Jane with Bebe and Leonard Neubauer, Bebe's second husband.
First published in "The Score": the Society of Composers & Lyricists, Vol. VII, No.3,
Photo © 1992 by Lori Barth
Much has been written about Bebe's accomplishments in the field of electronic music. However, during the last twenty years when we were close friends, she often refused to give interviews, did not answer mail about her work, and was apologetic that her biggest achievement had been back in 1956. Someone would mention that Forbidden Planet was being screened, and did she want to go? "Oh no", she'd say, "I've seen it a hundred times." She was an extremely self-effacing, private woman. My hope is to provide a sense of the very special person she was.
Bebe adopted me when I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1988. Coming out of Eastern academia, and finding myself in a foreign land and culture, she made it a priority to school me in arcane LA customs and concepts. She also introduced me to some of my most treasured friends--Channa Horwitz, Nancy Mooslin, and Leonard Rosenman.
She would always make herself available to advise and discuss anything important, was selflessly generous, and had the deepest capacity for friendship of anyone I've ever known. Part of her endearing personality was the unerring ability to intuitively know things about people whom she had never met. It was quite uncanny. And all was suffused with wisdom and humor.
Bebe kept a close watch on the calendar. Her forte was helping friends sneak into the Academy of Motion Pictures for screenings on her husband Leonards card, considering it a point of honor to get as many as possible in on that card--lest empty seats go forever unused. Once Leonard, Bebe and I walked in past the guard (2 were allowed, I just acted like I belonged), and she went back to the side door, handed the card out to two more friends who also used it to get in. As she said, no one ever expects little old ladies to be petty criminals.
As a fashion maven, her favorite Issey Miyake put the rest of us to shame. She loved art almost as much as she loved music, and was an avid collector. And as she said, having grown up in Fargo, N.D., she also loved weather--something I found amusing, since by comparison, we hardly have any weather in Los Angeles.
Few people realized that Bebe suffered major hearing loss. She had been deaf in the left ear since a childhood infection. And she also needed a hearing aid for the right ear, but read lips extremely well. And for some bizarre reason, she could always hear music; I think her will was so strong that she somehow heard by extra-sensory means. During the past year when she was ill, it took enormous energy for Bebe to simply participate in a conversation. But particpate she did--with her exceptional grace. And of course, being deaf in one ear during her whole life, Bebe never heard music in stereo.
This last is an important point because it illustrates an essential character trait: her strength of will. In the mid-1990s, Bebe suffered a very serious case of Lymphoma. While proceeding with all of the most drastic cancer treatments (she was down to 83lbs.), Bebe was always ready to head out for a concert or an art museum--even when she needed support just to stand. She wanted to live life, and her recovery at that time was remarkable. In her unerring wisdom, she also anticipated her death almost a year ago, saying that she had lived a good and fulfilling life, and was ready to die. This was not depression. Just a statement of fact from an extremely evolved person. Her own mother had lived to be 99, so we all found this difficult to accept.
Bebe and Louis had continued working together after they divorced until his death in 1989. They persisted with analog circuits long after the invention of synthesizers and computers. Louis' death effectively ended Bebe's composing, as she depended on his technical expertise to build the circuits. She never was interested in working with digital sounds. One day (ca. 1997?), Bebe decided she wanted to compose again. Through the Recycler, we found a used Roland JD-800 synthesizer (which emulated analog sounds), and I loaned her my old Mac for sequencing, and Tascam 388 (8 channel reel-to-reel tape recorder and mixer)--but they sat unused in her living room for ca. five years until Bebe and Leonard sold their Beverly Hills home. Digital sounds werent complex enough for her taste. Besides, they had really been a team: Louis, the tech person, while Bebe was the actual composer of their work.
Yet, it is difficult to over-estimate the full impact of the Barrons early contribution. Prior to their work, music was always made by instruments; electric circuits were...well, circuits. And their sounds originated as dirty noise--it was Bebe, who developed the ability to know which sounds could be made into something musically useful. Though experiments were going on in Europe, the Barrons had no knowledge of these at the time. The creative leap it took to conceive of an artform made through these means, and invent the methods to do it, is simply astonishing. John Cage, working with them in their studio on his Williams Mix, convinced the Barrons that their early efforts really were music.
Jane Brockman, April 28, 2008 ©2008
Bebe Barron, Mixed Emotions on YouTube