2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece based on the Arthur C. Clarke novel, is regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. The film was released on the eve of the Apollo moon landings, and capitalized on the excitement and pessimism of mankind’s future in space travel. 

The film pushed many boundaries that were acceptable in film at the time: an exceedingly long length of 2 hours, 44 min; long sections of film with no dialog (“The Dawn of Man”), the use of classical music combined with highly dissonant and abstract music; scenes of abstract color and sound (“Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”).  Many of the film’s more esoteric moments were the direct result of Kubrick’s refinements during the film-making process. 

The Musical Score

Opening Credits

The soundtrack for 2001: A Space Odyssey was originally conceived as an original film score. Kubrick considered many composers for the film, including Bernard Herrmann. Ultimately, he hired veteran composer Alex North, who had previously worked with Kubrick on the 1960 film “Spartacus”. North was given a temp track with music by a variety of classical composers, including Richard Strauss (opening title sequence), and Hungarian avant-garde composer György Ligeti. 

Kubrick became familiar with Ligeti’s music after his wife heard a live performance on BBC radio. Kubrick negotiated with Ligeti’s publisher C.F. Peters for sync rights to his work, but the negotiations were slow and the composer was unresponsive. It was at this time the Kubrick hired North to create the score, using Ligeti’s music as temp music.

Alex North wrote a solid Hollywood-style score to the film, and the music was recorded and edited for the film. Kubrick, however changed his mind and kept the temp music in place. Alex North was not made aware of this change, only discovering it at the premiere of the film. 

György Ligeti was also unaware that his music had been used, and was enraged after his first viewing of the film. Ligeti’s first action was to hire a lawyer for a lawsuit, but ultimately settled out of court. In the end however, the film catapulted Ligeti to great fame, something unusual for a composer of avant-garde music. 

Music for the iconic opening title was composed by German composer Richard Strauss, adapted from the opening bars of the tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (1896).  Following is North’s version, which imitates the sound and timing of Strauss’ music - but without the epic grandeur.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Opening Credit theme by Richard Strauss

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Opening Credit theme by Alex North

The Blue Danube Waltz

The first space scenes of the film show floating spaceships accompanied by the famous Johann Strauss composition “Blue Danube Waltz”. Johann Strauss (no relation to Richard Strauss) was a well-known Austrian composer who composed the work in 1866. The music was first utilized by the special effects team  creating spaceship models for the film. Originally used as background music for screenings of the space scenes, Kubrick had the radical idea of using the music in the final film. Using well-known classical music works became a hallmark of Kubrick’s film-making style, as noted in the films “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), and “Barry Lyndon” (1975), among others.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Blue Danube Waltz

The Monolith on the Moon

Another interesting scene with multiple scores is when astronauts descend to the surface of the moon to investigate the recently discovered monolith. The original script contained dialog and a more conventional setting, however Kubrick decided to make the scene much more abstract and mysterious. The first video below is the scene with music by György Ligeti (as used in the film), and music for the same scene composed by Alex North.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Monolith scene, music by György Ligeti

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Monolith scene, music by Alex North

Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite

This scene is among the most abstract scenes ever created for a mainstream theatrical film. Utilizing experimental filming techniques set to the 1961 avant-garde orchestral work “Atmospheres” by György Ligeti, the scene pushed the limits of film-going experience for most viewers.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite,  music by György Ligeti

Documentary on the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey (part 1/6)