'2001: A Space Odyssey' 50th Anniversary: 5 Highlights from Original Soundtrack

2001: a space odyssey
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Tuesday (March 3) marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s awe-inspiring, unwieldy, interstellar masterpiece.

Since the film’s U.S. theatrical premiere April 3, 1968, in which actor Rock Hudson reportedly muttered in the aisles, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?” 2001’s hyper-ambitious special effects, abstract storyline and existential themes have been praised, criticized and parodied by cinema enthusiasts to no end.

A big portion of the film’s status as an American classic comes from its revolutionary soundtrack. Kubrick didn’t rely on a tailor-made score to drive the story; the music featured in 2001 oftentimes is the story. When Kubrick was asked in 1968 about the “metaphysical significance” of 2001, his response was terse and telling.

“It’s not a message I ever intended to convey in words. 2001 is a nonverbal experience … one that directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content.”

With that lofty aesthetic in mind, Kubrick reached for even loftier music -- specifically, already-established classical recordings of pieces by Richard Strauss, Gyorgy Ligeti, Aram Khachaturian and Johann Strauss II. Just as 2001 juxtaposes a distant past and future, the pieces Kubrick chose veered from knowingly traditional to harshly modernistic -- and their use led to resurgences in popularity of many of them.

Here are five examples.

“Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss
2001’s aesthetic didn’t include established classical epics by design. In fact, Kubrick had commissioned the highly regarded film composer Alex North, known for his work in Spartacus and A Streetcar Named Desire, to compose an original score. However, genius struck as Kubrick entered the editing stage, when something clicked -- the assortment of old classical melodies he’d used as temporary placeholders didn’t just work, they were perfect. To think that we were almost denied “Also sprach Zarathustra” -- and you know the one, the ascending duhn-duHN-DUHN! -- as the opening fanfare of 2001 is an X-factor of cinematic history on par with Dirk Starkiller. Luckily, Kubrick’s uncommon perception led to the decision to use “Zarathustra,” a majestic tone poem that is now utterly inseparable from its use in Kubrick’s vision -- in fact, it’s one of the world’s most recognizable classical pieces strictly for that reason. As for poor Alex North, he didn’t realize his probably-very-nice score had been tossed until he attended the film’s premiere and was aghast to hear Strauss booming through the sound system rather than his original melody. Thank goodness.

“The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II
After the beautifully arrogant co-opting of Strauss’s bombastic piece as his film’s intro, Kubrick’s use of the wedding waltz “The Blue Danube” to accompany the film’s jump into the future -- and a spaceship gently docking at a station -- was a second stroke of brilliance as it captured the weightlessness of space and a sort of archetypal courtship between the spacecrafts. As with so many other aspects of 2001, it’s also been endlessly parodied -- younger viewers may be even more acquainted with “The Blue Danube” through a 1994 episode of The Simpsons in which Homer crunches potato chips in zero gravity to the lilt of the song. The cumulative effect 50 years later is similar to the Strauss piece -- could this scene have been soundtracked by anything else?

"Lux Aeterna" and "Atmosphères" by Gyorgy Ligeti
Kubrick would later return to the well of Ligeti, a Hungarian avant-garde composer, over and over in his career from, The Shining to Eyes Wide Shut. Yet, his cinematic infatuation with Ligeti’s dissonant, droning pieces would begin in 2001. "Lux Aeterna," an eerie, atonal choral piece, is used as space scientists in a glumly blue-lit lunar shuttle nervously praise the fillings in their prepackaged sandwiches to distract themselves from mortal terror.

Kubrick never asked for permission to use either Ligeti’s "Aeterna" or the gravity-defying "Atmosphères," although the latter ended up appearing its entirety in the film. However, Ligeti was still irked by his usage; not only was it lifted without the composer’s permission, but he was offended that his work would be taken out of context and put in proximity to Strauss. While Ligeti’s feelings were understandable, it may have been an ends-justifying-the-means situation, as Kubrick taking the opportunity to yank his work ended up greatly benefiting both artists.

“Gayane Ballet Suite (Adagio)” by Aram Khachaturian
What would Johann Strauss or Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian say if they knew their works, with their romantic-music contexts, would go on to be irreverently recontextualized as music of the spheres by a nutty film auteur in the '60s? While purists must have balked that this effervescent ballet music was used to show astronaut Frank Poole running on a massive human hamster wheel in white boxer briefs, once again, it couldn’t be more gorgeous in this context, illustrating both human disconnect in the vastness of space and the giddy anti-gravity of it all. Really, that sort of wild juxtaposition speaks to the whole legacy 2001 leaves behind -- first thought, best thought. Kubrick could have easily bowed to the pressure or second-guessed his decision to use no-name modernists and frilly waltzes to underscore his vision, but his cheeky use of dusty old melodies may have made a great film into an all-time classic.


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