2001 A Space Odyssey2001 : 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
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
one 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
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
here, 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
broken 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
tone and the overriding texture of the scene. By themselves
the sounds are nuetral, but contextually they take on greater
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
intended 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
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
resembles 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”.
“Thus the hypnotic circularity of strauss’s waltz applies not
to 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.
Films and Cinema