Friday, March 14, 2014

Movie Music Musing – 2001: A Film Music Odyssey

Fellow blogger Richard Bellush over at Richard’s Pretension was blogging about music, and mentioned the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This got me thinking about film music for science fiction movies, and of course that lead to a blog. So you can all blame Richard for this one.

It is hard to find a film that impacted science fiction films more than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s film inspired so many folks in so many fields of the film making industry. It also defined how science fiction films were going to look going forward. But Kubrick’s approach to the music in his film actually created an impact that isn’t too apparent at first.

During the production of 2001, Kubrick had a film composer attached to the movie. The composer was Alex North, a man who was known for his unique approach to film scoring. He was part of a new bread of film composers who were moving away from the symphonic sound of the golden age of film music. Composers like Korngold, Steiner and even Rozsa were considered to be too over the top and too old fashioned. Instead jazzy scores like the ones created by Bernstein for The Man with the Golden Arm or even John Barry’s scores to From Russia with Love and Goldfinger were taking film music in a new direction. North took modernistic approaches in current classical music and fused them into film scores. His work would often include atonal and dissonant music, filled with an emotional power that was a million miles from something like Steiner.

His approach gained more popularity he began to mentor younger composers like Jerry Goldsmith. North scored all kinds of films from human dramas like A Streetcar Named Desire to big budget historical epics like Cleopatra and The Agony and the Ecstasy. This was how he first came of Kubrick, who used North for his film Spartacus. The score to the Kirk Douglas film was immediately called one of North’s greatest achievements. It made sense for Kubrick to bring the composer on board for his grand space adventure.

North began work on 2001: A Space Odyssey focusing a brutal and atonal sound for the Dawn of Man sequence. The music is jagged, punishing and mysterious all in different ways.  In fact, you can hear how this style would influence the amazing score Jerry Goldsmith created for Planet of the Apes. The main titles the North created are very much based on Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, a piece that Kubrick was using as a temp track for the film.

When the action moves to the Heywood Floyd’s journey to the moon, North shifted gears to a more melodic, but still modern sounding style. Here, he emphasized the beauty and wonder of space travel, while allowing the mystery of the alien artifact to creep into the score. At this point North stopped scoring 2001. He never worked on any music for the final two sequences involving the Jupiter mission or Dave’s journey into the infinite.

At the time Kubrick said he was thinking of not using any music in those portions of the film and so North figured his job was done. It wasn’t until the premier that North realized that none of his music for the film was used. Instead Kubrick had gone with his temp tracks of classical music for the film. North was less than pleased, and never worked with Kubrick again. A few years later another composer came forward and said he was commissioned to work on music for 2001: A Space Odyssey that was based on pieces from Gustav Mahler. No pieces from that score have ever surfaced. However, North’s work has been recovered, and can be found in two forms. The original recordings were made available in a limited edition from Intrada records. Jerry Goldsmith found the composers score and recreated it with the National Philharmonic Orchestra for Varese Saraband. It even includes the opening titles from a documentary North scored called Africa.

While North’s score is intriguing to listen to, I really can’t imagine watching 2001: A Space Odyssey without the classical pieces Kubrick ended up with. The use of Ligeti’s haunting Requiem for the monolith, the wonderful Lux Aeterna for Heywoods journey to the dig site creates an uncanny feeling the scene. Also sprach Zarathustra is the perfect fit for the main titles and final triumphant moment, and it trumps North’s work (as good as it is). I even like the semi-comic use of Blue Danube by Strauss, such a familiar and yet perfectly synched moment. The use of Johan and Richard Strauss, along with Khachaturiam’s Gayane ballet suite give the viewer a classical grounding. It allows us to hear something familiar among the beautiful and amazing visual effects. And when the truly alien moments arrive, Ligeti’s more abstract and atonal music adds that touch. It really is an amazing selection of pieces that deliver a greater impact.

That concept of using a familiar classical sound for science fiction also made an impact on George Lucas. In the 1970’s film scores for science fiction films had trended back toward the modern sounding often using harsh electronics or groovy guitars. Scores to films like Logan’s Run were the norm, and something that Lucas wanted to get away from. His experimental film THX-1138 had used a very dissonant score by Lalo Schifran (the man behind the music to Mission Impossible and Enter the Dragon but who had an experimental side to his music).

But Star Wars needed something a bit different. Since Lucas film was steeped in the feel and concept of movie serials like Flash Gordon from the 1940’s why not use a film score that was familiar and old fashioned. That was the direction John Williams used when creating a score using elements of classical composers like Richard Wagner and Stravinsky. It also included the swash-bucking sounds created by Korngold for films like The Sea Hawk and a swooping love theme that could have come right from Max Steiner or Miklos Rozsa. The familiar style of the music helped ground the audience with the amazing visual effects and bizarre alien creatures. It was the same approach Kubrick used, but with Williams crafting his own themes and working with them in a unique and exciting way. Star Wars became the new template for the sound science fiction films were expected to have from 1977 into the 2000s before Hans Zimmer’s sound started taking over.

Meanwhile, Jerry Goldsmith had never forgotten the work his mentor Alex North had fashioned for 2001: A Space Odyssey. I mentioned that Goldsmith used an approach for Planet of the Apes (also 1968) that was very much influenced by North’s score for 2001’s scenes in the dawn of man sequence. But Goldsmith would not really return to the sound until he was brought on for Star Trek: The Motion Picture nearly a decade later.

The creation of that score was a tough one for Goldsmith. He was writing music for a film that wasn’t complete and missing huge sequences because the special effects were not done. Goldsmith started composing for the scenes that were wrapped and edited. One of these was the flyby of the Enterprise, a sequence lasting nearly six minutes. If you listen to his first approach to these scenes you can hear how North’s score influenced his approach. It’s a bit atonal, but with a melodic sweeping grandeur that North used for the Moon sequences of 2001. It’s beautiful work.

Director Robert Wise wasn’t happy with it. He met with Goldsmith and told him the score wasn’t working, but couldn’t put his finger on the problem. Goldsmith was already frustrated with the whole situation and was close to pulling out of the whole project when Wise finally said, “It has no theme.” John Williams Star Wars score was influencing Wise’s take on the film.

Goldsmith went back to the drawing board, taking a motif he created in his initial approach and fleshing it out. He went big and went bold, toning down the melodic moments, but keeping grandeur. The result was his most famous musical theme, and one that would become a staple in the Star Trek franchise music.  But with all that said, Goldsmith’s final score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture contains many moments that remind the listener of Alex North’s score to 2001: A Space Odyssey. With the La La Land release of the complete score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture the early work by Goldsmith is available to enjoy and explore.

So there you have it, a look at how music written for 2001: A Space Odyssey ended up influencing three of the most long lasting science fiction franchises. We don’t get such impact in film music very often. And this one was a doozy.

And if you haven't yet, check out John Kenneth Muir's excellent review of 2001: A Space Odyssey, give it a read. It is well worth it.


  1. Put the blame on Mame . “2001” was a game-changer across the board. Kubrick’s ultimate choice to go classical on the soundtrack surely was the right one for the reasons you mention, though I well can imagine that North was shocked to find his work had been shelved. That’s an interesting tale of how he was aped (sorry) in later SF anyway. It must have been gratifying – and perhaps just a bit grating.

    1. Yeah, I've never heard how he felt about his sound being adapted. I know he and Goldsmith were good friends, so I'm hoping he appreciated the "tribute". North is one of those composers you don't hear about too much these days. His style is very specific to its time, and he became less and less in demand. One of his last scores was for the "Dragonslayer", and it is a bizarre one. Very dissonant and atonal. Some have called it unlistenable, but I find it intriguing, if not very challenging.

    2. I meant, "I find it intriguing and very challenging, but not something I listen to very often".

  2. When I was reading your review about North's influence on other movie soundtracks, I couldn't help but be reminded of how Hans Zimmer's Batman: The Dark Knight soundtrack has shaped modern soundtracks as well, as it seems like many action films have used a similar sound in them:

    1. Right you are sir. Zimmer's music is a huge influence on modern film scores, especially big budget action, sci-fi and super hero scores. When Zimmer isn't writing them himself, one of his many students and co-workers is cranking these out. "Dark Knight" is a huge influence. So is "Inception", with it's single note digital brass blast (called the Horn of Doom by my fellow film score nerds) popping in every other movie and movie trailer. The other piece that really had an impact was a cue called "Journey to the Line" from the score to "The Thin Red Line". Wonderful score and cue, but it has been adapted, revised and restated in so many scores since it is really amazing.

      Love it or hate it, Zimmer's sound is here to stay.