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2001: A Space Odyssey score was a classic Kubrick judgement call, author reveals

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Apr 27, 2018

It’s hard to imagine what 2001: A Space Odyssey would be without its score — a melange of compositions drawn from the broad classical music canon and draped around the film’s visual set pieces with no regard for cuing the audience on when, or how, to react.

Whether in the majesty of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, which Stanley Kubrick forever linked with his image of the emerging sun as the film’s opening credits rolled, or the detached grace of Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz in the spacecraft docking scene, 2001 elevated and reintroduced its handful of classical pieces for a generation of viewers leagues removed from the music's original audience.

Kubrick famously commissioned — and then rejected — an original 2001 score from successful contemporary composer Alex North. But author Michael Benson, who re-examined the making of the film for his book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, recently shared some fresh insights on how Kubrick arrived at the fateful decision to eschew a purpose-made soundtrack in favor of much older classical masterworks.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the way in which Kubrick came to realize that the classical pieces, which were originally intended to serve only as stand-ins until an original score could be substituted, offered a sort of detached reverie to accompany the visuals.

“When [Kubrick] was finally cutting the film, he started laying in this music that he’d been amassing during post and even during production,” Benson told Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff in a recent podcast interview.  “He would watch the rushes and listen to music.”

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That experience, on which Kubrick lavished a disproportionate amount of attention, led him at first to entertain the idea of preserving only some of the classical pieces, while intercutting other portions of the film with the original music North had written. 

But once Tony Frewin, Kubrick’s assistant, returned from a Kubrick-ordered record store run loaded down with a carload of classical music vinyl, Kubrick became engrossed in pairing classical tracks with scenes from the movie.

“They sat there that weekend and for days afterward, and Kubrick would sit there and hand him a record, and Tony would put it on the turntable, and they would listen to the beginning of each track for a period of time,” Benson said. 

North would still go on to write a full score (which is available on Spotify) but Kubrick ended up using none of it, winning one of his famous battles against studio bosses to insist upon the purity of his artistic vision. 

Even though the studio wanted to market an all-new score as part of the film’s appeal — and even though North only found out about the omission of his work after attending the movie’s New York premiere and coming away, according to Benson, “completely shocked and humiliated,” 2001: A Space Odyssey (which turns 50 this year) would go on to cement its curated selection of music in modern minds as an integral part of the overall film experience.

For much more about Benson’s discoveries as he researched the making of the film, check out SYFY WIRE’s breakdown of Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece.