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’s score begins ambiguously, with dissonant strings echoing the desolate Namib desert of eons ago. A sense of beauty imbues the cue and the eerie, alien feel matches the breathtaking imagery quite wonderfully, although when Moonwatcher and the hominids are first introduced, the music seems to fit less and less. Perhaps through a synergy of sorts, some of North’s music for the clan shares similarities with Goldsmith’s score for Planet of the Apes released the same year (although composed and recorded in 1967). The cue “Night Terrors,” which scores the apes hiding from their carnivore predators, conjures a real sense of fear for the scene, and the curious string lines bring unpredictability.

North’s music for the famous scene where Moonwatcher discovers how to use tools through the grasp of a bone is quite close to the track that would eventually play there, Strauss’ “Zarathustra,” with stately brass creating a rather fine build-up to the pivotal moment where he wields the bone as a club. Interestingly, the music for that moment is quite triumphant but feels more personal for Moonwatcher and less of the effect Kubrick intended, with the echo of evolution in his mind, something the Strauss piece certainly does with more of a dimensionality.

In the same vein, the space docking cues have at least a superficial similarity to “The Blue Danube,” with playful woodwinds and strings dominating and a lovely serene melody scoring the appearance of the stewardess picking Floyd’s pen out of the air. North’s music for the Moonbus is much more unsettling. The staccato brass and the female chorus brings to mind the great music of Akira Ifukube and his scores for the Godzilla series, with the eerie atmosphere underlining the mystery of what is happening on Clavius. Kubrick himself said of the cue, as recounted in Space Odyssey “It’s a marvelous piece of music, a beautiful piece, but it doesn’t suit my picture.”

Perhaps this was North’s attempt at matching the idiosyncrasies of Ligeti; there is a cue orchestrated by Brant that Merkley theorizes was written to supplant the instances of Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” with the curious title “Dr. North’s and Dr. Brant’s Secret Formula For Space Flight,” written for trumpets, glockenspiel, celesta, harpsichord, xylophone, vibraphone, harp, marimba, and timpani. This cue was not recorded by Goldsmith and did not appear on the Intrada album, either, so there are questions as to whether it was even ever recorded.


2001: A Space Odyssey premiered at the Loews Capitol Theater in New York City on April 3, 1968. Attendants included Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Henry Fonda, and Isaac Asimov, but the reception was not pleasant. Critics had sharpened their knives, and MGM and Kubrick trimmed 19 minutes from the film. Nevertheless, 2001 met with financial success and is now considered one of the greatest pictures ever produced, with some of that down to Kubrick’s innovative use of classical music, something that seems almost quaint now. Kubrick himself used further classical pieces in Barry Lyndon and The Shining.  But while 2001 is regularly lauded, some people have been less kind about the film, both about the use of music itself and the treatment of North.

“I remember seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and cringing at what I consider to be an abominable misuse of music,” said Goldsmith to film music writer Tony Thomas in his book Film Score: The View From The Podium. “I had heard the music Alex North had written for the film, and which had been dropped by Kubrick, and I thought what Kubrick used in its place was idiotic. I am aware of the success of the film but what North had written would have given the picture a far greater quality. The use of the ‘Blue Danube’ waltz was amusing for a moment but quickly became distracting because it is so familiar and unrelated to the visual. North’s waltz would have provided a marvelous effect. He treated it in an original and provocative way. It is a mistake to force music into a film, and for me, 2001 was ruined by Kubrick’s choice of music. His selections had no relationship, and the pieces could not comment on the film because they were not a part of it.”

Bernard Herrmann said, “It shows vulgarity, also, when a director uses music previously composed,” in an address to Eastman College as recounted in his biography, Steven A. Smith’s A Heart At Fire’s Center. “I think that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the height of vulgarity in our time. To have outer space accompanied by ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz, and the piece not even recorded anew! They just used gramophone records…”

However, one perhaps surprising defender was John Williams. “It’s largely cultural association,” he told fellow composer Irwin Bazelon in the latter’s book Knowing The Score, “But what I think Kubrick has shown so wonderfully well is that the associations can be dispelled. Take a thing like the Strauss waltz in 2001. The whole thing about a waltz is grace, and you can see that the orchestra can achieve this. Kubrick takes what is the essence of courtly grace, the waltz, and uses it to accompany these lumbering but weightless giants out in space during their kind of sexual coupling. And even though the Strauss waltz in my mind… it’s the Danube, it’s Viennese awful chocolate cakes and ghastly Viennese coffee… But Kubrick says to us, ‘Watch the film for more than five seconds and forget those associations, and it will stop being 19th-century Vienna,’ and in the hands of Von Karajan the music becomes a work of art that says ‘look,’ that says ‘air,’ that says ‘float’ in beautiful orchestra terms, and if you go with this film, the film helps dispel all of these associations.”

Perhaps the last word belongs to North, whose recollections in the 1993 album liner notes have an undercurrent of schizophrenia that working with Kubrick might have induced. “It was a great, frustrating experience, and despite the mixed reaction to the music, I think the Victorian approach with mid-European overtones was just not in keeping with the brilliant concept of Clarke and Kubrick.” However, he later said that it “was really one of the biggest disappointments in my career. Kubrick never apologized.”

Much has been said of the music of 2001, of Kubrick’s rejection of North’s score, of the harshness of the director’s decision and the way North discovered that first hand. But while still recognizing a failing in communication and potential deception, we can still nevertheless agree that the picture as it stands is one of breathtaking wonder. Especially where its musical choices are concerned.

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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)