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2001: A Space Odyssey

I am going to be talking about Stanley Kubricks ‘2001: a space odyssey’, focusing (obviously) on the music, but also the sound. I will also be incorporating elements from Mark Millers article “2001 – a cold descent” 2001: A Space Odyssey, introduced in 1968, is a high concept production that begins by tracing the ‘Dawn Of Man’, which eventually leads to a journey through the solar system by a crew of astronauts aboard a spaceship bound for Jupiter. The accompanying soundtrack plays as much of a role in the development of suspense and intrigue as the actors performances.

Three decades later, the soundtrack remains ne of the most recognized in cinematic history. Initially, Kubrick asked Alex North, who had written the score for ‘Spartacus’, to compose the music for 2001. Although he commissioned an original score, Kubrick ultimately opted to stick with the well-known classical compositions and cues he’d blocked in during production, making the soundtrack one of the most unconventional ever produced. The catalogue of film scores commissioned and then dumped in favor of someone else’s work is extensive. The situation has a fascination all of it’s own: what might have been?

Hermanns score for Torn Curtain for instance, and ere, Alex Norths score for 2001 are both examples. It was only as North watched the first commercial screening that he discovered that his own score had been discarded. It was replaced by existing classical scores. The soundtrack features eight classical tracks including Gyorgi Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” and Requiem”, Johan Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” and Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (or “Thus Spake Zarathustra”), which incidentally Elvis used to use to open his concert performances.

The film combines eerie contemporary music with classical waltzes and Ballet suites – grunts and snarls with pneumatic hisses and synthesized beeps. One character has a rough, throaty voice but the computer, Hal 9000, talks with a soft mellifluous tone (the classic characterization of the smooth talking villain). In 2001, space is accurately depicted as a truly silent vacuum, but technological Man fills this world with the sound of circulating air systems, humming computers and hissing doors.

This sonic menace was later taken to extreme by Ridley Scott in Alien which shares common elements with 2001, not least of which is one of the classical pieces which Kubrick uses (when the Jupiter mission is first underway). 2001 begins with a desert plain, and the sound of wind roken only by the sound of ape men digging in the dirt for a morsel of vegetation. When a leopard snarls and attacks one of the apemen it rocks the soundtrack. The film ends with Dave Bowman, breathing then stepping into a fabricated room while the background noise winds down to ever lower notes, which has the effect of slowing the pace.

We then see Bowman as an older man eating at a table (eating is a common theme in the film) and the sound of his cutlery clashing against the plate. Both of these framing scenes are made suspenseful not just by their slow pacing, and their unfamiliar placement, but the eerie, subdued and anxious sound. The atmosphere in the room in which Bowman is eating is tense – the sound is only broken by the smash of the glass on the tiled floor. The sound punctuates the atmosphere and shakes the viewer.

Another famous scene that illustrates this contrast is the sequence in which Bowman is rescuing his murdered shipmate, Frank Poole. The silence of space, through which Poole spins to his doom, is absolute. Where earlier the space walks were accompanied by the methodical breathing of the astronaut inside his helmet, here there is no sound, only lifelesness, a pure void only broken by the anomaly of a bright orange spacesuit tumbling away through space. Inside Bowmans craft, the Shipboard radar tracker beeps loudly, building in intensity.

The juxtaposition of the silence of a dying man floating alone in space, with no sound but the radar is one of the most violent contrasts in the film. As the dead man drifts into view through the window, the audience senses how alone man is in space. Later when Bowman maneuvers to reenter the ship without his helmet, the subtle sounds and whirs of the the craft become louder. They abruptly give way to loud warning sirens as he prepares for the worst. Again the sound design, built of authentic ambient structures, determines the one and the overriding texture of the scene.

By themselves the sounds are nuetral, but contextually they take on greater emphasis. The reason I am exploring the sound in such detail is because the musical and ambient parts of the soundtrack are very deliberate. Together they create an aural ensemble that is greater than the sum of its parts. At many points throughout the film, sound effects and music are used entirely seperate from each other. On the mission to the Clavius crater, we see images of Doctor Floyd talking with the pilots of the shuttle, yet we cannot hear what they are saying because all we hear is the music.

The musical tracks we hear are placed at very deliberate points in the story. The film starts with Richard Strauss’s ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’. We are presented with a view from space and we see the moon the earth and the sun in alignment. Here, the music creates an atmosphere of awe. We are presented with the majesty of the planets. This same piece of music plays as the apemen touch the monolith. Sustained low notes rising in pitch and volume towards a crescendo. Here, it represents understanding.

Later we hear the same piece of music representing yet another theme, that of rebirth. It is plain to see that Kubrick ntended to evoke different emotions and themes with the same song. Johan Strauss’s piece ‘The Blue Danube’, is used to similar effect. It represents Humour – (The stewardess, as she tends Floyd, and the advice for the zero gravity toilet) – and it represents the eloquence of the machinery in the spacecraft. The sound design also contributes to the dialogue.

Most of the dialogue is small talk between the characters. Bowman and Poole rarely talk to each other. Nothing is even said during the space walks. It seems Kubrick wanted to isolate the characters from each other. Miller suggests that the future society in kubricks 2001 esembles that of the apemen in the first section of the film. The music seems to enmphasise this : at the start of the film we are presented with grand, majestic music, yet as the shift occurs to the future, the music becomes more gentle, more refined.

This however does not represent the humans but their machinery. The modern day apemen seem just as clumsy as their ancestors, while they shuffle around the confines of their spacecraft. In contrast, their machines move with precision. As Miller puts it, “the ape and the man are one and the same”. Quote “Thus the hypnotic circularity of strauss’s waltz applies not o the euphoric roundabout of any dancing couple but to the even wheeling of that big space station.

Thus while those trancendent items sail through the void with the eternal grace of seraphim, the stewardess attending doctor Floyd staggers down the aisle”. 2001: A space Odyssey is built up from cycles, and is itself an encompassing cycle. Eating, birthdays, water, returning… even the ships themselves, everywhere the image of a circle appears. The music also performs the same function : we start with “thus spake zarathustra” and it becomes our last image as the credits begin to roll.

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