The 1950s saw a proliferation of science fiction B-movies with an emphasis on shocks and monsters. Forbidden Planet in 1956 was one of the few to take a more serious approach, with its story being loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. The movie had sophisticated special effects and created some distinctive iconography easily recognisable today, Robby the Robot being the prime example. Equally iconic was the movie's pioneering approach to sound, with its soundtrack eschewing conventional instruments for one created entirely by electronic means, thanks to experimental composers Louis and Bebe Barron. MGM producer Dore Schary had met the couple in a nightclub and hired them on the spot to create the film's score. Historically the result was hugely influential and served as a turning point in the use of electronic sounds.
Bebe was a researcher for Life Magazine when she met Louis Barron, an aspiring writer whose hobby was building electronic circuits to generate sounds. When the couple married one of their wedding presents was an early tape recorder, and that helped catalyse further experimentation in sound manipulation. They moved to New York around 1950 and in Greenwich Village their circle of friends included creative artists from several disciplines, particularly composers and writers. They worked with John Cage and other experimental composers, collaborating on a number of electronic music projects. Their speciality was capturing electronic sounds on tape, selecting and edited the most interesting sounds by manipulating them in various ways and enhancing them with effects to build their sonic creations. As such they stood at the forefront of electronic sound creation, and they sought various artistic opportunities to exercise their unique talents.
The Barron's meeting with Dore Schary was not a complete accident. The couple had read that the MGM producer was coming to town so that his wife could host an art exhibit in a New York Gallery. They attended the opening and introduced themselves, and it wasn't long before they had secured a role on MGM's first ever Science Fiction movie - Forbidden Planet. The movie starred Leslie Nielsen long before he became known for his comic roles in films such as the "Naked Gun" series. It opens with Nielsen as the spaceship commander arriving with his crew at the planet Altair IV, to investigate what had happened to an earlier expedition. On the planet they meet Robbie the Robot, an intelligent (and sometimes witty) robot who serves Dr. Morbius (played by thesbian Walter Pigeon) apparently the only survivor from the previous expedition. They are also introduced to Morbius' daughter Altaira (or Alta), played by the late Anne Francis wearing the first ever on-screen mini-skirt, and they learn about a strange alien presence on the planet...
Today we would probably describe the soundtrack as special sound effects rather than as music. However the boundary between the two disciplines is blurred and, particularly since the electronic track accompanying Forbidden Planet is the only background sound we hear, it seems to serve a duel purpose on the film. For the most part, the sound consists of the bleeps, blurps, whirs, whines, throbs, hums, and screeches which we might expect from futuristic spaceships, robots and machinery. The spaceship carries out manoeuvres before slowing and landing on the planet, while the Robot and other items of human and alien technology are regularly used throughout the film. Nevertheless there are also sounds which are not obviously linked to events on the screen, and they help to convey the eeriness of space and the strangeness of this remote planet. The mysterious former inhabitants of the Altair IV are called the Krells, and in the track "Ancient Krell Music" we hear their music which is more melodic than most of the tracks, yet still quite different from traditional music as befits such a futuristic race. Once the monster is encountered, some of the effects clearly help to depict and suggest the nature of creature which is otherwise invisible. Once heard you won't forget the distinctive electronic yet animalistic sounds heard during the final battle with the monster.
Test screenings of the film with its electronic soundtrack were very successful. However Louis and Bebe Barron were not members of the Musician's Union and the Union blocked using the word "composers" in their credit. This resulted in the Barron's credit appearing as "electronic tonalities" rather than as "composers", which had two further consequences. It meant that the studio could avoid paying the electronic pioneers industry standard music guild fees, and it also meant that the couple were ineligible for Academy Award nominations in either the "music" or "special effects" categories. Nevertheless their innovative work is widely recognised as being highly influential in the further development of electronic music. See our timeline below which puts the Forbidden Planet soundtrack into an historical context.
Despite the success of the film and its soundtrack, it was not until the film's 20th anniversary that the soundtrack was release as a vinyl LP. Then a decade late in 1986 it was first released on CD. Now 25 years after that event, the album is receiving a commemmorative release as a limited edition vinyl album. The liner notes for this deluxe release have been written by renowned journalist and broadcaster John Cavanagh. The new vinyl album can be found via these links at Amazon.co.uk (already available) and Amazon.com (available on 3rd May 2011). Other formats of the remastered soundtrack (as a CD or MP3 downloads) are available via these links: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.
Here is a youtube video with an excerpt of a show looking at The Music and SFX of Forbidden Planet. Bebe Barron features talking about her work for the film.
To put the work of Louis and Bebe Barron into an historical context, here is a timeline of some of the key events in the development of electronic music and its acceptance into popular culture as gauged by its creative use in film & television scores and popular music. Like any new technology, there are always some early pioneers and experimentalists who show the way and inspire others to do more. Gradually there is more demand for the technology and it becomes mass-produced and cheaper. By the 1970s the use of electronics to create music is accelerating and we might consider it to be commonplace. Today there are many entire genres of music created entirely or almost entirely in the electronic domain.