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When Sound Became Music

Bebe Barron and Louis Barron Image Credit: Effectrode
Rhonda Davidson-Irwin
| May 23, 2018

The 1956 science fiction epic Forbidden Planet was a film made by MGM that hoped to break barriers. Most significantly, the idea that the sci-fi film genre was a kind of cheap entertainment of little artistic or philosophical value was challenged as it had been in the past, the original The Day the Earth Stood Still aside. MGM built the script around the plot of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, where the excellent Walter Pidgeon played the part of Dr Morbius or the arch wizard Prospero of the play.

Every special effect was used that had been used before. There was however, no innovation but for the size and glory of the sets themselves. Disney loaned specialists to help and a 200 foot painted back screen was prepared for the landing of the great spacecraft that the project boasted. In this case it was, for the first time, humans coming out of a flying saucer and not aliens. The aliens were long dead and the world of two moons and a green sky was exotic and strange. What type of score could possibly be composed for such a production?

Herein lies the true innovation. At this time there was little or no real electronic music generated by synthesisers. Heroic innovators, Louis and Bebe Barron toiled for months generating various tonalities, blips, squeaks and dirge-like pulses that backed the action and in that, their toil produced a whole new kind of sound. In fact it was so fitting and unique it was kept as the film score. Interestingly, the Musicians’ Union blocked the Academy from nominating them for an appropriate award and instead they were credited as having delivered “electronic tonalities”.

This was the precursor to all the electronic music that has come after. Every synthesized note is a child of the work of Louis and Bebe Barron who made unusual sounds of tortured electrons capable of expressing raw power, as in the scenes of the film that dealt with a vast alien machine. Further, the thrill of the future is powerfully addressed in the space travel shots and landing scenes and eerily the music they made, or should I say ‘tonalities’, seems presciently similar to some of the sounds you hear when listening to the radio exhaust generated by the rings of Saturn or the huge storms on Jupiter.

Most effective of all, were the impressions of dreadful threat that pulsed across the screen when the invisible monster from the mind of Dr Morbius’s Id stalked his prey. Equivalent to Prospero’s evoked demon, the sounds of the Monster from the Id are acknowledged by many viewers as the most effective use of the score in the entire film. Menace dripped from every note and the use of a slow, heart-rate pulse was as elegant a use of timing as has ever possibly been deployed. Rarely has turmoil, anger and murderous intent ever found a home in a film score as effectively as this.

Indeed, the value of the exotic calibre of scores in science fiction was later recapitulated by Kubrick when he used the work of the composer György Ligeti in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music and sounds of Forbidden Planet informed other elements of the genre and Star Trek and Star Wars owe much to the innovations of this film, not the least of which was the startlingly original score. The inertia of this trend, to help fund the imagination of the viewer, can be proved by playing the first few bars of the score of almost any science fiction film of note. We all remember the heavy, silent terrors evoked by the simple beginning of the score of the first Alien film and almost everyone can pick up the next few bars after the briefest notice given by John William’s Darth Vader’s Theme, also called The Imperial March.

Other innovations from Forbidden Planet include Anne Francis previewing the mini skirt a decade before it was fashionable and the use of robots that were actually believable and not comically naive in their design. Fashion and advanced machinery are now modern science fiction film staples but it was that original electronic score, over sixty years ago, that set the world to taking these visionaries as seriously as they deserve.

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