No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, January 01, 2001

The Music of 2001: A Space Odyssey

The opening titles of 2001: A Space Odyssey forge an iconic bond between the simple, dignified fanfare that introduces Richard Strauss' tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) and the astounding beauty of sunrise in space. In 1968, real life, with its mundane soundtrack of control-room procedures, hadn't yet produced live footage of a moon landing. But the realism of that sunrise, combined with Strauss' dramatic music, evokes a powerful response that has nothing to do with flashy graphics or pulse-stirring marches.

Two years after the release of 2001, on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, astronaut Jack Swigert played Also Sprach Zarathustra to his listeners from the aptly-named command module, Odyssey. "This little tape recorder has been a big benefit to us in passing the time away on our transit out to the Moon, and it's rather odd to see it floating like this in Odyssey, while it's playing the theme from 2001," said Swigert during the second of the crew's telecasts. Minutes later, the world heard Lovell say, "Houston, we've had a problem". Hollywood, always trying to improve on reality, substituted Norman Greenbaum's hit 'Spirit in the Sky' in the film Apollo 13 (1995) - the 'wrong tape' being just another glitch on the doomed mission.

Familiar though the awe-inspiring combination of Strauss and sunrise is, it's atypical. The soundtrack of 2001, in common with other 'arthouse' films of the period, doesn't feature much music at all. On the whole, when something's happening, the soundtrack consists simply of the sound - or, during the space scenes, the absence of sound - of what's on screen. There are three audio layers of sound in the film - dialogue (a mere 40 minutes in a film that's 139 minutes long), music, and environmental sound. These layers hardly ever overlap. Music and dialogue are contrasted, rather than conflated. This is not background music, in any sense of the word, but another element of the whole.

2001 may have only narrowly escaped the typical expansive, space-age soundtrack. Kubrick originally commissioned a score from film composer Alex North: they'd worked together before, on Spartacus (1960), for which North had produced a suitably epic score. By 1967, when Kubrick approached North with the first hour of 2001 and his ideas for the atmosphere he wanted to convey, North had composed soundtracks for a clutch of successful films, including Cleopatra (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), and Shoes of the Fisherman (1968).

Even before North began working on a score fitted to the script, however, Kubrick had been editing key scenes in the film using classical music as a temporary track. Arthur C. Clarke writes of seeing some initial edits: "Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream (1826) for the weightless scenes, and Vaughan Williams' Antarctic Symphony (1953) for the lunar sequence and the Star Gate special effects, with stunning results." Neither of these pieces made it through to the final cut. Perhaps Kubrick felt that, as existing 'soundtracks' - the Mendelssohn piece was written as incidental music to Shakespeare's play, and Vaughan Williams based his Seventh, 'Antarctic' Symphony on the film score he produced for Scott of the Antarctic (1948) - they were too directly evocative of other scenes. Instead, he turned to lesser-known works by contemporary composers, though he never relinquished Zarathustra or The Blue Danube.

Kubrick initially suggested to North that the soundtrack he'd composed could be combined with some of these 'temporary' tracks. Eventually, though, both composer and director felt that the classical pieces - divorced from whatever context or meaning they'd originally had - worked best without the distraction of a score more dutifully attentive to each minute of the action. According to Clarke, the composer never really got over the disappointment. "I had the hunch," North noted wryly, "that whatever I wrote to supplant Strauss' Zarathustra would not satisfy Kubrick, even though I used the same structure but brought it up to date in idiom and dramatic punch."

North's unfinished soundtrack, forty minutes long, is now available on CD, and has received favourable reviews. In contrast to some of his other work, it has a harsh, contemporary sound, not dissimilar to Ligeti's dissonant soundscapes. Some of the music does surface in the cinema, though: North reused his 'Space Station Docking' theme as the main theme for Dragonslayer (1981)!

Eschewing the exotic effects favoured by much SF film music of the period, Kubrick used Ligeti's atonal, disquieting pieces to convey menace and alienation, from prehistoric Africa to Jupiter and beyond. The brooding strings of Atmospheres (1961) heighten the insecurity of the apes awakening at the dawn of history out on the veldt. As they discover the monolith, the eerie voices of Ligeti's Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, Two Mixed Choirs and Orchestra (1963-5) illustrate their fear and excitement. Kubrick uses the opening 'double whammy' of music and image - Also Sprach Zarathustra, sunrise - as Moonwatcher, almost in the shadow of the monolith, gazes at the bone in his hand and realises that it can be used. The music alone would indicate a conceptual breakthrough.

We've become used to frame-by-frame edits and sharp snappy cuts. As befits a film that Kubrick and Clarke both described as 'contemplative', some of the edits in 2001 have a calm imprecision, a lack of forced accuracy. It's particularly evident when the scene changes: the music, or lack of it, may not match that change for several beats, subtly increasing the viewer's sense of anticipation. One such moment is when the hurled bone becomes the spaceship. Three beats elapse, as though the music is being 'counted in', before, ever so softly, this new world - and new century - of mechanical perfection is reflected by Johann Strauss' Blue Danube (1867).

We see sunrise in space again, but here it's an inhabited space. The incomplete space station revolves to the strains of the waltz, evoking fairground rides with the faint echo of the oompah band in Strauss's glorious, predictable crescendi and rhythmic emphasis.

Those mechanical music-box harmonies, and the measured pace they force upon the viewer - the ineluctable slowness and precision of the docking procedure - are lost once the astronauts reach the interior of the station. Only in space, where there's no environmental sound, can the music be foregrounded. Music is the privilege of the distanced, godlike observer, watching as the shuttle leaves the station to land gently on the surface of the moon, with pizzicato strings.

The lunar landscape, with a crescent Earth hanging in the black sky (and the camera always facing Earth), is vast and empty. Ligeti's Lux Aeterna (1966) accompanies the moon bus over the dust towards the crater: then the Requiem's layered voices, first heard as the apes approached the monolith, herald the appearance of an identical slab. With a texture like insects humming, the Requiem builds to a climax that is never quite reached: as the men stagger at the sound of the monolith's signal in their helmets, the music fades away.

The Jupiter mission, out in the unimaginable emptiness between planets, is presented to the accompaniment of the 'Adagio' from Gayane (1942), a ballet by contemporary Russian composer Khachaturian. The simple, almost funereal melody is like a lament for lost Earth and for this frail venture of humanity. The Discovery's crew, though they don't know it, are already doomed, and they are very far from home, in a limitless night.

There's no music, and thankfully no muzak, in the future. The space station, the shuttle and the Discovery are calm, quiet workplaces, rather than leisure areas. Two songs survive: Frank's parents sing 'Happy Birthday' to him over a time-lagged radio link, with Khachaturian's melancholy music in the background as counterpoint to their cheerfulness. And HAL, dying, sings 'Daisy, Daisy', slurred and slowing, as Bowman disconnects the elements that comprise HAL's self. Whatever music Bowman treasures from his own youth - presumably during the Sixties, given his age- he leaves it behind, unheard, when he transcends. If anything, this emphasises his alienation and his insignificance: a favourite tune, like HAL's swan song, might add an element of warmth to his personality.

The interval on board Discovery is, paradoxically, one of the calmest and most cheerful episodes of the film. Once HAL announces that an antennae is failing, the routine is broken. Atmospheres is heard again as Poole goes out to check the antennae: when Poole's EVA begins, the music dies away and we are left with the claustrophobic sound of his breathing. Kubrick uses breathing rate throughout as a deceptively straightforward indicator of physical and psychological state. With none of the emotional response that music evokes, it's the simplest accompaniment available, and comprises a surprisingly large percentage of the film's audio track.

With HAL dead, the film, symphonic in structure, shifts into its third and final movement: 'Jupiter and Beyond'. The ghostly chorus of the Requiem is heard once more as the monolith guides Discovery into position. Europa looms as the bass rumbles like distant thunder. As the Star Gate opens, male voices in the Requiem seem to cry out in anguish, like a legion of the damned falling into Hell. And Bowman - and the viewer - are off on the 'ultimate trip', Ligeti's Atmospheres accompanying a lightshow more reminiscent of The Pink Floyd than of serious atonal composition. The unfocussed blur of the experience is reflected by the music's disorienting turbulence. Gradually the music slows and gentles, though it's still punctuated by sudden bursts of feedback-like dissonance, as Bowman's alien surroundings become recognisably a landscape. And finally the music resolves into plaintive dying falls of brass, and Bowman's pod alights in an impossibly 18th-century salon.

The trip isn't over yet. Wordless, distorted vocals, muffled as though heard through a diver's or a spaceman's helmet, contrast with the clean white lines of the room. The music is Ligeti's Adventures (1962): an original recording conducted by Ligeti himself was altered, without permission, for the soundtrack, and the composer took legal action against Kubrick. The original piece features much clearer, oddly sexual vocalisations: though compelling and disturbing in its own right, it's too recognisably human for the definitively alien setting. This Bedlam chorus emphasises Bowman's confusion, especially as he encounters himself and the music fades.

True to form, Kubrick doesn't lessen the impact of Bowman's encounter with the monolith by introducing music, mystical or otherwise. The Blue Danube might suit the room, but it's been used exclusively for space shots, and has more to do with mechanical precision than with the quasi-mystic revelations impressed upon Bowman by his experience. Music at this point, as the elder Bowman witnesses the appearance of his neonatal self, would be a cliché. The silence is deafening.

But at the moment before transcendence, the distant rumbling of the kettledrums - almost below the threshold of hearing - signals that another shift has occurred, as it did with Moonwatcher out on the veldt. And this time there's a sense of resolution, of something both evolving and coming full circle, as Bowman's mystical rebirth sends him back towards the blue Earth. Something new has begun: and on that note, Kubrick leaves his audience with the familiar strains of The Blue Danube, a reassurance after revelation. The film itself lasts, blank-screened, for a good five minutes after the final credits - just Strauss' waltz playing, soothingly, in the dark.

The big-budget space epics of later decades may have commissioned stirring soundtracks from seasoned names, or up-to-the-minute (and thus swiftly outdated) songs from that year's popular stars. Kubrick's use of Ligeti might as well have been bespoke: the chances of his audience being familiar with it were low. But the sweetly familiar waltz is an elegant distancing device: Richard Strauss's version of a momentous dawn as dramatic as any visual cue.

Working with existing recordings, Kubrick edited scenes to fit his 'temporary' soundtrack rather than demanding music to fit a completed scene. Well before the first pop video, this is film shaped by music rather than vice versa. Perhaps that's why the music assumes such importance in 2001: not an afterthought, not wallpaper, but an integral part of the cultural artefact that is 2001.

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