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Classical Music & Cinema: The “2001” Music

Imagine for a moment you’re Alex North. It’s summer 1968 and you’re an acclaimed composer for the movies. You’ve scored great films like A Streetcar Named Desire, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Dr. Strangelove. Your collaborator and friend Stanley Kubrick asked you a few years ago to create a score for his new film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He’s emphasized that 2001 will be a film with limited dialogue, to be experienced through the senses as much as the mind.

You arrive at the premiere that August, knowing how important the filmmaker has said the music will be, only to discover your score is nowhere to be found. Instead, your collaborator and friend Stanley Kubrick who used a selection of classical music standards as audio placeholders while editing the film has decided to keep the placeholders and dispense with your original score entirely. And little do you know that the classical music greatest hits featured in 2001 will become almost as famous, all over again, as the film itself.

The best known of these examples opens and closes the action: 5 notes, the first three climbing a short ladder. The last two are twice as loud, as loud as planets colliding, and almost on top of each other. Notes 1-3 are a few stray trumpets signaling the coming of something from beyond the horizon. The last two are the entire orchestra roaring into view. The back-and-forth of kettledrums that follow are the boots of giants. Something enormous is beginning, the music says. something you have never witnessed before. You will not be the same after.

The piece is called “Sunrise”, the opening movement of Richard Strauss’s 1896 tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” I’ve heard it referred to occasionally as just “Zarathusra” but way more than that as “the 2001 music.” “Sunrise” also showed up in several animated shorts on the early episodes of Sesame Street and The Electric Company. A generation of pro wrestling fans remember it as the ring entrance music for several time world champion “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Their parents probably know at as Elvis Presley’s entrance music and the theme music of the Apollo Space Program. But drop “the music from 2001” in casual conversation and everyone knows what you mean. Despite “Zarathusra” being almost continuously performed since its premiere in November of 1896, “Sunrise” and Kubrick’s space odyssey are now as inseparable as the stars and bleak space they illuminate.

Richard Strauss was in his early 30s when he composed “Zarathustra,” the third of the tone poems that defined the first great phrase of his career. Germany at the time was in the middle of an intellectual renaissance The nation had unified in 1871, and the period had produced not only the music of Mahler, but the painting of the Munich School and the writings and ideas of Nietchze. Strauss was an avid reader of German philosophy and along with making his way through the books of Goethe and Schopenhaur, had grown fascinated with Nietzche’s seminal work “Also Sprach Zarathurtra”, and used it as both inspiration and scaffolding for his piece.

Stanley Kubrick was 40 years old when 2001 premiered in 1968. He was nearly 2 decades into his career as a filmmaker with now-classics like Paths of Glory, Lolita and Dr. Strangelove on his resume. Following Strangelove in 1964, Kubrick wanted to make a film about man’s relationship to the universe, an experience that would “arouse the emotions of awe, wonder…even terror.” In partnership with science fiction author Author C. Clarke (2001 is adapted from the Clarke short story “The Sentinel”), the two men spent the next 4 years bringing Kubrick’s vision to life. And though its initial reviews were mixed and audiences didn’t quite know what to make of the movie (tales of either walking out in confusion, in rapture or watching while high exist in equal numbers), 2001 is now regarded as one of the greatest films ever made. As of this year, it sits in sixth place on Sight & Sound’s every-ten-years poll of the greatest movies ever made and in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

“Sunrise” is the most famous of these placeholders. The piece appears during the film’s opening credits (a shot of the sun rising over earth, from space), the film’s closing sequence and whenever the “sentinel” a giant glassy black slab (popularly known as “the monolith”) appears. The sentinel seems to mark not only points in the narrative but the transition of man through space, through time, and back again. I won’t spoil it for you but the ending of 2001 and what it says about humankind’s fate is one of cinema’s great mysteries. “Sunrise”, a piece of such obvious size and drama cannot help but signal profound change, swift endings and new beginnings.

Nietzche’s novel that so inspired Strauss concerns a quest for human understanding, what we may develop into in a world where divine figures will not help us along the way. Strauss wrote his great work during his nation’s great flowering into Europe’s center of culture and power. A new century was dawning. Strauss had every reason to believe it would belong to Germany. “Sunrise” sounds very much filled with both the excitement, awe and yes, terror at that possibility.

Kubrick and his film seem both equally fascinated and troubled by one era ending and a future not yet understood. Roger Ebert wrote that 2001 looks at the moment that “we became man when we learned to think. Now it is time to move on to the next step, to know that we live not on a planet but among the stars, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.” What that will mean or be like, we do not know. But our fate lies in how well we receive that destiny. The great and ironic use of “Sunrise” by Kubrick is not in the music’s wrestling with that question but its lack of questioning at all. It sounds so final, so ultimate, that as if to question it would be like arguing with an earthquake.

But questioning is how we got here, “2001” and Kubrick and Clarke seem to say. It may not be what will propel us forward orwhat the sentinel marks for us, but ultimately, in the face of a great, black universe, it is all we have. To see beyond the horizon despite the roar, and with fear, awe and wonder, within the sound of the roar.

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