Brow Beat

The Original, Unused Score for 2001: A Space Odyssey Is … Not As Good

There are few moments in cinema more embedded in cultural memory than the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The scene is simple enough—the sun rises over a crescent earth—but Kubrick sets the shot to Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, a bombastic and now instantly recognizable piece of music. It’s a perfect pairing of sound and image, but it almost never happened: Kubrick initially hired Alex North, a renowned film composer, to write the film’s music. Below is the opening act of the movie set to North’s score, alongside the actual scene for comparison.

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So why did Kubrick end up using Strauss? The main reason is obvious: it’s way better. For a more nuanced, qualified explanation, here’s Kubrick himself answering the question for French film critic Michel Ciment:

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? When you’re editing a film, it’s very helpful to be able to try out different pieces of music to see how they work with the scene. This is not at all an uncommon practice. Well, with a little more care and thought, these temporary music tracks can become the final score. When I had completed the editing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I had laid in temporary music tracks for almost all of the music which was eventually used in the film. Then, in the normal way, I engaged the services of a distinguished film composer to write the score. Although he and I went over the picture very carefully, and he listened to these temporary tracks (Strauss, Ligeti, Khatchaturian) 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.

(via Kottke.)

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