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

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in Decem­ber 2014.

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Watch a New­ly-Cre­at­ed “Epi­logue” For Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

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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 (6)
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  • Michael J. Tobias says:

    This is famil­iar­i­ty bias. If Kubrick had cho­sen North’s score, we’d be talk­ing about it now as irre­place­able.

  • sfemet says:

    I’ve always made a dis­tinc­tion between a sound­track (exter­nal­ly cre­at­ed music placed in a movie like Full Met­al Jack­et) and a score (music writ­ten specif­i­cal­ly for a movie like Spar­ta­cus). If I fol­low my own rules, “2001’s” music is a sound­track, but it nev­er felt like it. It seems so intrin­si­cal­ly part of the expe­ri­ence. Film’s sen­so­ry com­plete­ness can be very pow­er­ful.

    I’ve always felt an emo­tion­al dis­tance to the events play­ing out in “2001”, Kubrick­’s choice of music rein­forces that dis­tance. North’s lush and warm orches­tra­tions cre­ate a very dif­fer­ent emo­tion when played over the open­ing. I felt more con­nect­ed to what I was watch­ing.

  • Fistful of Dave says:

    Here a link that gives you links to this for oth­er stream­ing ser­vices. Real­ly wish this was the default instead of just giv­ing a Spo­ti­fy link

  • John Wallach says:

    I love Alex North’s scores, but Kubrick made the right deci­sion here.

  • Lonnie says:

    This ver­sion sound­ed too sim­i­lar to the desert intro for Lawrence of Ara­bia. They made the right deci­sion!

  • Batur Oztunc says:

    Hey my friend
    I won­der why i can’t watch the videos embed­ded here. Would be great to have a link in the begin­ning of any of the para­graphs. Or maybe not vis­i­bable in Aus­tralia
    Hope i make sense
    Cheers and Regards
    Batur O

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