What links Shakespeare, composer John Cage and actor Leslie Nielsen? What, for that matter, do robots, tape loops, and the invention of the micro dress have in common? Still scratching the old cranium? How about this: A connection between electric tonalities, Anne Francis, and monsters from the unconscious mind.
Loosely based on The Tempest, Shakespeare’s final masterpiece, the 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet was groundbreaking at the time and remains a worldwide cult favourite. Starring clean-cut hero Leslie Nielsen and a brooding Walter Pidgeon in the Prospero role, there is both mythic grandeur and fantastic imagination at play in this classic.
Disclosure: I’m potty about this film, thanks to the Bard. Primed by falling in love with The Tempest at uni and having had the thrill of seeing it performed in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I’ve also watched film versions (one by Peter Greenaway, another with Helen Mirren as the sorcerer) and periodically re-read parts of the script. But, callow pop-culture tart that I am, it is Forbidden Planet that I return to most often for comfort and enjoyment.
There is something quintessentially 50s about Forbidden Planet. From the flying saucer-shaped spacecraft to the quaint imaginings of communication technology, the look of the film is a delicious time capsule that hugely rewards those who can see past the clunky effects and painted landscapes.
Without giving too much away, the story involves a team from Earth lead by Commander John Adams (Nielsen) travelling to the distant planet Altair IV to investigate the status of an exploratory mission from whom nothing has been heard in a worryingly long time. (Note the similarity of plot line with Solaris). Even as they enter orbit, Doctor Morbius (Pidgeon) warns off the visitors, saying that they are at risk if they land. Morbius reluctantly reveals that he and his delightfully innocent daughter Altaira (Francis) are the only living survivors of the original expedition, making Adams determined to discover more of their story.
And there certainly is a lot more story to discover, including an extremely versatile robot, sixty gallons of moonshine, wonders of the ancient Krell, learning how to kiss, and revenge killings by an invisible monster.
Throughout it all beats the alien electronic pulse of Bebe and Louis Barron’s unique soundtrack.
Having been gifted a rare German tape recorder as a wedding present (beats a dinner set, eh?), the Barrons had been exploring recording and editing techniques before their move to Greenwich Village in New York, where they met John Cage. The composer employed the couple to work on his ‘Williams mix’ project, which involved splicing together tiny fragments from 600 recordings to make a four-minute collage. Mind-boggling though it might be to contemplate from our digital vantage point, the editing work took Louis and Bebe an entire year. But being confined to an editing suite did have its compensations, as Bebe recalls.
“Cage would bring all these fabulous composers into our studio: Pierre Boulez, Stockhausen… Edgard Varèse spent a lot of time at our place; we were the only ones who had a real studio for doing this sort of thing.” *
The Barrons contrived to meet the head of MGM, resulting in their commission to create music for a new science fiction film. Louis had been interested in electronics since boyhood and in cybernetics for several years. He and his partner commenced generating sounds from the electronic devices Louis built. There was a strong random element to the original sound generation—the cybernetic principle of the machines ‘creating’ was central to their approach. It was in the editing, manipulating and repeating the source material that the short pieces that comprised the final soundtrack that their creativity and vision was expressed. It is quite reasonable to claim that Bebe and Louis created the first tape loops. In an interview with Jane Brockman for Effectrode, Bebe commented:
“I never heard of anyone else doing (tape loops) at the time. In 1949, Stancil-Hoffman offered to make us a tape recorder to our specifications so we took advantage of it, I believe it was the first commercial tape recorder ever made. The way the tapes were aligned vertically on the transport, it just kind of looked at you and said “Hey, I’m perfect for a tape loop.” Then we had a voltage generator for varying the capstan speed, so we were able to shift the pitch.” **
Although Cage himself was uncomplimentary about the final result, others were in no doubt this music was something unprecedented and special. Other than fleeting appearances by the theremin in several films (including a couple by Alfred Hitchcock), no-one had previously made an entirely electronic soundtrack. Critics and cinema go-ers loved it.
“At (the) press preview, the most jaded critic joined in spontaneous applause after certain of the Barrons’ stunning accompaniments” +
Composers and avant-garde artists also loved it. The musicians union, however, were deeply suspicious of this new-fangled sound-making technology and denied Louis and Bebe membership. They even demanded that the film (and album) credit be changed from ‘Electronic music by Louis and Bebe Baron’ to ‘Electric tonalities’, thus precluding them from any Oscar appearance. It’s a shame, as the Barrons’ did no further film work and one cannot help wondering whether the exposure and acknowledgement afforded by a showing at the famous film awards might have nudged them towards more electronic composition for film.
Still, we have the Forbidden Planet soundtrack, and what a fine thing that is. A pulsing, thrumming, whining soundscape generator, powering across time and space.
Like any sixty-year-old, the film is a bit creaky and slow-moving, yet the soundtrack has a striking freshness, an edgy compulsion even. For aficionados of electronic music, it is an essential piece of history.
Brave new world indeed.
* Liner notes to the 2011 Poppydisc vinyl re-issue of Forbidden Planet by John Cavanagh
Listen to the main title music here.
** Jane Brockman. The First Electronic Filmscore – Forbidden Planet: A Conversation with Bebe Barron
Complete interview here.
+ Alan Clayson. Liner notes to the 2009 Chrome Dreams CD, Forbidden Planets: Music From The Pioneers Of Electronic Sound