The Sounds of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Spacy Odyssey
Recently, Film Twitter was abuzz with a pressing question: how many old movies do young critics need to see? The topic came up in response to younger aspiring critics, some of whom thought it unrealistic to have seen as many films as their grayer elders, and a few who professed outright disinterest for films more than a few decades old. The discussion was mostly inflamed by straw men fears — the vast majority of critics support seeing as many old movies as possible. Beyond questions of feasibility, the biggest argument against critics who don’t care for older films is that the best older films can feel as fresh today as they did decades ago. Perhaps the ultimate example of that perpetual newness is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s great advances with 2001 have seldom been attempted by other filmmakers, and rarely have those others been successful. The film is a paradox, a 50-year-old movie that always feels fresh and exciting — and a bit dangerous.
Though 2001: A Space Odyssey has a tripartite structure, the final segment often eclipses the first two in discussions. That finale is the strongest section, yet it’s still worth spending a little time with the important early acts. But before any of that, the prelude. The opening credits of 2001 signal to modern viewers that they’re in for something special, something grand. Though it’s an MGM film, the classic roaring lion that has existed in various forms for decades was briefly replaced in the late 1960s with an illustrated, silent lion. It’s faintly psychedelic and suggests a new spin on old traditions — a fitting pairing with 2001. During the logo we start to hear a low humming noise. While it sounds a bit like the rumble of a spaceship, it’s actually the lower register of an organ (with double bass and bassoon) leading into Richard Strauss’ opening movement of Also sprach Zarathustra (1896).
Strauss titled his first movement “Sunrise,” and Kubrick uses it faithfully, but also augments it to his own purposes. Rather than a sunrise on the horizon, we’re displaced in space. As the moon rotates, we first see Earth far in the distance, before the sun peeks out above its horizon. It’s a glorious, majestic shot, made all the more stirring by Strauss’ monumental music. In only a few seconds, Kubrick telegraphs just how far from Earth his adventure will take us.
He’s also communicated through the music he has selected. Zarathustra was always well known among classical music aficionados, and Strauss himself had a rare degree of success that crossed over into the mainstream for a while during his long life (he died at age 85 in 1949), but the “Sunrise” opening now exists in our collective memory because of Kubrick’s film. When music and images are paired so perfectly together, it’s no longer possible to separate them. Music selection was always an important aspect of Kubrick’s filming process, but he had previously favored more obvious choices (and used film scores on his earlier films). Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) featured music chosen for its ironic power. It wasn’t until 2001 that Kubrick’s mastery of musical sequencing took hold. At this point, his soundtrack selections would both comment on and bolster the images on screen.
The next major musical sequence occurs in the first part of the triptych. We’re now back on Earth (“The Dawn of Man”), and ape-like humanoids live in small clans on the Savannah, fighting over meager puddles of water and in constant fear of predators. Interrupting these routines is the obsidian black monolith, which appears one morning unannounced. It’s a stark intrusion of something clearly modern and foreign into the prehistoric world. Kubrick scores the monolith’s first appearance with the “Kyrie” movement of György Ligeti’s Requiem (1965). Although the singers are performing a Latin mass, the vocals sound more like screams and gulps of fear. On one hand, Christian religious music is a strange choice for this seemingly pagan scene, but Kubrick’s wry sense of humor is at play here — the monkey men slowly approach the object with fear and awe, as if it is a religious symbol of some sort. Kubrick isn’t merely a musical trickster here, though; his musical selection needs to work for viewers with no knowledge of the deeper connections. Ligeti’s Requiem, composed of dense cluster chords and microtonal passages (pitches in between the typical notes of Western music), sounds frightening to most listeners. Even viewers raised on horror films, with their densely atonal scores, will still be made uneasy by what a master composer can do when he’s trying to break down a musical language.
A word about this kind of atonal music: with very few exceptions, this dissonant, modernist music was nearly absent from Hollywood prior to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Most film composers worked with an older musical language that went back to German masters like Mahler and Strauss, maybe even new composers like Stravinsky, but the current avant-garde was strictly off-limits (perhaps because it would scare most viewers who weren’t up to date with contemporary classical music). Kubrick was one of the first to bring this music to a wider audience. He did it again most aggressively in The Shining (1980), which featured Krzysztof Penderecki’s frightening, dissonant early works (plus some more of Ligeti’s music in a similar style). Aside from the synthesizer-heavy horror scores of the 1980s, most modern scary movies feature music that apes Ligeti and Penderecki’s strident achievements, to diminishing effect.
In 2001’s second section, detailing a trip to the moon to investigate a second monolith, Kubrick opts for something lighter — Johann Strauss II’s The Blue Danube (1866). The waltz soundtracks a trip aboard a spaceship from the earth to a base orbiting the moon. The sequence reaches back all the way to the beginning of cinema, echoing the way Charlie Chaplin would have used a dance number to score some everyday occurrence, even as it points far into the future. That a ship docking could be considered “balletic” is evidence of Kubrick’s highly controlled visual sense; even mundane acts become beautiful when seen through his camera.
Later in the segment, Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) cruises above the surface of the moon toward the monolith. Kubrick returns to the modernist vein, scoring the sequence with Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna (1966). Scored for choir only, the music is at first quite beautiful and relaxing. It fits the grandeur of the lunar surface Floyd is traversing. But as he and his fellow scientist enter the pit and approach the monolith, the voices become more harried, more dissonant. A streak of madness enters the music.
There have been great film composers since the dawn of talkies, but they tend to work in simpler modes. The subtlety of Ligeti’s concert music is rarely matched by even the best film composers. In Kubrick’s own words: “However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart, or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time?”
The Lux Aeterna is abruptly interrupted by the transition to the final sequence: the trip to Jupiter. The introduction of the Discovery One spaceship is scored with Aram Khachaturian’s “Adagio” from the ballet, Gayane (1939). Although Kubrick initially revels in the splendor and monumental size of the spaceship, the music is plaintive and sorrowful. The choice makes more sense when we see inside the ship; Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) is jogging around the craft’s rotating spindle, as lonely as a hamster in its wheel, and the Discovery One is just as alone in the vast emptiness of space. The Blue Danube scored a bustling kind of space travel, full of passengers, flight attendants, and pilots. The “Adagio” is reserved for the more solitary voyage of Poole and Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea).
The final musical sequence (save for a reprise of Zarathustra) returns to a suite of Ligeti’s work. “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” opens with a reprise of Ligeti’s Requiem, which segues into Atmosphères. Atmosphères (1961) was originally used as a pre-film overture; the screen remains blank while Ligeti’s densely shifting music overwhelms the audience. The clusters of strings and winds seems to shift fluidly, moving between the conventional note distinctions, becoming a tsunami of sound. As an overture, it is Kubrick’s way of signaling what the audience is in for before the film even begins. Just as most audiences had never heard anything like Ligeti’s music prior to 2001, none had seen anything as visually challenging as the final trip sequence. Although provocateurs like Roger Corman had been mining psychedelia and drug use as material for years, Kubrick’s acid trip was the closest thing to the real deal that had been put on film at that point. I feel a bit sorry for anyone who drops acid at the start of 2001 — it might be a rather distressing trip.
As Dave Bowman hurtles through the cosmos and beyond, the music segues again to the final Ligeti piece, Aventures (1963). Like the Requiem, it stretches the boundaries of traditional composition. Written for three singers and seven instrumentalists, the piece explores a variety of moods, from comedy to horror. The three singers play multiple roles, but they’re not performing actual words or texts — Ligeti gives them nonsense sounds of his own creation to recite. The bizarre piece can get a chuckle out of audiences, although it’s also quite startling at times. It’s a wise accompaniment for Bowman’s entrance into a room seemingly out of time, split between Louis XVI-style decorations and a space-age paneled floor. Ligeti’s music hearkens back to more ornate traditions — just as the chair and table that the rapidly aging Bowman dines at do — yet it also seeks to demolish those traditions (as Bowman’s human body is rapidly demolished in favor of something new).
Kubrick does something unusual with the end credits of 2001 when he gets to the music section. Rather than crediting the individual pieces and their writers/performers, he devotes a title card to each of the composers featured in the film. He recognizes the importance of preexisting music more than any director before or since. Ligeti, in particular, could almost be seen as the film’s actual composer. His music is so central to the movie that the picture’s impact would have been diminished without his astounding, frightening music. And yet, his scores weren’t always going to be included in 2001. Kubrick had originally enlisted Alex North, who previously composed the score for Spartacus, to compose. North’s score was recorded, and survived until the late stages of the production. You can find it online, and I encourage you to do so; the score makes the case for why it was so important that Kubrick jettison it. North’s work is perfectly fine, but we wouldn’t be here talking about 2001 if Kubrick had kept it.
It’s de rigueur to talk about Stanley Kubrick’s filmography in terms of his visuals, and understandably so. Perhaps it was due to his early career as a photographer, but few filmmakers have as keen an eye for fascinating and sometimes beautiful images. But a Kubrick film isn’t just about the images on screen — it’s also about the sounds he placed with those images, and particularly the music he selected. Nearly every Kubrick film is a masterpiece, and all feature excellent scores that embolden their images. Still, none do it quite like 2001: A Space Odyssey. More than any of his other films, it allows us to close our eyes and hear his movie with our ears. But it’s a lot more fun if you keep them open.