Bebe Barron (1925–2008)
With great sadness, we note the death of Bebe Barron on April 20 in Los Angeles. Joan La Barbara joins me in this homage.
I remember Bebe as a woman of extraordinary charm, presence, and sensitivity, with whom I enjoyed conversations on many occasions during the 1990s. As happens too often, I regret not having known her better and not having had the opportunity to ask all of the questions that I would have liked to ask. Her modest manner belied that fact that she was one of the earliest pioneers in what I call the great opening up of music to all sounds.
Bebe married Louis Barron in New York in 1948. It was just about at that time that tape recorders began to appear in the market, and using a tape recorder that they were given as a wedding present, Bebe and Louis Barron co-founded an electronic sound studio. Louis experimented with circuitry. Bebe was more the composer and the file master, keeping track of their immense and continually growing library of sounds. Their early work included sound for Bells of Atlantis, which appeared in 1952. And they became well known for composing the entirely electronic score for the sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, which appeared in 1956. In fact, Forbidden Planet was the first film to chart the unfamiliar territory of an all-electronic score, and the Barrons paid an explorer’s price. The American Federation of Musicians prevented them from receivng music credit for the sound track and their names were omitted from the film’s nomination for an Oscar.
Perhaps less well known, however, their hearts were in the avant garde, and they worked with John Cage, David Tudor, and Earle Brown in the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape. Specifically, they recorded and prepared approximately 600 sounds in providing the initial materials for Cage’s Williams Mix, the first composition to be completed in the Project.
Although divorced in 1970, Bebe and Louis Barron continued to collaborate until Louis’ death in 1989. Bebe then stopped composing until 1999, when she was invited to create a new work at the University of California/Santa Barbara, where she had access to state-of-the-art technology. She finished the composition in 2000. She named it Mixed Emotions.
— Joel Chadabe (Electronic Music Foundation, Albany NY USA)
As a teenager, my friends, who were amateur filmmakers, and I studied Forbidden Planet devotedly, transcribing the script and learning the great lines the way subsequent generations fixated on Rocky Horror and Monty Python — it was our secret code language.
And the music, which I think is clearly one of the great filmscores of all time, had a great impact on my later work. I probably listened to that soundtrack more than I did to classical works around that time. In some ways, my current working process of recording lots of material, then spending months isolating tiny fragments, labeling them with identities so that I could select them and place them into my sound fields, and finally layering them into what I now call my sonic atmospheres, is very much like what Bebe did in the early years, organizing and categorizing the miles of tapes and then manipulating them in various ways.
I met Bebe on a number of occasions when I lived in LA during the late 70s and early 80s, and enjoyed her intelligence, her supporting words about my compositions, and her gentle humor. Most of our encounters happened at or around the Monday Evening Concerts at the LA County Museum. The New Music crowd was somewhat small in LA at that time, so most of us got to know each other. I learned only years later that she, and Louis, had contributed to John Cage’s Williams Mix and that Cage encouraged the Barrons to consider their work as music, something the Musicians’ Union evidently did not permit them to do in the credits for their major film score.
As I watched and listened to Forbidden Planet again over the past few days, it was like encountering an old, familiar friend. And the music was just as fresh and exciting as when I first heard it. Bon voyage, Bebe, I shall remember you with warmth and gratitude for your pioneering spirit and those luscious sounds! And I honor your courage as a woman composer, especially in the field of electronic music — an arduous task that you performed brilliantly.
— Joan La Barbara (USA)
The part of growing older I appreciate is the gift of acquaintances you make along the way. The downside, the other side of this very same coin is when we lose them.
Bebe Barron was a dear friend. I dare say and confess in public that I love her. Of the many laughs we shared, there are two anecdotes I would like to share with you as well:
I met her around 2001. I would see her at various music gatherings in the area. She and Leonard would enter looking like two of the ultra hip we see gracing Page 6 on any given day. I ran into them all the time, I knew who they were, we even shared a common friend (Barry Schrader), but still I was intimidated. Anyone who knows me may scoff at that notion. Loud, often obnoxious in my delivery, but never shy or timid to add new blood to my posse. Yet here was this little woman who had my tongue tied. On one of these events we passed each other and she threw a smile at me… and at that point I figured it was time to make my introduction. I approached her and said “Bebe… you know if we keep running into each other people are going to think we’re dating!” Her reply was classic: “I think we SHOULD start dating.”
And so began my friendship with the first lady of electronic music. We clicked. We saw things the same way. We would talk to each other on the phone, or share a meal and crack each other up. I remember once she told me she and Leonard considered me family and I warned her to think that over carefully because that’s usually when I start showing up for dinner unannounced and asking to borrow money!
About a year after that introduction I picked her up to attend a concert at the Redcat Theater at the Disney Hall. I did this at Barry Schrader’s suggestion to stop her from driving across LA in night traffic herself which she would have otherwise. So on the way I asked what is what like to work with John Cage. Her reply was typical of the modesty we had grown accustomed to: “Yes, we did a project together once.”
A project. The Williams Mix… a “project”. Possibly one of the most influential bodies of music in the 20th century, one which affected more composer’s heads than those infamous three words “She Loves You.” If it were me it would have been tattooed on the backside of each hand but for Bebe, knowing full well the depth of that work’s influence it was merely something she did along the way.
By the way, she liked working with Cage.
Ahhh, Bebe… we are going to miss you. Not sometimes, all the time. On behalf of all of us, thanks.
— Peter Grenader (Electro-Acoustic Research, USA)