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

North stated that Kubrick “was direct and honest with me concerning his desire to retain some of the ‘temporary’ music tracks which he had been using for the past years. I realized that he liked these tracks, but I couldn’t accept the idea of composing part of the score interpolated with other composers.” North previously confided to Marlin Skiles (in the book Music Scoring for TV & Motion Pictures) that Kubrick had become “so accustomed to hearing these tracks that when I came with something that I thought was contemporary in sound, he used what I would call a Victorian sound approach to a film that demanded something more progressive.”

In December 1967, North agreed to write the score with friend Henry Brant (with whom he had worked on Cleopatra and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? among others) as the orchestrator. He began furiously writing on Christmas Eve in order to make the January recording sessions, which took a physical and mental toll on North, resulting in him having to attend the first recording date at Anvil Studios in Buckinghamshire “in an ambulance,” according to de Wilde in Benson’s Space Odyssey. Brant went on to conduct the session with North supervising from the booth.

Despite the sessions going well, North could not help but succumb to cynicism, stating in the 1993 album’s liner notes that he “had the hunch that whatever I wrote to supplant Strauss’s ‘Zarathustra’ would not satisfy Kubrick,” continuing to rhetorically ask, “How could I compete with Mendelssohn’s ‘Scherzo’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Well, I thought I did pretty damned well in that respect.”

North recorded over 40 minutes of the score over two weeks in January and afterwards had spoken to Kubrick about modifications for the following sessions. However, North would shortly be informed that his work on the film was finished, revealing that he “received word from Kubrick that no more score was necessary, that he was going to use breathing effects for the remainder of the film. It was all very strange, I thought perhaps I would still be called upon to compose more music; I even suggested to Kubrick that I could do whatever was necessary back in LA at the MGM studios. Nothing happened.”

The next thing North knew, he was watching the film at a studio screening in New York, where his music was nowhere to be heard, although there are suggestions he suspected something had gone wrong, with Kubrick alleging that North’s agent called the director threatening him about removing the score.

Kubrick would later tell Ciment, fairly harshly, that North’s score was not up to scratch, stating that he “had laid in temporary music tracks for almost all of the music which was eventually used in the film. Then, in the normal way, I engaged the services of a distinguished film composer to write the score. Although he and I went over the picture very carefully, and he listened to these temporary tracks (Strauss, Ligeti, Khatchaturian) and agreed that they worked fine and would serve as a guide to the musical objectives of each sequence he, nevertheless, wrote and recorded a score which could not have been more alien to the music we had listened to, and much more serious than that, a score which, in my opinion, was completely inadequate for the film.”

Perhaps another statement of Kubrick’s to Ciment revealed his thinking more transparently: “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?”

Kubrick’s true intentions about the score have subsequently been discussed. Townson had said that Kubrick’s hiring of North was due to pressure from MGM, something Schurmann could not confirm but did not express surprise at, given the relative embryonic nature of using classical music as score (which itself mirrors the cyclical nature of cinematic techniques, as classical music was used to soundtrack both silent and early sound pictures). However, Brant had said to film music journalist Paul A. Markley (in the Journal of Film Music article) that North had said that Kubrick had told him that “if he had been able to get the permissions he needed, his score for the film would have been a fait accompli.”

Adding to this, North’s wife, Anna Höllger-North, made her feelings clear to Michael McDonagh in 1998, stating about Kubrick (via Markley’s Journal of Film Music article), “All along he was trying to clear the rights to the temp track music so he really under pretext had Alex compose the score, and I always thought that was unfair. Kubrick managed to clear the rights and Alex was never told that. We went to see 2001 in New York and were very surprised when Alex’s music — not a note of it — was in the film.”

Alex North’s 2001

One of the good things Kubrick had done for North was to allow him to keep his work for 2001. The rights, the ownership, the materials — all was given to North, which eventually found its way into the hands of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The late film historian Nick Redman, who had previously produced acclaimed documentaries on The Searchers and The Wild Bunch as well as hundreds of soundtrack albums, had the masters for the score digitally archived, and after permission was received from North’s son Dylan and Jan Harlan on behalf of the Kubrick estate, an album of unused material was released in 2007 by Intrada Records.

There had been the aforementioned 1993 recording of the score conducted by Goldsmith with the National Philharmonic Orchestra for the Varèse Sarabande label, but the later release was the first time the original tracks had been heard.

North’s score is a fascinating artifact, especially with the inevitable comparison to the classical tracks Kubrick had placed. What must be noted is the difficulty in listening to North’s score objectively; perhaps experiencing the music isolated from the images of the film is the purest way to approach North’s music with a clear mind, although it is also fairly simple to hear the music with Kubrick’s film. All that is required is a copy of the film and the album. In the liner notes of the latter, journalist Jon Burlingame provides timings for the tracks.

Listening to the music, you can identify and understand North’s thought process behind the score, with the composer trying to remain faithful to the temporary tracks Kubrick had selected, at least in terms of structure and sometimes rhythm, as well as wanting to create a sonic landscape that interprets Kubrick and Clarke’s thematic material while matching the abstract nature of the film. “My score was more contemporary,” North told film music writer Randall Larson in 1994 for Cinefantastique, “more rhythmic or pulsating than the score that was eventually used. Because no personalized story involved, the music is what I refer to as objective writing. It’s more impersonal, and that allowed me to make broad statements, musically.”

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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)