenser moments is actually predicated on the audience recognizing a certain theme—but it’s not composed in any traditional sense. It’d be essentially impossible to recreate it from scratch today, so much of it being the result of random chance. But there’s no denying its achievement. In retrospect, at least, it helped define the sound of the future, and (along with the work of Raymond Scott and Eric Siday) was early proof of the viability of electronic music. And while Scott and Siday grounded their work in commercials (Siday made the Maxwell House percolating coffee jingles; Scott made many odd jingles for Twinkies, detergents and other products), the Barrons were pushing the boundaries of art.

As I mentioned before, the film earned an Oscar nomination for its visual and audio special effects. The Barrons, though, weren’t included in the nomination. Having been hired on a whim rather than coming up through the Hollywood system, they weren’t members of the union and so weren’t eligible for any prizes. Worse yet, in order to avoid a fight with the musicians’ guild, who were worried that electronic scores could cost its membership their jobs, MGM changed the Barrons’ credit in the film at the last minute from electronic music to electronic tonalities, a term that existed only to placate studio politics. MGM also allegedly agreed to never work with the Barrons again, keeping the union happy but effectively blacklisting the couple. Their career never recovered, and after a decade spent trying to find their footing—including living off handouts from their parents—Louis and Bebe went their separate ways in the mid-1970s.

Still, you can’t deny their contributions. Working with messy, unpredictable and incredibly meticulous tools, they created an auditory world of fantastic machines, monsters from the id, and lost civilizations. As much as any of the performances and visual effects on display, the sounds in Forbidden Planet create the film’s atmosphere, and contribute immeasurably to its sense of wonder. It didn’t take long for these sorts of sounds to become commonplace, but even just for the opening scenes, try to put yourself in the shoes of an audience used to orchestral scores and melody, an audience for whom the concept of a tape loop was almost completely foreign—where synths and sequencers were a decade off, even in their earliest forms, and the idea of “electronic music” sounded like a contradiction in terms. Think of it that way, and it’s easy to understand just how this could become the sound of the future.

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