On Second Thought
Louis and Bebe Barron - Forbidden Planet: The Original MGM Soundtrack






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

If you want to study the history of electronic music, most music historians would probably tell you to check out the works of Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Milton Babbitt, Edgar Varese, and other academic composers. These works were and are still essential listening for anyone interested in the serious side of electronic music. For me, however, electronic music—the kind that people actually listen to and enjoy—began with Louis and Bebe Barron's soundtrack to the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet.

The film was MGM's attempt to create a big-budget space film, complete with a top-flight cast, fantastic sets, some of the best special effects ever conceived at that time, and (most importantly) a script based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. It was an ambitious project, and, even today, in our post-Star Wars and post-Matrix world, although some of the acting and plot developments strike us as a bit stilted and silly, the film's production still holds up. But, really, the reason anyone watches this film today is not because of Robbie the Robot but because of the Barron's score, the first all-electronic score for a motion picture.

Science fiction films, no matter how well made, still can't escape the fundamental reality that they're made up, that the sets are in Los Angeles and not in outer space, that the actors are actors, not people of the future or aliens from other planets. However, as the Barrons proved on this soundtrack, music—especially electronic music—isn't limited by many of these realities. The Forbidden Planet soundtrack actually sounds like outer space, aliens, spaceships, and the future—or, at least, what we think of when we think of outer space, aliens, spaceships, and the future. Space travel—real space travel—probably will sound a lot like loud air conditioners. But until we actually start traveling in space, our fantasies will continue to be filled with wailing synthesizers, bubbly echoes, blips, bleeps, pops, and clicks—the sounds the Barrons popularized on this soundtrack.

I could go into detail on each one of the album's 23 tracks, explain how each of the various sounds you hear are connected both to the movie's overall alien mood and to the larger, cultural creation of science fiction myths and desires. I could explain that the music on this soundtrack has been echoed in popular musical works from The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" to Mokira's Clickhop. I could explain that the track, "Ancient Krell Music," is the prototype for just about every ambient track ever imagined or created. I could go into all of this stuff, but it still wouldn't explain the importance of this work. The Barrons did not invent electronic music, but they gave it a place in popular culture. This soundtrack not only influenced artists to follow in their stead, but it influenced the popular imagination of people all over the world. In essence, it helped create a hopeful, mysterious, exciting, and fascinating future, a future of both uncertainty and possibility. A year later, in 1957, this future would become a reality when Sputnik was launched in the USSR, sending a continuous "beeping" sound down to Earth for everyone to hear and scaring the shit out of Americans. In the years since Sputnik, electronic music has developed and become about as complex and confusing as the rest of this "future" we all find ourselves living in. So perhaps the reason for the continued importance of the Barrons' soundtrack is simply that it is an ideal vision of what we all wished the 21st century sounded like (or looked like): a future where we all really did travel in space ships to Venus or Alpha Centauri, a future where we all really did have jet powered rocket packs, a future that is, well, more interesting than any reality ever could be.


By: Michael Heumann
Published on: 2003-09-01
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