Essays · Movies

Beyond The Infinite: Charting The Music of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

The saga of the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is a long one. So grab a cushion.
Red Helmet
By  · Published on June 26th, 2019

It was Kubrick’s wife, Christiane, who hit upon the idea of using the stunningly alien music of Hungarian composer György Ligeti when she heard Ligeti’s 1963-65 piece “Requiem” on the radio. Kubrick heard the Ligeti and immediately had MGM make a deal to use it in the film, along with three of his other works: “Atmosphères” (1961), “Aventures” (1962), and “Lux Aeterna” (1966).

However, the musical work that Kubrick’s film has become inseparable from was recommended by his brother-in-law. According to Benson’s book, Christiane’s brother Jan Harlan was asked by the director for “a big and great piece of majestic music that comes to an end quickly.” Harlan brought some of his LPs to London to play for Kubrick. One of them was a record of Richard Strauss’ music, including “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” his tone poem based on the Friedrich Nietzsche novel of the same name. “He loved already the title,” Harlan told Benson, “and the reason for this I only understood much later when I saw the film.”

While Kubrick’s awareness of the title must have illuminated a thematic link in his brain, Harlan’s tale disproves the oft-pitched explanation that Kubrick explicitly chose ‘”Also Sprach Zarathustra” for its philosophical content, instead of the director actually needing a snappy cue for the opening of the film.

While Strauss was unable to voice any concerns about the use of his music, as he’d been deceased since 1949, Ligeti was alive and pissed. No one had informed him that his music would be used, even though it had been cleared as “background music” by MGM, and according to music critic Alex Ross, he called Kubrick’s film “a piece of Hollywood shit.” While Ligeti came to appreciate the way 2001 utilized his music, he still retained bitterness about the way the situation was handled. German newspaper Die Welt reported in 2001 that Ligeti had said that he “found the way in which my music was used wonderful. It was less wonderful that I was neither asked nor paid.”

Eventually the composer requested compensation. “I wasn’t involved…” he told journalist Dorle J. Soria for a December 1973 High Fidelity/Musical America article (quoted in The Journal of Film Music), “They took the music from my recordings. I knew nothing about it. When I heard about the film, I wrote MGM and producer Stanley Kubrick. They wrote back: ‘You should be happy. With this movie you have become famous in America.’ I wrote back: ‘I am not happy. You took my music and you did not pay me.’ But I didn’t want to sue. I am not so commercial. Lawyers met. In the end I got $3,500.”

North Goes South

The “most traumatic shock of my life” is how North described his reaction to seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. Giving interviews in the 1970s, he talked about going to see the picture at a screening in New York City with no understanding that any of his material had been removed, despite a sense of cynicism and apprehension about Kubrick’s attachment to music as he had previously discovered. The interesting thing is that North had previously composed the score for Kubrick’s 1960 gladiatorial epic Spartacus, which became one of the composer’s most celebrated works.

Prior to that, Kubrick had mostly used original scores in his early films. Fear and Desire (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955), and Paths of Glory (1957) were all scored by Gerald Fried, who is mostly known for his celebrated music for the original Star Trek series, while Lolita (1962) was scored by Nelson Riddle. While Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) was scored by British composer Laurie Johnson, the music in the film that is best remembered is Vera Lynn‘s “We’ll Meet Again” as heard over the montage at the end of the picture.

North wasn’t even the first composer considered for the film. Rumors circulated that German composer Carl Orff may have been approached by Kubrick. Bernard Herrmann told critic Royal S. Brown in 1975 that the director “spoke to me to do the film, and I said to Kubrick, ‘No. You want me to do it, I’ll do it for double my fees, two pictures.'”

In 1966, Kubrick hired British composer Frank Cordell, who had previously scored the Tony Hancock comedy The Rebel and the epic adventure Khartoum. However, reports suggest Cordell was not necessarily contracted to score 2001 but instead explore variations on “Symphony No. 3,” spending a year adapting Mahler’s work. The composer was not shown any material from the film and instead asked to go by Kubrick’s descriptions.

According to first assistant editor David de Wilde, that eventually led to illness from a lack of response from Kubrick. “I know poor Frank had a nervous breakdown afterward, that I can tell you,” de Wilde relayed to Benson in Space Odyssey. “Poor man. He came to see me. He was asking me, ‘What’s going on? When will I get to see the film? When will he talk to me?’ His nerves were shot, and Stanley had that effect on people. Stanley used to put the fear of God into people, without doing anything.”

Hired as a consultant of sorts was composer Gerard Schurmann, who had worked as an orchestrator on such pictures as Exodus and Lawrence of Arabia and had scored a number of smaller films. Kubrick “had asked me to stand by as a composer and musical consultant,” Schurmann told writer William H. Rosar in a 2001 email (via Paul A. Merkley in the Journal of Film Music article). “What we did during each meeting consisted mainly of Stanley playing me recordings of a variety of classical pieces and discussing their possible use in the film. I remember that the ‘Blue Danube’ waltz was already being considered by him with a distinct gleam in his eye.” Kubrick had also asked Schurmann about using Orff’s music, notably the infamous opera Carmina Burana, which the composer discouraged, but he believed Ligeti was a great fit for the film’s abstract nature.

Following that consultancy, Kubrick was moved to hire North. Even before working with the director on Spartacus, North’s pedigree as a film composer was of the highest order. His sultry jazz score for Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire still remains a powerhouse and a milestone in film music history, and after his first time with Kubrick, he had written acclaimed scores for Viva Zapata!, Cleopatra, and Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy.

His thoughts on his experience working on 2001 were compiled by producer Robert Townson for the liner notes of a 1993 album of North’s newly re-recorded score, conducted by North’s friend Jerry Goldsmith. “I was living in the Chelsea Hotel in New York,” North said, “and got a phone call from Kubrick from London asking me of my availability to come over and do a score for 2001. I was ecstatic at the idea of working with Kubrick again (Spartacus was an extremely exciting experience for me)… and to do a film score where there were about 25 minutes of dialogue and no sound effects!…”

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Charlie Brigden is the author of many fine soundtrack liner notes and Blu-ray booklet essays and some call him a film music expert. He also recorded a commentary for Howard the Duck. You can find him on Twitter here: @brigdenwriter. (He/Him)