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

“I thought this is the end. I’ve had it.” — Alex North

Imagine you are a film composer and you’ve just finished your biggest assignment yet, a score to a film which will surely enter the pantheon of all-time greats. The vibe from the director is a bit strange, especially after he said he didn’t need any more music for the rest of the film, but you nevertheless pat yourself on the back for a job well done and look forward to seeing the film. Later, you sit at a screening at the studio and are transfixed in horror as the opening titles emerge onto the screen, accompanied by someone else’s music.

The film was 2001: A Space Odyssey, the director was Stanley Kubrick, and the composer was the highly regarded Alex North, who saw his work thrown out by Kubrick in favor of classical needle-drops. Now, more than 50 years after its 1968 release, it seems impossible to imagine those images without that music. And with North certainly not the first to have a score go unused, the question of how his material matches up to Kubrick’s film is a fascinating one. But does it work? Could you imagine Bogart and Bergman’s final moments in Casablanca without Max Steiner’s sumptuous reading of Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By”? That chaotic moment at the end of Rocky as Rocky and Adrian search for each other without Bill Conti’s stirring melody and final fanfare?

While 2001 runs 142 minutes, very little of that time features music. Despite this, the sequences that do are among those moments that audiences have the fondest memories of, such is their impact. Kubrick utilizes multiple works by several composers as well as repeating some pieces as thematic motifs, such as Richard Strauss‘ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which bookends the picture and features in the “Dawn of Man” sequence. Johann Strauss‘ “An der Schönen Blauen Donau,” aka “The Blue Danube” is heard three times (once over the end credits), and pieces from György Ligeti and Aram Khachaturian are also present. With the soundtrack, Kubrick created his own symphony as well as establishing a new way of scoring feature films. However, by doing that he also opened a debate over the use of original music versus previously composed works.

Temporary Madness

For 2001, Kubrick put together a temp track — pre-existing music used in the editing stage to help the director gain an idea of how the film should be scored — with the initial batch consisting mainly of classical pieces that didn’t make it into the final film. “When you’re editing a film,” the filmmaker told Michel Ciment in 1975 for the book Kubrick: The Definitive Version, “it’s very helpful to be able to try out different pieces of music to see how they work with the scene. This is not at all an uncommon practice. Well, with a little more care and thought, these temporary music tracks can become the final score. When I had completed the editing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I had laid in temporary music tracks for almost all of the music which was eventually used in the film.”

Kubrick’s initial dalliance with the temp track came in January of 1966. While still deep in production, Kubrick was aware that he would shortly be visited by the top brass from the studio, including MGM President Robert O’Brien. One of their requests was to see some of the footage he had already shot, so Kubrick asked an assistant to get some petty cash and go and buy a selection of European and modern classical records, after which the pair rapidly flipped through the music, frantically playing through to find out which pieces may be suitable for the scenes that would be shown.

The screening was a success, with Kubrick using the scherzo from Felix Mendelssohn‘s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21” over spaceship interiors and Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ “Sinfonia Antarctica” for the Star Gate and scenes on the Moon, as well as Gustav Mahler‘s “Symphony No. 3.” Interestingly enough, co-writer Arthur C. Clarke had written that Kubrick had played the Vaughan Williams piece on set while shooting actor Keir Dullea‘s face for the Star Gate sequence. In a similar example, music by Frédéric Chopin was played while Gary Lockwood filmed the “shadowboxing” scene on the centrifuge, which, according to a 1966 piece for The New Yorker, was selected by Kubrick “because he felt that an intelligent man in 2001 might choose Chopin for doing exercise to music.”

Meanwhile, one of the final film’s signature musical pieces found its way into Kubrick’s mind due to an overtired crewmember. While watching dailies of the spiraling space station sequence, visual effects coordinator Colin Brewer kept falling asleep in the projection room, so effects assistant director Andrew Birkin decided to play some of Kubrick’s newly acquired records along to the footage. “And we’re looking at the wheel,” Birkin remembers in Michael Benson’s book Space Odyssey, “and on comes ‘The Blue Danube,’ and when the lights went up at the end, he [Kubrick] turned to us and he said, ‘Do you think it would be an act of genius or an act of folly to have that?'”

The director recut the whole sequence to Strauss’ music, selecting a performance by celebrated conductor Herbert von Karajan, telling the Toronto Telegram (as quoted in Benson’s book) after 2001‘s release that he “wanted something that would express the beauty and the grace that space travel would have, especially when it reached a fairly routine level with no great danger involved. I also wanted something that wouldn’t sound too ‘spacey’ or futuristic. Incidentally, I listened to about 25 recordings of ‘Blue Danube’ before choosing the one for Deutsche Grammophon by Herbert von Karajan, the world’s greatest conductor. It’s the kind of music that can sound terribly banal, but at its best, it’s still a magnificent thing.”

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Charlie Brigden: 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)