Musicians, producers and friends of the literati, Bebe and Louis Barron were genuine pioneers of experimental electronic and tape music – their ambit including collaborations with everyone from Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller to Moondog and John Cage, and were releasing the first ‘audiobooks’ as long ago as the late 1940s. Their best known work remains the world’s first electronic score, the soundtrack to the 1956 Hollywood sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet, yet, as author Mark Brend expounds, the Barrons remain all but forgotten by literary and musical history.
In the late 1940s, commercial tape recording was in its infancy. The pioneering Ampex 200 model was introduced in 1948, and for some years afterwards tape recorders remained exclusive, specialist equipment, mostly found in radio stations and professional recording studios. So, when, on 7 December 1947, Louis Barron and Charlotte Wind found a Magnetophone, a German tape machine, among their wedding gifts, they were immediately granted access to a very exclusive club indeed.
Charlotte Wind was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1925. She spent most of her early life in North Dakota, but returned to study music at Minneapolis University, followed by a Master’s in political science. At some point Charlotte became Bebe, and was introduced to Louis Barron by his brother, who she was dating. Louis had also returned to Minneapolis, where he had been born in 1920, having studied music at the University of Chicago.
After marrying, The Barrons moved to Monterey and then San Francisco, taking the tape recorder with them. They met the French-Cuban diarist and eroticist Anaïs Nin, and along with her first husband, Hugh Parker Guiler (aka Ian Hugo), embarked on several collaborative ventures. The first of these were two entries in a series called Sound Portraits, audiobooks of authors reading their work released on the Barron’s boutique record label, Contemporary Classics.
The Barrons recorded Nin in June 1949, dragging the bulky tape machine into her study, figuring the familiar environment would put her at ease. Nin delivered an incantatory rendition of her short, impressionistic work of fiction, House of Incest, her fluting voice with its stateless accent preserved with a slight antique distortion. Although Nin had been publishing since the 1930s, by 1949 she was not particularly well known. Even so, she was not short on self-mythologizing con dence. “ The legend of Anais Nin is true. There have been many fanciful distortions of her life and work, but the facts are even more interesting” she wrote in the album’s insert. That may have been the case, but as a piece of promotional hype it wouldn’t prove effective.
House of Incest, like all subsequent Contemporary Classics, was released on dark pink vinyl, and came wrapped in a sleeve featuring an illustration by Hugo. A second Nin release, and two albums each by Aldous Huxley and Henry Miller followed. The series may also have included a release by Tennessee Williams, as both Barrons later mentioned recording him, and, indeed, the liner notes of House of Incest mention a Williams release. But the couple’s son Adam Barron, who is reissuing the series, has never seen nor heard of a copy of a Tennessee Williams album. The Barrons also made at least one 78 rpm disc, a recording of Nin reading from her work backed by voodoo chanting. The six known vinyl albums and the 78 are both fascinating curios from a lost world and, in this age of eBooks and downloadable audiobooks, memories of prescient attempts to harness a new technology to reimagine the book. They proved hard to sell, however, as neither bookshops nor record shops would stock them. The venture failed, and Contemporary Classics recordings quickly faded into extreme obscurity.
“It is this approach, a kind of serendipity, that imbued the Barrons’ music with its free- flowing, liquid character.”
In 1950, Louis and Bebe relocated to New York. Here they set up home in an apartment on West 8th Street, in Greenwich Village, building a studio in the living room. Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, recalls visiting them in the early 1950s, spending an afternoon with them in a “room… full of audio frequency oscillators and tape recorders; some primitive mixing equipment”, which was their base for more than a decade. A few surviving photos of the couple in that studio – Bebe, petite and short-haired, alongside a mustachioed Louis – communicate a shared seriousness of purpose. They appear almost crowded out of the room by the banks of electronic equipment bearing down on them. Knowing the hours they spent there cutting tape and overloading circuits to destruction, you get a sense of the intensity of their artistic life. Those photos tell another story, too. The layout of the studio represents the breakdown in traditional barriers in the music-making process. ere were no separate control and live rooms, no vocal booths. Like many electronic musicians of this era, the Barron’s were composers, engineers, performers (in a sense) and producers, and all of those functions were performed in that one room. Commonplace these days, but in an age of near feudal division of musical labour, this was revolutionary.
By now, the Barrons’ understanding of themselves as creative people had been formed by two developments in their thought. The first was one they shared with many first generation electronic musicians. That is, that the tape recorder need not be just a machine for recording sound naturalistically, but could also be a means of creating previously unheard sounds. It was a creative instrument, not just a practical device. Bebe would later say that this realization dawned on them almost as soon as they got hold of their first tape recorder and started experimenting with reversing tapes and varispeed.
Another perception shift came when Louis read Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948). The idea expressed in Wiener’s sub-title seems to have particularly struck the Barrons: both ‘animals’ (biological systems) and ‘machines’ (non- biological systems) can operate according to cybernetic principles. Wiener wrote about what happened when a system’s action (a system could be animal or machine) changes its environment, and that change in environment in turn causes the system to adapt. The Barrons applied this idea to sound- producing electronic circuits, made by Louis, which adapted as a result of alterations to their own internal working, thus causing changes in the sound they emitted. Louis and Bebe deliberately over-loaded their circuits (the change in environment), which caused the circuits to adapt (make different sounds). The couple applied a certain poetic vision to this process, and began to think of their circuits as living-things: “ They would shriek and coo”, Bebe said. “… They would start out and reach a kind of climax, and then they would die and you could never resurrect them.” Or as Louis put it: “We can torture these circuits without a guilty conscience – whereas if we did it musically we might have to torture a musician … we look on these circuits as genuinely suffering, but we don’t feel compassion.”
There was more to this than a vivid turn of phrase. The approach had a direct and audible impact on the couple’s music, introducing a random element into their compositions at odds with the meticulous, tightly drilled, and literally measured approach of much early tape composition. Other comments the pair made in later life indicate that what they were doing was a kind of improvisation. They would let the circuits loose in the world and record their ‘lives’. When raw sound was captured on tape it fell to Bebe to listen to it all and select what might be suitable for further use. Once this winnowing process had taken place both Louis and Bebe would process the sounds until satis ed that what they were hearing represented what they wanted to convey. This processing involved all the standard tape techniques – speeding up, slowing down and reversing tape, tape echo, feedback and looping. Then finally, the assorted sounds would be edited and multi-tracked by bouncing between tape recorders until pieces were deemed finished. It is this approach, a kind of curating of serendipity, that imbued the Barrons’ music with its free- flowing, liquid character.
The first piece the Barrons made in this way, which is also generally credited as the first electronic tape composition realized in the US, was called Heavenly Menagerie. Depending on which source you consult it was made between 1950 and 1952. But the couple’s résumé, undated but written some time in the 1960s, doesn’t list it at all. It commences instead with a John Cage collaboration described as a “foundation-sponsored project to investigate further the relationship of music and sound.”
Once established in Greenwich Village, Louis and Bebe began frequenting the Artists Club, an informal Friday-night gathering of experimental artists and thinkers. It was here they’d met John Cage, who invited them to help in the Project of Music For Magnetic Tape, which also involved Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff . Cage had got a grant from an acquaintance, Paul Williams, who had recently inherited a fortune, to fund the project. Cage gave the Barrons enough of this grant to pay their rent for a year, and the pair were tasked with doing the donkey work for what would become a piece named after their patron, the Williams Mix. This involved recording hundreds of snatches of sound (samples) in six categories: city sounds, country sounds, electronic sounds, manually produced sounds, wind produced sounds and small sounds, the last category being sounds that needed amplification to be properly audible. These were then spliced into eight tracks of magnetic tape, with pitch, timbre, rhythm, type of splice and other variables minutely annotated on Cage’s 192 page score.
Work on the Williams Mix took place over about nine months in 1952 to 1953, with the piece premiering in March 1953 at the University of Illinois Festival of Contemporary Arts. The product of this intense labour was a disorientating four-and-a-quarter-minute sound collage that, even now, some 60 years later, still stands well beyond the furthest boundaries of what many would consider music. The Project of Music For Magnetic Tape threw up a few more fully realized works, including one credited to the Barrons alone, For An Electronic Nervous System No. 1, which also premiered at the Illinois Festival of Contemporary Arts.
The Williams Mix in particular pushed tape music technique to its limits, though for Louis and Bebe it was an anomalous piece of work, assembled from concrete sounds, as opposed to the electronically generated textures that were the raw material for all their other compositions. It was anomalous too in being probably the only time they rented out their studio facilities for someone else. An exceptional episode it might have been, but it was a pivotal experience. Louis later remarked that the experience of working with Cage opened up creative possibilities: “…you realize that you don’t have to be restricted by the traditions, or the so-called laws, of music. So we began exploring, and I began developing my circuits.”
The Barrons’ involvement with Cage placed them firmly, if briefly, in music’s radical fringe. Their other activities reinforced this. At around the same time that they were working on the Williams Mix, Louis and Bebe collaborated again with Nin and Hugo. The result was a short film, Bells Of Atlantis, which combines protean, phantasmagorical images overlaid with Nin reading extracts from the House Of Incest. In fact, she is credited as acting and reciting, although the acting is confined to a few brief appearances rendered abstract by Hugo’s treatment.
The Barrons’ score ebbs and flows throughout the film, which, at about nine minutes long, provided them with the platform for their longest work from this period. The piece offers an insight into the extreme limitations they were operating within. Any sense of structure and rhythm is created using tape loops. A three-note loop runs for several minutes at the beginning of the film. On top of this structural base, texture and melody (or at least, variations in pitch) are built up using a great deal of tape echo (for texture) and varispeed (for pitch changes). There is less evidence of sophisticated tape slicing to affect timbre than in the Williams Mix, and it is possible that Bells Of Atlantis predates the Cage collaboration (dates are uncertain). Yet despite these limitations, the music does strike a mood that complements the images and words, achieving a balance between structure and randomness that make it sound semi-improvised, like jazz musicians working around a theme.
The Barrons’ association with Cage continued for about a year, a period Bebe would later recall as a kind of idyll – days of intense creativity followed by evenings of feasting, with each participant taking turns to cook up some gourmet delight. Their studio at became a place of pilgrimage for like- minded composers, with many visitors including Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. And to cap it all, they were being paid. But it couldn’t last, and when they drifted away from Cage sometime in 1953 they were left fending for themselves, artistically and financially. The artistic freedom they welcomed, but money became a problem, as it tends to for experimental artists.
Over the following year or so there were several further small commissions and creative collaborations. These included a film called Miramagic, by Walter Lewishon, and a mime score. There was also another Hugo lm, Jazz of Lights (1954) in which Nin and blind musician and man of the streets, Moondog, travel across New York against a backdrop of impressionistic patterns created from the lights of Times Square. This was all interesting work, and there is a sense that it was with such projects as these that the Barrons felt most at home. But experimental art didn’t pay the rent. Louis in particular was keen to break into Hollywood, and through a combination of chutzpah and sheer good fortune, in 1955 the couple landed a commission to create electronic sound for a science fiction film working its way through MGM studios. Forbidden Planet was released the following year, with the Barrons’ celebrated electronic score, the first in a major commercial film.
After Forbidden Planet the Barrons’ career took on a rather desultory character. They jumped around from small art house projects to the occasional commercial job with no real sense of direction. The couple’s first commercial assignment after Forbidden Planet was providing 12 minutes of sound for Gore Vidal’s play A Visit to a Small Planet. Then there was a score to a seven-minute experimental film, Bridges Go Round, directed by Shirley Clarke. There were also occasional short commercial commissions, such as Quartz Crystal Growing, a Western Electric industrial information short, and an advert for the Ford Fairlane automobile. A collaboration with the self-styled ‘official witch of Los Angeles’, Louise Huebner, was one of the Barrons’ odder commissions. This took the form of an album called Seduction Through Witchcraft , in which Huebner offers occult advice over the Barrons’ music. Incredibly, it got a major label release on Warners in 1969. Equally curious was a collaboration with the aging Czech actress Florence Marly, once the on-screen wife of Humphrey Bogart. Marly wrote a short film called Space Boy in an attempt to relaunch her career, appearing in it wearing a nude body stocking. The film, complete with electronic sounds courtesy of the Barrons, was nominated for the best short film award at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, the last time the pair brushed up against the establishment film world.
There is no obvious theme to this disparate body of work, but it does reveal much about the predicament facing the couple. An uncomfortable balancing act between experimental art and mainstream entertainment, and the remorseless advance of technology combined to undo them. Techniques and equipment that had been advanced at the beginning of the 1950s were commonplace by the early 1960s, but the Barrons didn’t keep up. When they moved to Los Angeles in 1962, they dismantled their studio and took it with them, reassembling it in a garage and starting again where they left off . They were still using what amounted to the same set-up when Keyboard magazine tracked them down for an interview in 1986. According to the couple’s son Adam, Louis and Bebe spent the rest of the ’60s in a perpetual sense of frustration about their stalled career, surviving on handouts from their parents. They split in 1969 and divorced in 1970. Both remarried, although they did occasionally collaborate again. Louis died in 1989. Bebe followed in 2008. One of her final public appearances was at an event discussing her and Louis’s Sound Portraits of Anaïs Nin.
— THE REISSUE OF THE HOUSE OF INCEST SOUND PORTRAIT AUDIOBOOK IS AVAILABLE AT WWW.BARRONSOUNDPORTRAITS.COM/STORE
— THIS ARTICLE IS ADAPTED FROM MARK BREND’S FORTHCOMING BOOK, THE SOUND OF TOMORROW: HOW ELECTRONIC MUSIC WAS SMUGGLED INTO THE MAINSTREAM, PUBLISHED BY CONTINUUM LATER THIS YEAR.