Jane with Bebe and Leonard Neubauer, Bebe's second husband.
Photo © 2007 by Desy Safan-Gerard.

 

   

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The First Electronic Filmscore--Forbidden Planet:
A Conversation with Bebe Barron (1925-2008)

My Memoire of Bebe Barron (April 20, 2008)


First published in "The Score": the Society of Composers & Lyricists, Vol. VII, No.3,
Fall/Winter 1992 (ISSN1066-5447). This article copyright © 1992 by Jane Brockman, all rights reserved.

 

Photo © 1992 by Lori Barth

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My Memoire of Bebe Barron (June 16, 1925-April 20, 2008)

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 Leonard’s 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.

We shared a passion for the stock market, the economy, and had lengthy discussions after she stopped her commodities market activity for the day. During those years, we must have attended dozens of new music concerts together. And her high-powered analytical self was always in evidence.

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 weren’t 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.

In the Summer of 2000, Bebe was invited to be composer-in-residence at the University of California, Santa Barbara for 2 weeks, collecting sounds at their CREATE studio with the help of assistants. Luckily, by that time, technology had advanced to allow computers to mimic the analog sounds she had always loved. The following October, she brought these sounds on CD as AIFF files to my studio in Santa Monica, and I imported them into Digital Performer on the Mac. Over the next six weeks, she created her last work. As recording engineer and studio assistant, I felt privileged to have facilitated the composition of her final piece, “Mixed Emotions”. Almost 50 years after Forbidden Planet, though created by very different means, “Mixed Emotions” bears Bebe's personal stamp.

Although history will remember Bebe for Forbidden Planet, she did not consider it to be her primary legacy. During the time I knew her, she was totally devoted to her son, Adam, a loving wife to Leonard Neubauer, and the most generous of friends. She had many interests (I once saw a huge physiology textbook with every page covered with her pencilled annotations) and pursued these during the years between pieces. For the last twenty years when I knew her, Bebe's life work was generosity and service.

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.

And the music world would never be the same again.

Jane Brockman, April 28, 2008 ©2008

Bebe Barron, Mixed Emotions on YouTube

Barron Sound Portraits: Exploring the Legacy of the Barron Audiobooks

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