It may have been the emerging popularity of electronic instruments and music during the seventies that made the husband and wife team of Louis and Bebe Barron feel the time was right to finally release a soundtrack album to their feature film debut, plus the fact the composers retained the album rights.
Once branded "Electronic Tonalities" because no one knew what to call their music (since it wasn't performed by traditional instruments), the Barrons were originally contracted to write the futuristic Krell music that Dr. Morbius plays for the visiting (and unwanted) spacemen early into Forbidden Planet, but left alone over eight months, the couple ended up writing enough material to suit the needs of the entire score, plus a whopping level of ingrained sound effects that covered a lot of scene-specific action normally assigned to the sound editors.
In a 2004 article for Film Score Monthly titled "Forbidden Film Score" (Vol. 9, No. 4), Donald John Long covers David Rose's brief involvement with the film until the decision was made to stick with the electronic music, paving the way for the Barrons to cover the whole film - a move that was incredibly risky for the studio's A-level production, but one that really gave experimental music a chance on the big screen.
The Barrons had already scored a short film, Bells of Atlantis (1952), with Anais Nin, and that work, plus earlier compositions, were part of the first steps in creating new sounds using primal audiotape and mixing technology.
When watching Forbidden Planet for the first time, the score comes across like ambient soundscapes & effects than recognizable motifs, textures, and patterns, and that may be a positive aspect when hearing sounds so strange and new: their cumulative effect is partly subconscious, and being initially unrecognizable to our ears already attuned to mainstream sounds, the music never distracts our focus from the film's drama.
The Barrons' score has its own share of motifs that are selectively and specifically used throughout the film, and while some of us might pick up on some of the most obvious, the subtle touches are perhaps impenetrable to all but those familiar with musical composition, or a good pair of ears. Add an obsessive interest, and you get James Wierzbicki's examination of the Barrons' music, as published by Scarecrow Press (and reviewed HERE, at Music from the Movies).
It's an enlightening work that helps us discern some of the components that comprise specific cues, and while a helpful tool when re-listening the soundtrack album, Wierzbicki's comprehensible breakdowns will also help some fans re-discover the music's remarkable functionality when viewing the film anew.
It's then that the film's "Main Titles - Overture" is transformed into a cleverly organized group of core sounds we later hear in specific locations.
Primarily functioning as sound effects, "Deceleration" takes a chord of sounds that are brutally stretched to points where they're screaming for release, and while the cue underscores the Star Trek-like cylinders the crew step into as the ship decelerates before reaching Altair's orbit, it's a hypnotic track, augmented by step-like bleeps that accentuate a crescendo of futuristic technology about to reach its maximum power.
"The Landing" revisits an ascending motif heard in the opening titles, while "Flurry of Dust - A Robot Approaches" underscores Robby's distant approach, as he creates clouds of dust with his transport vehicle. On the original Planet Records LP, the polarity of the panned, watery reverberations and wails is reversed, and indicates some adjustments were made when the album master was transferred to the CD.
Unsurprisingly, the LP is a bit richer in bass, but the CD mastering clips some of the background noise and hiss present in the original recordings. Although billed as a stereo album on LP and CD, it's sometimes a pastiche of true stereo, as in cues like "Nothing Like This Claw Found in Nature!" and "Overture Reprise"; panned effects mimicking stereo, as in the opening bars of "Flurry of Dust" and the trippy "The Mind Booster - Creation of Matter"; or portions within a cue that blossom into stereo, as in "Robby, Make Me a Gown."
In Wierzbicki's book, the author quotes Bebe Barron's own awareness that looping and remixing portions of sounds led to extraordinary levels of noise, and the new sounds unearthed during the sonic degradation process were likely stripped of any overt stereo qualities; when combined with sounds bearing greater dynamics, the results are cues which wobble between kinda stereo, and pseudo-stereo.
Wierzbicki also makes a valid point in regarding the Barron's soundtrack album as a different audio experience, although the represented cues are very faithful to their film counterparts.
Moody cues like "Morbius' study" plays like a foreboding chime, and it's one of several instances in which specific motifs bare an uncanny resemblance to sounds used in Jerry Goldsmith's Logan's Run (1976). It seems a bit far-fetched, but just as filmmakers mimicked specific shots in their own professional feature films (see the link to our Forbidden Planet DVD review at the end of this review for more examples), one wonders if Goldsmith had some fun in adding certain sounds that he found symbolic of the future, or were just personal tributes to a favourite and influential film score.
The aforementioned chimes in "Morbius' Study" do recall the chimes that herald the inhabitants of the domed city in Logan's Run to attend Carousel, and the final seconds of "Battle with the Invisible Monster" (at 2:35) also contains a background drone that recalls the opening bars of Goldsmith's title music, just before the trumpets begin their atonal progression.
The album's longer cues still hold up the best, largely because they contain more diverse narratives and interwoven sound textures. The second half of "Krell Shuttle Ride and Power Station," for example, has weird dripping sounds with grinding, low-level reverberations that collectively evoke the gigantic atmosphere of a power station running at top capacity.
"Battle with the Invisible Monster" is another amazing track that captures the stillness which precedes an assault, and the Id's fight with crewmen that suddenly explodes in a fury of ambient screeches, droning 'warning' style horns, and fried percussion accents that disintegrate into an acrid, ambient smoke.
Just as terrifying is "The Monster Pursues - Morbius is Overcome" because the intersecting tonal shades and distant screaming that start the cue are a natural follow-through to the clear danger the characters tell us is headed their way. The group's frantic run through the triangular Krell doorways and the trio's wait as the monster from the Id burns its way through Krell doors is a major tension point in the film, and the Barrons exploit their beloved tape noise by layering textures with ascending blips and mechanized bass lines that arise from the noise itself. The Id's wailing also brings forth a kind of breathing bass that inhales and exhales as the creature screams and pushes away the molten matter that once was the room's last protective barrier.
It's surprising how little of the score has been sampled or imitated in contemporary film scores, though it might be due to a feeling that the sounds are outmoded, clichéd, and belong to a decade that over-exploited the potential of the Theremin, and the Ondes Martinot. Those fascinated by the beauty of primal analogue electronica will find the Barron's 50 year-old score to be an amazing, and sometimes hypnotic, little treasure.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan