Watch the Opening of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with the Original, Unused Score

How does a movie become a “clas­sic”? Expla­na­tions, nev­er less than utter­ly sub­jec­tive, will vary from cinephile to cinephile, but I would sub­mit that clas­sic-film sta­tus, as tra­di­tion­al­ly under­stood, requires that all ele­ments of the pro­duc­tion work in at least near-per­fect har­mo­ny: the cin­e­matog­ra­phy, the cast­ing, the edit­ing, the design, the set­ting, the score. Out­side first-year film stud­ies sem­i­nars and delib­er­ate­ly con­trar­i­an cul­ture columns, the label of clas­sic, once attained, goes prac­ti­cal­ly undis­put­ed. Even those who active­ly dis­like Stan­ley Kubrick­’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance, would sure­ly agree that its every last audio­vi­su­al nuance serves its dis­tinc­tive, bold vision — espe­cial­ly that open­ing use of “Thus Spake Zarathus­tra.”

But Kubrick did­n’t always intend to use that piece, nor the oth­er orches­tral works we’ve come to close­ly asso­ciate with mankind’s ven­tures into realms beyond Earth and strug­gles with intel­li­gence of its own inven­tion. Accord­ing to Jason Kot­tke, Kubrick had com­mis­sioned an orig­i­nal score from A Street­car Named Desire, Spar­ta­cus, Cleopa­tra, and Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf com­pos­er Alex North.

At the top of the post, you can see 2001’s open­ing with North’s music, and below you can hear 38 min­utes of his score on Spo­ti­fy. As to the ques­tion of why Kubrick stuck instead with the tem­po­rary score of Strauss, Ligeti, and Khatch­a­turi­an he’d used in edit­ing, Kot­tke quotes from Michel Cimen­t’s inter­view with the film­mak­er:

How­ev­er good our best film com­posers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a mul­ti­tude of great orches­tral music avail­able from the past and from our own time? [ … ]  Although [North] and I went over the pic­ture very care­ful­ly, and he lis­tened to these tem­po­rary tracks and agreed that they worked fine and would serve as a guide to the musi­cal objec­tives of each sequence he, nev­er­the­less, wrote and record­ed a score which could not have been more alien to the music we had lis­tened to, and much more seri­ous than that, a score which, in my opin­ion, was com­plete­ly inad­e­quate for the film.

North did­n’t find out about Kubrick­’s choice until 2001’s New York City pre­miere. Not an envi­able sit­u­a­tion, cer­tain­ly, but not the worst thing that ever hap­pened to a col­lab­o­ra­tor who failed to rise to the direc­tor’s expec­ta­tions.

For more Kubrick and clas­si­cal music, see our recent post: The Clas­si­cal Music in Stan­ley Kubrick’s Films: Lis­ten to a Free, 4 Hour Playlist

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

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Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey Gets a Brand New Trail­er to Cel­e­brate Its Dig­i­tal Re-Release

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Rare 1960s Audio: Stan­ley Kubrick’s Big Inter­view with The New York­er

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Andre Kibbe says:

    I’ve heard North’s score before and did­n’t think it was that bad, but hear­ing this clip of the score actu­al­ly applied to the open­ing cred­its under­scores what a colos­sal mis­take it would’ve been. And Kubrick was wise to for­go using any music for the Dawn of Man sequence except for the “bone” scene. Too many direc­tors slather music on every scene like salt or but­ter on already fla­vor­ful dish­es.

    It would’ve been inter­est­ing to see if he could’ve com­mis­sioned orig­i­nal scores from con­tem­po­raries like Ligeti or Khatch­a­turi­an, but work­ing with com­posers on new works seems to have been Kubrick­’s Achilles’ Heel.

  • James Watrous says:

    Glad Stan­ley Kubrick decid­ed not to go with that score. To be fair, it was not as bad as I thought it would be. But ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA was so much bet­ter. Hav­ing the open­ing DAWN OF TIME sequence silent was so much bet­ter.

  • Ken Clark says:

    Inter­est­ing to view but, as an film edi­tor. I think the music is mis-cued. It is about one and a half sec­onds too ear­ly for the visu­als.

  • Marilyn Macomber says:

    This movie is not one of my favorites and part of the rea­son for this was the score. I think orig­i­nal scores are more appro­pri­ate. The great clas­sics mean so many dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple that for­ev­er asso­ci­at­ing them with a spe­cif­ic movie is unac­cept­able. This is just my opin­ion. Far bet­ter to be cre­ative and orig­i­nal.

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