Bebe Barron
Bebe Barron
June 16, 1926 -- April 20, 2008

Bebe Barron -- R.I.P.

 A pioneer, kindred spirit and significant inspiration for many of us, Bebe was an older "potential" friend whom I never met. She lived and worked with her then husband, Louis, not very far from where I've lived and worked for a large part of my life. Alas, she relocated to California just around the time I arrived in New York City from RI, to begin my graduate work in composition and electronic music at Columbia. We nearly DID meet later on, several times in fact, through mutual friends who claimed we'd get along well together. But that was not to be, including a couple of final "on-again / off-again" get-together plans that lingered along for two years, before being abandoned for health reasons. (Special thanx to Pete Grenader, who especially attempted to bring this to happen.)
Bebe composed music throughout her life, including for several film projects, but most of this output was and remains seldom heard. The score that Bebe and Louis created for Dore Schary (then president of MGM), for the widely acclaimed early SF film, "Forbidden Planet" remains their most recognized accomplishment. It inspired many of my generation, those of us who followed in their footsteps (the old "standing on the shoulders of giants" paradigm). I know well the frustrations of having an early work become overly fixated upon by the public, to the extent that later, often better works, sit ignored, hidden in the shadows of the early trophy. But that seems to be one of the plights of pioneers, doesn't it ("arrows in the arse" is another... ;^)? Still, one should pay due homage to better-known pioneering works, too, as they remain important pieces of our shared histories. And all the tangled, interwoven "connections" (as James Burke likes to call them) which workers in a given field share and build upon, ought be acknowledged. Often.


 When I think about it, the Barrons' score (dubbed "Electronic Tonalities" in the film's on-screen credits by a clever Schary, trying to hold off complaints from both musicians' and engineers' unions for this new hybrid methodology) was among the very first examples of electro-acoustic music I ever heard. (RCA had released their 1955 demonstration LP of the Mark I RCA Music Synthesizer, just the year before, when I stumbled upon it, one of my first ever record album purchases "in my yoot".) It jolted me into attention that this might be a wonderful field to dedicate myself to eventually. It was many years later before I heard their collaborative work with Anaïs Nin and John Cage ("Williams Mix"), besides their own independent compositions.
Not only were the timbres and effects the Barrons invented highly unusual and dramatically effective, but they were put together so damned musically, too. The care, talent, and skill of the young duo assured that even as technologies matured, their music would remain fresh and worth listening to. These are significant lessons for a young aspirant to absorb deeply, take to heart. Too much "creative" work in all the arts, imho, is of forgettable, disposable quality, mainly because it follows the paths of least resistance. Consider the obvious clichés of pop/rock, the mind-numbing repetetions of newage, through to the cynical "If you can't dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit!" poseurs of the avant garde. It may allow a lucky few to make a bit of money quickly, but it won't endure very long (a perfect job for WOMs: write-only-memory?), and for sure won't inspire a next generation. Talent, intelligence, intuition and perspiration remain a QUALITY QUARTET that can't be circumvented by shortcuts and tricks of the trade. The Barrons knew that -- it's perfectly evident, right up through 2000, with Bebe's final work, "Mixed Emotions" (nice title, btw). Bless you for caring enough!

Some statistics:
Date of Birth: 16 June 1926, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Date of Death: 20 April 2008, Los Angeles, California, USA (natural causes)
Birth Name: Charlotte May Wind
Leonard Neubauer (28 December 1973 - 20 April 2008) (her death)
Louis Barron (1947 - February 1970) (divorced) 1 child

There's a closing thought I'd like to share with you. Bebe was pleasantly surprised that her final (computer based) music sounded so consistent with the earliest music created in the 8th street studio, which proves that it's the composer's ear that matters most, less so the technology and tools used. Her solo works and filmscores, not easy to find (aside from the FP soundtrack), are worth the effort to track down. At least there's quite a bit of information on the Bebe and Louis (who died in 1989) to be found online -- I'll add a few links below, which currently are active. Quality can't be measured (mindlessly) in mere dollars, something most of us seem to have lost sight of, overlooking the humanity and craft behind every fine artist.

In the next section below, we'll look at some photos with texts about Bebe. Meanwhile, here are several currently available biographical links: HERE, HERE, HERE, and a few obits HERE, HERE, and HERE. (Composer Barry Schrader, a close friend of Bebe's for years, contributed his personal memories and a thoughtful eulogy online, which is quoted and excerpted in many of the obituaries. Special thanks also to Leonard Neubauer, Bebe's second husband and a respected, creative writer, for his thoughtful communications with me around the time of Bebe's death.)

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Selected Photos 


 Let's first look at two publicity photographs taken of the Barrons around the time they had finished their score for "Forbidden Planet", in early 1956. I've scanned and hand tweaked the best print versions I could find of these reasonably well known photos that Bebe had saved (with results cleaner and higher res than other postings I've seen online). The first is an overall view of the main portion of their studio, which was crammed into the rear portion (you can make out an adjacent building's side window) of their Greenwich Village apartment. It was located at 9 West 8th street, not far from Fifth Avenue. Since there seem to be no descriptions online of the equipment they used, let me describe what I can make out in these photos, including some educated guesses.

(click for large image)

 Starting at the left, there's a set of shelves with boxed 7" tapes and metal tape reel hubs, and some other related tools. To Bebe's right side is a vertically mounted heavy duty quarter-inch mono tape recorder. At first I thought it might be an Ampex 200, it's hard to tell from this shot. But the configuration is smaller than the 200. It's probably an early Presto studio recorder. That looks like the recorder's electronics in the rack above, with the front plate removed. There's a professional Weston VU meter just below that, the model that Presto recorders usually featured. (Still have many of these rugged, dependable Weston and Simpson meters in my own studio.)
You can spot the small "handy light" clipped to the side of the rack, no doubt for help when splicing tapes on this machine. It appears that there's a horizontally mounted second tape deck just behind Bebe. There's a compact metal-box enclosed meter right above it, which could be a VU meter or even a voltmeter. Just behind Louis is the studio's master monitor loudspeaker. Looks to me like a large custom bass reflex cabinet with a 12" driver. I know in other places they described it as being a very high quality monitor. Louis is adjusting the controls of what probably are some of their home-brew sound generating circuits. You can make out several vacuum tubes sticking straight out from the panel or chassis. The power amplifier probably is also located here. Down below a single rack panel might be the power supply for their custom sound generation circuits. Again, there's a handy light clipped onto the top of the rack above.
Immediately in front of the window, partially covered by some papers, is what may be a record turntable (is that the rear of a tone arm on the top left?). Otherwise, I assume this is another tape recorder, with its controls on the light colored tilted front panel just below. The next cabinet (function unknown -- more shelves which are accessible from the right?) also provides a convenient support for a 16 mm projector. They'd have needed to refer to film footage often, and no doubt had a small projection screen located behind us and to the left in this view. My knowledge of 50s film gear is dusty, but I think it's a vintage Ampro sound projector, of the kind often found in schools of the time. Behind the main rack you can make out some other shelves stacked with boxes, supplies and other equipment. I like the homey touch of a TV tray-table placed directly in front of Louis. You don't see those often anymore, but I wore out a couple of them when I began to build my own home-brew studios -- they're very handy when you need a safe place to stow something temporarily.
Bebe is seen adjusting the controls of their master mixer. It has an angled top panel (might be a radio station mixer) with no doubt the usual large knobbed rotary faders that were popular then. In many ways such rotary attenuators remain a more precise way to set levels, as your wrist senses/indexes the setting without any need to look. But of course for masses (= more than 4!) of faders, the side-by-side linear sliders now popular are easier to handle, as long as you look down frequently to check on what you're doing...! Note that in front of the large oscilloscope whose back is to the camera (more easily seen in the next photo) several custom generators rest on a length of perforated masonite, perhaps for insulation purposes (the current used in such tube gear was frequently several hundred volts -- bzzt! ).

(click for large image)

 The second photo in the 8th Street studio is taken facing nearly the opposite direction, towards the workbench and oscilloscope where Louis assembled the "cybernetic circuits" which generated the unique timbres of their early electro-acoustic music. My goodness, but don't they both look terribly "serious?" Look, when you're working on something EVERYone around you (secretly) thinks is weird, crazy, or at the very least an act of mind-numbing folly (ah yes, I remember it well...), you need all the "serious image" you can muster...!
You can clearly see the face of the oscilloscope, the large box whose rear panel is seen in the first photo, in front of Bebe. A much smaller multimeter is conveniently perched on top of it. In this second view, Bebe is holding a ubiquitous aluminum 10-1/2" tape reel. Then check out the steel shelf unit which sits against the wall behind them. It's filled with many boxes containing such reels, work tapes and masters, some LPs, and miscellaneous studio and office supplies. To the far left you have a closer view of the film reels on their 16 mm sound projector, sitting on its pedestal. I believe on the floor that's a small dynamic mike we can see, mounted on a short stand and trailing a shielded cord as it peeks out from behind Louis's right elbow.
Behind Bebe on the wall is a calendar whose date I sure wish I could read. Below that is a desk or table containing, among other things, an office dispenser of wide adhesive tape, some additional paper work, Bebe's coffee cup (Louis's is in front of him), and several 10-1/2" tape boxes in a small stack. The custom circuitry from this view looks like a snarly mess, although as these things go, you could probably trace it all out with a bit of time and patience. I think that the small angled black box just in front of the circuits may be a resistor or capacitor substitution box -- a reasonable accessory. You can make out the top left edge of their mixing board in front of that, but it's cut off in this photo. I love the practical touch of a naked bulb floorstand lamp to the side of the projector. Good lighting is important in a creative workspace, and these were days in which most lighting was quite clumsy, heavy and inconvenient, so why not a domestic lamp with its shade removed?
As you can see, all of the basics of an early "tape studio" are nicely represented, and it's laid out pretty effectively, for access by two collaborators with overlapping tasks. Louis concentrated on designing the creative circuitry, often consisting of balanced diode bridges, ring modulating variations, or unstable positive feedback oscillatory circuits, which generated their idiosyncratic sounds and effects. Notably, these were often captured as a circuit was being overdriven to an absurdly stressful degree -- right before it blew up (I kid thee not)! And Bebe recorded and edited the raw tracks, mixed and assembled these elements into musical shapes and forms befitting the purpose at hand. It's significant that this was being done at the same time Ussachevsky and Luening were putting together their tape music pieces way uptown at Columbia University, based on piano, flute and oscillator sounds. Meanwhile in Europe there were similar pioneers at work with related approaches, each sort of reinventing similar "wheels", as the initial steps of electro-acoustic music were being defined. Fascinating... the inevitability of an idea whose time had finally come, no?

© Photograph scans Copyright 2008 Bebe Barron and Serendip LLC.

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 It was a matter of great serendipity that I learned the address of the Barron's NYC apartment early this year, from a mutual friend, Pete Grenader, who now manufactures one of the finest lines of retro and completely new creative analog synthesis modules, under his company name, Plan B, which is based in Los Angeles. I "met" Pete via e-mail just around the time SEAMUS wanted to present me their award (he's was among those who talked me into accepting it), and we've still to have a real f2f visit, although we stay in frequent touch via technology. He'd been a close friend of Bebe's, one of the last people in the EAMusic field to visit with her before her untimely death. (Pete's description of the way they sat facing each other, chatting away, with her gripping his hand so earnestly, is an image I'll not soon forget.)

(click for larger view)

 When it became obvious that Bebe's health was failing to such an extent that a long planned return visit to New York would probably never now take place, I "plotted" to share at least a small vicarious look-see with her and her writer husband, Leonard, of what the old building now looked like. So on the next non-marrow-freezing morning (yeah, we had a cold winter this year), I grabbed my small digital camera and set off to find it.
It was an instance of ironic silliness -- here I've walked by those buildings many times in all the years I've lived in New York, but never knew the history of this particular modest apartment, one with such a particular significance to me, as well. It was easy to find, and on an overcast, slightly soggy morning in early February, I paused several times to try to capture a bit of the look of the place, and the adjoining buildings. It's in fairly decent shape, better than many nearby. No, I couldn't get inside, although I could peek in and make out a tiny entrance foyer. I didn't (and, alas, STILL don't know) what floor their apartment was located on. From the top photo above it would appear to face the rear (North), on an upper floor.

(click for larger view)

 Few people were out walking that early morning, and no one bothered, or even noticed me. After taking a few overview shots from the other side of the street, I crossed back to inspect the entranceway. Here's the front door, a nondescript charcoal-brown painted steel door. Looks pretty secure. The thoughts of the Barrons using that door each day, many creative other people from the 50s passing through to visit and collaborate, half a century ago, filled my thoughts: Nin, Schary, Cage... and others who collaborated with Louis and Bebe, in their home-built, pioneering recording studio.

(click for larger view)

 The entrance buzzers look relatively new, mounted on an engraved stainless steel plate. I wonder what was there in the mid 50s? If this were France, England, Germany or another such country which instinctively values its creative artists, there would be a small plaque located somewhere here to mark what surely is the most important page of musical history for 9 West 8th. I recall seeing such a plate on the entrance to the door to the apartment in Paris in which Ravel composed his score to Daphnis and Chloe. This door bears no such encomium.

(click for larger view)

 Step back a few feet, then turn and look up, and you'll see the way the building looks some 50 years since it housed that historical studio. I wonder what color it was when the Barrons lived and worked here? When Bebe saw these same photos, she sent a kind message back to me to thank me, but didn't allude to the color (nor give me the floor or apartment number I asked about). So I guess it's even possible that the Hermiston or Brick Red shade might date back to their years, just repainted a couple of times since then. From this and the sat photos on Google, you can see that it's a small apartment house, like many in this neighborhood, perhaps 20' wide, and not much more than 60' deep. The rooms inside would be less than half that size, front and rear on each floor. My own first studio was in a room of similar size. It can be a challenge, but there are many even smaller private studios in use around the globe. (Of course our circuitry is FAR more compact -- this was all bulky, heavy, hot, tube gear!)

(click for larger view)

 I thought Bebe would enjoy a glance of the large arch at the entrance to Washington Square Park, just down the block, as appears today, and took this final photo as I started back home. This is the corner of Fifth Avenue (which begins at the Arch) and 8th Street, facing South. See, not many people out in the chilly, spitty, sullen weather, although most days and evenings this neighborhood "features" high pedestrian and street traffic (and growing worse with each passing year).
Since I'd been in touch with Pete the day before taking these, I quickly made up a folder with a selection of good quality jpegs and sent them off to him in LA, since I had no address for Bebe and Leonard. Pete sent them on the same day. Bebe had just gotten home from the third of several recent observation visits to the hospital, and was there to see the unexpected mailing. I feel VERY lucky we pulled this off when we did, as she went back in the hospital yet again within a week. And that shaky reality was to dominate the final two months of her eventful life.ar!)

(click for larger view)

 Bonus Photo- I'd like to thank Susan Stone, who interviewed (and became friends with) Bebe as part of a definitive 2005 NPR "Morning Edition", for allowing us to share this recent lovely photo she took of Leonard and Bebe. It originally appeared in conjunction with that excellent interview, conducted at Bebe's home in CA. I loved the photo when I first saw it in a smaller online version, and it makes the perfect ending to this selection of photos -- a charming way to remember Bebe...

Postscript: After proofing this new page for, hopefully the last time (of dozens), assuming it done, I decided to watch the DVD of "Forbidden Planet" again this evening. First time in some 2-1/2 years (right after Bebe's death I was too emotional to see it). It's still a wonderful film, the best of its time. And the "Electronic Tonalities" undeniably elevate the experience to a higher, un-clichéd emotional level. Schary sure made the right choice to put his film's score into Louis and Bebe's adept hands. I remain unrepentantly impressed with its musicality and dramatic force. How'd they DO that with such modest tools?
Many passages contain a definite melodic flavor (so difficult to create at this time), with a strong harmonic underlay. It doesn't sound like "notes" of spliced together pieces of tape (which is the way we still had to do it in the CPEMC several years later). But since they DID pull-off dense splicing for the Cage "Willams Mix", they probably were unusually deft with it. I'd bet they constructed small banks of microswitches and controls to "play" some of the elements. And for a few of their effect elements (i.e, the saucer landing) I suspect we're hearing reversed tape playback. It's definitely mono (which MGM "panned" with their pseudo-stereo Perspecta System).
There's also a characteristic "pulsation" not unlike the throb of a pipe organ tremulant. Was that a dedicated amplitude modulation circuit? Doesn't sound like tape echo, but it could be one pass tape delay. And finally, the score is quite layered, even though their small studio had only 2-3 tape recorders. Some of the cues may be combininations of multiple taped elements which were edited and blended during the filmmix. Even though I've worked with this medium most of my life (and as with the Barron's other music), I feel a conjurer's magic element going on though all of it. Created in just three months, too, scoring to footage. Amazing. Applause.

--Wendy Carlos, New York City, July 2008

© Photographs Copyright 2008 Wendy Carlos and Serendip LLC.

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