Sunday 22 September 2013

‘The Return of the Monster from the Id’ now available on BBC i-Player

‘The Return of the Monster from the Id’, my BBC Radio 3 piece for the Between the Ears slot on the story behind Bebe and Louis Barron’s extraordinary soundtrack to the 1956 M-G-M science-fiction fantasy Forbidden Planet is currently on BBC i-Player. Produced by Mark Burman, it features personal accounts from the Barrons themselves recorded on two separate occasions. Most of the comments and statements made in the show by Bebe are from an interview recorded by Mark in LA sometime in the 1990s. He had called her up on the off-chance of meeting her and recorded about two hours of material with her – this has never been broadcast before. The interview with Louis Barron, in which Bebe also participates but to far lesser extent, was recorded in the mid 1980s for a US public radio show and is extremely rare. The session took place about two or three years before Louis’s death; and from the unedited tapes, in which you can hear him fire up several cigarettes and occasionally break off to cough his lungs up, it’s not hard to figure what killed him in the end.

The Forbidden Planet OST is one of those disastrous successes that haunt art in the late twentieth century: the Barrons never got a chance to work in Hollywood again and felt cheated of an Oscar nomination for their own on the movie. M-G-M even went so far as to downgrade their music to ‘electronic tonalities’ in the credits, and the true nature of what Louis and Bebe were producing from their circuits has never been fully understood or explored. Many years ago I included the Forbidden Planet soundtrack album, with its spectacular cover painting by Renate Druks (who also appeared in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome) in The Wire’s notorious ‘100 Records that Set the World on Fire (When No One Was Listening)’ special feature which marked their 175th issue. The richness and complexity of  the Barron’s electronic score was so far in advance of what more academic composers were producing at the time using magnetic tape that it still stands out from what else was being produced in the electronic music studios of the 1950s. Bebe and Louis had an instinctive feel for technology, which – perhaps paradoxically – makes their work sound less primitive than that of their ‘musical’ contemporaries. Go figure.

The only other voice that you hear in the show is electrical engineer Phil Taylor who built us some noise-making circuits based on what technical information he could glean from comments Bebe and Louis had made about their work, plus the few photographs that had been taken of their studio. Phil showed remarkable cheerfulness and forbearance towards Mark Burman and myself as we crashed around his studio outside Stoke on Trent asking him complicated questions, poking at thermionic valvess and getting him to make outlandish noises from the circuit boards he had constructed specially for the occasion. Tormenting and ill-treating circuits was not really in his nature – even though the Barrons had spoken often about ‘torturing them death’ – and it thanks to him that we really got to see circuits as living creatures. The experience sent us back to our copies of Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics: Communication and Control in the Animal and the Machine – even though Phil said he found the book so dry he required serious medication upon finishing it.

A lot of this experience took me back to the world of Welcome to Mars, and it was a real pleasure to become reacquainted with its themes – with my latest book, The Bright Labyrinth: Sex, Death and Design in the Digital Regime, imminent from Strange Attractor Press (watch this space), that is always something to value.

You can find ‘The Return of the Monster from the Id’ by clicking here.

The following copy is from the Radio 3 site:

In 1956 Louis and Bebe Barron birthed the world's first electronic film score with their unearthly soundtrack to M.G.M.'s Forbidden Planet. Ken Hollings considers their act of creation and wonders if the Monster from the Id can ever be re-awakened?
Forbidden Planet was M.G.M.'s lavish leap into science fiction. Fusing Shakespeare's Tempest, pop Freud and pulp SF. Fleetingly Hollywood and the electronic avant-garde embraced to make unworldly music inspired by the new science of cybernetics. The Barrons were close associates of John Cage and at the cutting edge of new technology and music. Their "electronic tonalities", as credited on screen in deference to an anxious musicians union, were groundbreaking for both experimental music film scoring. In the cramped space of their Greenwich Village apartment the Barron's poured current through homemade circuits made up of valves, oscillators and wires. Music, sound effects and character were all arrived at by wiring, art and sweat. The roaring Monster from the Id, the bubbling sounds of Planet Altair IV and the vast caverns of glowing, ancient Krell technology. Even the Krell music, anthem to a long dead race of technologically advanced beings. Audiences and filmmakers were startled by this great musical experiment. It remains one of the most perfect fusions of film and music, defining the way we thought the future would sound. In rare recordings Bebe and Louis Barron relate their adventures in sound.
Meanwhile, somewhere near Stoke, Ken Hollings challenges music boffin Phil Taylor to a hardwired search for the secrets of Krell music and the electronic heartbeat of the Monster from the Id. 

Pictured above: cover for the Bantam Books paperback novelisation of the Forbidden Planet published in 1956; Phil Taylor’s circuits; Phil Taylor and Mark Burman listening for signs of the Monster from the Id; Renate Druks’ sleeve art from the original album release of the Forbidden Planet OST; deadly Krell storage

Monday 9 September 2013

Talking Trash in Venice: Autumn Respawn

Another summer ends and the bloggers, as they must, fly south in the autumn: which also means that after a long period of playing dead I am now back in business again. It has been a busy time for me over the past three months. Most of it has been spent on preproduction for my new book from Strange Attractor Press: ‘The Bright Labyrinth: Sex, Death and Design in the Digital Regime. This is based on the lecture series I have been giving to postgraduate design students at Central St Martins over the past few years and will definitely be out in the autumn. Typography and layout design are by Minus 9’s Rathna Ramanathan with full-spread illustrations by Mr Mathew Frame; which means that, if nothing else, the book is going to be a beautiful thing indeed. I will be posting more on this in the coming weeks.

I have also been working throughout the summer on a new ‘Between the Ears’ piece for BBC Radio 3: an exploration of the amazing ‘electronic tonalities’ created by Bebe and Louis Barron for the MGM science-fiction classic Forbidden Planet. Putting this show together has meant revisiting some of the material from Welcome to Mars, talking to some really interesting people and playing around with some ingenious circuitry. Through their agency, my producer Mark Burman and I are planning to invoke the ‘Monster from the Id’ in the studio so stay tuned. The show will be going out in the next two weeks or so.

Meanwhile, anyone who finds themselves in Venice later this week may like to visit the ‘Salon Suisse’ in the Palazzo Trevisan degli Ulivi, where I will be talking trash with a select panel of researchers and theorists on the evening of Thursday September 12. ‘Low is the New High’ is a public outgrowth of the ‘High Trash’ conference I participated in and blogged about at the start of the summer. This event is actually part of the Venice Biennale and during the course of the evening I will be introducing a screening of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, proving that there really is some point to these art-market equivalents of an international Shriners convention. It also makes complete sense that I should be working on a radio programme about Forbidden Planet, one of the most expensive, high-concept attempts at a science-fiction movie, while at the same time speaking about one of the cheapest and most magnificently lowbrow efforts in the same genre. The fact that both were completed in the same year – 1956, except of course that Plan 9 was able to get a release until 1959 – only makes the comparison all the more poignant.

Also participating in ‘Low is the New High’ will be Dr Jason Pine, Dr Joseph Imorde and Dr Jörg Scheller, whose dedication to the anatomical achievements of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the stirring heavy metal anthems of Motorhead remains an inspiration to us all. The following is from the Salon Suisse catalogue copy:

In the good old days of postmodernism, “Trash” was considered as a criticism of elitist culture. In this regard, it continued the Enlightenment's “criticism from below”. Today, Trash can also be used to strengthen power structures. For instance in the policies of Silvio Berlusconi or in the art of Jeff Koons. Even Luis Vuitton has “trash bags” designed. Proceeding from various case studies, tonight's guests will explore the dialectics of Trash―from King Ludwig II of Bavaria to the Neapolitan music genre to the Berlin “beer pyramid” of contemporary artist Cyprien Gaillard. 

More information can be found by clicking here.

‘Low is the New High’
Palazzo Trevisan degli Ulivi
Campo S.Agnese-Dorsoduro 810
I-30123 Venezia
T +39 041 24 11 810

Pictured above: monsters, monsters, monsters, courtesy of the Italian Tourist Board, Plan 9 from Outer Space and Forbidden Planet