The Barrons of Early Electronic Music

By listening to this music, one perceives how the newly discovered means and structural possibilities of electronic music can awaken in us a completely new consciousness for revelations, transformations and fusions of forms, which would never have been possible with the old musical means, and become increasingly similar to art of the metamorphosis in nature.
— Karlheinz Stockhausen

In 1948, a young couple from Chicago packed up their meager belongings and moved to New York City with little more than a dream of putting their skills with music and electronics to work in new and innovative ways. Landing in bohemian Greenwich Village, Louis and Bebe Barron founded a recording studio, and soon it was filled with otherworldly sounds, groundbreaking minds, and dozens of peculiar-acting homemade circuits. 

There being no electronic instrument manufacturers in existence at the time, at least none making anything targeted at non-academic or institutional markets, the Barrons decided to have a go crafting their own. Being musically inclined and mechanically gifted, the Barrons had an interest in avant-garde music, which lead them to be open to the at times bizarre, at times beautiful, and always fascinating sounds emitting from the home spun circuits they fashioned.

“We never considered what we did to be composing music," the Barrons said. "We were not concerned with note-by-note composition. What we did was build certain kind of simple circuits that had a peculiar sort of nervous system… they had characteristics that would keep repeating themselves.”

While their interest in avant-garde music may not have set them apart from other sound artists of the time, there was a very good reason why the Barron name was retained by the halls of history--they successfully recorded what is likely the first piece of electronic music for magnetic tape composed in America. It was called Heavenly Menagerie (1950). 

How did they achieve such a feat? In short, a little bit of luck, and a whole lot of willpower. A personal connection gave them access to tape recording equipment, including the man who invented the Stancil-Hoffman tape recorder, one of the first made in America post-WWII. They also had a cousin that worked at 3M, and enabled them to have access to some of the earliest batches of magnetic recording tape the company made. With these raw materials, their studio at 9 West 8th Street in Greenwich Village became a hotbed of innovation.

While their tastes ran along similar lines, the couple was gifted differently, with Louis being the circuit designer and electrician, while Bebe was the composer.

Listening to their music today, you can sense their wonder at exploring this new musical territory. Their music and soundtrack work still feels very much like the first step onto an alien planet... perhaps because one of their definitive works is the soundtrack for the classic sci fi film, Forbidden Planet (1956)

Working in New York, they soon met and collaborated with a coterie of early electronic and experimental luminaries, including John Cage, David Tudor, Earl Brown, Morton Feldman and others.  

Another artist with a terrific early electronic sound was the Danish composer, Else Marie Pade.

John Cage’s “Williams’ Mix” is an early example of a tape piece, where hundreds of sounds were spliced together into a collage. In the process, Cage modified the sounds’ envelopes, a common practice by tape manipulators of the day. 

Here's another tape piece, this time composed by Otto Luening.

Bulent Arel was a Turkish composer who worked out of the legendary Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (I've written about this music studio before). He also helped build the electronic music laboratory at Yale University. Arel composed and performed this piece on an early RCA synthesizer.

Here’s another interesting piece created on an RCA synthesizer by Vladimir Ussachevsky. Together with Otto Luening, Ussachevsky founded the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. He was also credited as the first person responsible for specifying the ADSR envelope