Does a film exist that surpasses the magnificence of ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’?
I can’t remember how old I was when I saw this film for the first time, but I was left speechless by it, and the imagery haunts me to this day. I’ve watched it countless times and am still surprised and stupefied by it – there’s always an unexpected frame, a piece of editing or sound design, a special effect or a musical marriage that makes me catch my breath.
It’s hard to imagine this film without the unique sensibility of the music – and I will be forever grateful for the fact that it introduced me to the music of Gyorgy Ligeti. But every now and then I wake up in the night with a pang of horror on behalf of the great Alex North, who was the composer originally entrusted with writing the original score for this film.
Faced, as he was, with a temp score (a cut of the film that includes a soundtrack patched together from many different sources – designed to communicate the musical intentions to the composer, and to anyone watching or working on the unfinished film) as magnificent as the one Kubrick put together using J & R Strauss, Ligeti et al. – he was asked to compose something to replace them.
He made a valiant effort. I heard it for the first time as a student in LA and it was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever listened to. You can hear Alex North trying to surpass the mood and scale of the original compositions – and you can sense, with all the wisdom of historical perspective, that he was doomed from the start. In the end, an orchestral score was recorded for this film which Stanley Kubrick rejected, instead licensing the music he’d wanted all along.
As a composer… my worst nightmare. As an audience member… wondrous.
Alex North recounted the experience (in this excerpt from Jerome Agel’s The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, pp. 198-9):
“I was living in the Chelsea Hotel in New York (where Arthur Clarke was living) and got a phone call from Kubrick from London asking me of my availability to come over and do a score for 2001. He told me that I was the film composer he most respected, and he looked forward to working together. I was ecstatic at the idea of working with Kubrick again (Spartacus was an extremely exciting experience for me), as I regard Kubrick as the most gifted of the younger-generation directors, and that goes for the older as well. And to do a film score where there were about twenty-five minutes of dialogue and no sound effects! What a dreamy assignment, after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, loaded with dialogue.
I flew over to London for two days in early December to discuss music with Kubrick. He was direct and honest with me concerning his desire to retain some of the “temporary” music tracks which he had been using for the past years. I realized that he liked these tracks, but I couldn’t accept the idea of composing part of the score interpolated with other composers. I felt I could compose music that had the ingredients and essence of what Kubrick wanted and give it a consistency and homogeneity and contemporary feel. In any case, I returned to London December 24th  to start work for recording on January 1, after having seen and discussed the first hour of film for scoring. Kubrick arranged a magnificent apartment for me on the Chelsea Embankment, and furnished me with all the things to make me happy: record player, tape machine, good records, etc. I worked day and night to meet the first recording date, but with the stress and strain, I came down with muscle spasms and back trouble. I had to go to the recording in an ambulance, and the man who helped me with the orchestration, Henry Brant, conducted while I was in the control room. Kubrick was present, in and out; he was pressured for time as well. He made very good suggestions, musically. I had written two sequences for the opening, and he was definitely favorable to one, which was my favorite as well. So I assumed all was going well, what with his participation and interest in the recording. But somehow I had the hunch that whatever I wrote to supplant Strauss’ Zarathustra would not satisfy Kubrick, even though I used the same structure but brought it up to date in idiom and dramatic punch. Also, how could I compete with Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from Midsummer Night’s Dream? Well, I thought I did pretty damned well in that respect.
In any case, after having composed and recorded over forty minutes of music in those two weeks, I waited around for the opportunity to look at the balance of the film, spot the music, etc. During that period I was rewriting some of the stuff that I was not completely satisfied with, and Kubrick even suggested over the phone certain changes that I could make in the subsequent recording. After eleven tense days of waiting to see more film in order to record in early February, I received word from Kubrick that no more score was necessary, that he was going to use breathing effects for the remainder of the film. It was all very strange, and I thought perhaps I would still be called upon to compose more music; I even suggested to Kubrick that I could do whatever necessary back in L.A. at the M-G-M studios. Nothing happened. I went to a screening in New York, and there were most of the “temporary” tracks.
Well, what can I say? It was a great, frustrating experience, and despite the mixed reaction to the music, I think the Victorian approach with mid-European overtones was just not in keeping with the brilliant concept of Clarke and Kubrick.”