With the placing of a small silver pellet into what looks like a small lava lamp, a softly modulating drone strikes up. A high-pitched swoop joins, introducing the opening riff of a bassline like bubbles bursting. Shimmering echoes float into space. ‘That recording,’ Dr. Morbius sternly informs us, ‘was made by Krell musicians a half a million years ago.’ Xenomusicology.
The story goes that producers of Forbidden Planet tried to get Harry Partch to compose the Krell music (Partch denies it) and you can understand why. Partch, perhaps more than almost any other composer of the 20th century, seemed to have tried to establish an entirely fresh basis for music. Not just bye bye diatonic harmony; bye bye the twelve-note octave, bye bye the instruments of the orchestra and hello a whole newly-invented band of ‘cloud chamber bowls’, ‘eucal blossoms’ and a ‘chromelodeon’.
But even Partch might not have come with anything quite as genuinely alien sounding, quite as pregnant with the future, as did Louis and Bebe Barron. In any other film, this short burst of alien sonics would have stuck out as thrillingly weird and exotic, but the whole film sounds like this. Everything whirls, and gurgles, and bubbles with the strange ‘electronic tonalities’ the Barrons devised with their home-made circuits.
The Barrons were among the first people in America to own a tape recorder, a wedding gift from a German friend who had imported it himself at the end of the second world war; the very same model used by Adolf Hitler to record his speeches. They immediately realised, however, that their new machine offered far more possibilities than the faithful reproduction of the human voice. Their early experiments in slowing tapes down and speeding them up, creating loops and adding echo, resulted in their first substantial composition, already implying a kind of artificial life by its title, Heavenly Menagerie.
It was around this time, at the beginning of the 1950s, that the couple first met John Cage at an artists’ club in Greenwich Village, and they soon agreed to collaborate on a series of works for tape, which would include Cage’s Williams Mix, as well as their own For an Electronic Nervous System. Louis’s recent discovery of Norbert Wiener’s writing had encouraged the pair to view their circuits by analogy with organic life or the neural pathways in the brain. They copied cybernetic circuits from Wiener’s books and adapted them for sound production, with complex feedback routes and unpredictable, ‘capricious’ natures, prone to self-destruction. ‘Those circuits were really alive,’ Bebe claimed, ‘they would shriek and coo and have little life spans of their own.’
The Barrons’ brief career as Hollywood film composers began when they accosted MGM president Dore Schary at the opening of a gallery exhibition of his wife’s paintings. Before long, the couple had persuaded him of the novelty of their ideas about electronically produced music, and Schary agreed to give them a chance to create some sounds for his new production, Forbidden Planet. From the start, MGM had only anticipated that the Barrons would contribute a small amount of special sound effects to accompany a standard orchestral score by an established composer, but having persuaded Schary to give them access to a print of the film, the Barrons came back six weeks later with a complete electronic soundtrack.
They created quasi-Wagnerian leitmotivs for the alien creatures that beset the astronauts on the planet of Altair IV by building different circuits based on the cybernetic principles outlined in Wiener’s book, Cybernetics. Their idea was to create electronic circuits that would act as though they were alive, like ‘organic’ entities, based on the feedback principles of self-organising cybernetic systems. In the original draft of Forbidden Planet’s screenplay, the idea had been that the aliens – ‘monsters from the id’ as they are called – would never be seen, so in a very real sense, the Barrons’ ‘organic’ circuits were the alien monsters; their only phenomenal manifestation. But what the Barrons found was that these circuits were actually enormously unstable and tended to breakdown in rather dramatic fashion – and it was these sounds, what Bebe Barron would later describe as the sound of a machine having a ‘nervous breakdown’, that formed most of the soundtrack to the film.