clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the iconic music of 2001: A Space Odyssey came to be

“Before the MGM brass flew in, Kubrick said, ‘Get this much money and buy all the classical music you can find downtown.’”

2001: A Space Odyssey
Keir Dullea plays the closest thing 2001: A Space Odyssey has to a “main character,” the astronaut Dave Bowman.
Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Even if you haven’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s mind-melting 1968 science fiction epic, which turns 50 this month, you probably know at least something about it. It’s one of those movies, like Star Wars or Citizen Kane, that has become so thoroughly dissolved into our pop culture that you’ll have heard of the villainous computer HAL or know the famed music cue (Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra”) that plays over its most indelible images.

But how were those moments created? The story of 2001 is the story of an almost obsessive attention to detail, of a budget that almost completely destroyed the film’s studio, of an initial wave of terrible reviews that might have killed a lesser movie. At every step of the way along its production process (and even after its release), 2001 is a fascinating example of big-time moviemaking gone right.

For the most recent episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, I talked with author Michael Benson, whose new book, Space Odyssey, is perhaps the most comprehensive look ever at the making of the film. Benson talked with me about the construction of five of the film’s most enduring elements, and we started with that soundtrack full of classical music.

In many ways, the story of how Kubrick found the score of his film is the movie in a nutshell, with some of his colleagues immediately getting what Kubrick was going for and others being driven so hard by the man that they eventually buckled. Indeed, several composers were hired to write an original score for 2001, but Kubrick eventually discarded those contributions in favor of his classical music “temporary” tracks.

The portion of my discussion with Benson about the music of the film, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Todd VanDerWerff

I want to start with the most famous music cue in the movie, the [Richard] Strauss, which plays over the sunrise.

Michael Benson

The opening sequence with the sun rising over the Earth and the moon. It’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” It’s referring to the Nietzsche philosophical novel [Also Sprach Zarathustra]. But that is kind of the signature track.

But there are others. In fact, the music of [György] Ligeti, the Hungarian avant-garde composer — that movie would not be remotely the same if Kubrick hadn’t stumbled on, via his wife and [visual effects designer] Con Pederson’s wife, this Ligeti music. Christiane Kubrick and Con’s wife [Charleen Pederson] were working together making sculptures of aliens for Stanley. We’re talking now fall of ’67. They were listening to the BBC and on came this music, which was so unearthly and spooky and powerful and majestic that they immediately had to find out what it was.

They waited until the host of the program said, “This is Ligeti.” But it took [Kubrick] weeks to hear the piece because Ligeti was almost completely unknown then. I do have in the book a series of stories about how the music that was used came into the film and what kind of discussions surrounded it.

Todd VanDerWerff

What was fascinating to me was Kubrick went through, like, four composers who were going to write original music for the film, and then eventually he was like, “I like my temp tracks better.” Tell me a little bit about that process.

Michael Benson

The initial composer, Frank Cordell, was an English composer who had really established a track record scoring various films in the UK. He was brought on in the beginning. But Kubrick didn’t know what he wanted. Cordell was brought on and given a contract and given pay but not given access to Stanley, who didn’t want to talk to him. So it was very bizarre.

Finally, when he did get a chance to talk to Stanley, Stanley said, “Well, I like Gustav Mahler’s symphony,” which also refers to Thus Spake Zarathustra. ... But it just didn’t work out with Cordell. Meanwhile, Kubrick was approaching various other people whose taste he valued, and one of the people was Jan Harlan, which is his brother-in-law, and asking for advice. It was a very circuitous route to those temp tracks.

When he was finally cutting the film, he started laying in this music that he’d been amassing during post and even during production. He would watch the rushes and listen to music. In fact, one of the key catalysts was, when the MGM [head] brass flew in from LA and from New York, Tony Frewin [Kubrick’s assistant on the film], who was 19 years old, the week before the MGM brass flew in, Kubrick said, “Tony, get petty cash. Get this much money and go buy all the classical music you can find downtown.”

Frewin couldn’t believe his luck because the amount of money he got was enough to buy the store. He took an MGM station wagon downtown [and back]. He said he was worried the police would pull him over because it was sagging from all the vinyl inside. 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.

So then finally, really late in the story, we’re talking the end of ’67, the studio did not want to hear about temp tracks for a big-budget Hollywood Cinerama release. That was just not done because you couldn’t release those things without an original score.

Todd VanDerWerff

That was part of the appeal for the audience to come in and hear the new, original music.

Michael Benson

Everything new, everything original, exactly.

So they pressured him, essentially, to hire a composer, and he chose Alex North, whom he had worked with on Spartacus. And Alex North remains a well-known Hollywood composer. He did a number of other scores, and won awards, and so forth. Originally, when he heard that Kubrick wanted him on, he was thrilled because he understood that there was 40 minutes of dialogue in a two-and-a-half-hour movie, and he naively thought, “Oh, that means I have a blank canvas. I can do what I want.”

2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick (right), works with actors Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

But it didn’t really work out that way. Kubrick said at their first meeting that he wanted to hang on to some of the temp tracks. Alex North persuaded Stanley Kubrick that he could do it, replace the temp tracks with material that would be similar in mood or spirit or what have you, but he was competing against some of the masterworks of the canon!

He did record a score. He almost had a nervous breakdown doing it because of all the pressure. In fact, he was in a hospital bed on wheels that was rolled into the recording sessions because he had muscle spasms in his back from all of the pressure. He recorded a score that a lot of people say was really very good.

Kubrick didn’t like it. He didn’t inform North that he didn’t use any of it. North came to the premiere in New York and was completely shocked and humiliated that not one piece of his music had been used.

Todd VanDerWerff

Do you know if any of that composed music survived?

Michael Benson

It was released for the first time a few years ago. I forget the label, but it is out there. If you Google “Alex North 2001 score,” you’ll find a way to get it. [In fact, you can listen to the score on Spotify.]

For so much more with Benson on some of the film’s other iconic moments and images, as well as a discussion with Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson about 2001’s lasting legacy, check out the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.