Saturday, April 3, 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey/Alex North's 2001: Triumph of the Temps

If film composers have the equivalent of the "actor's nightmare" - you know, where you're supposed to be putting on a show but don't know your lines/don't have your props/are naked, etc. - I imagine they'd go something like what Alex North went through in 1968 at an early screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey . . . .

The story is legendary in film music circles: North went to the screening expecting to hear the hour or so of music he'd been asked to compose, with the rest of Stanley Kubrick's three-hour epic unscored or accompanied with classical selections. What he heard was all the classical temp tracks that Kubrick had used to edit the film, and none of his own work.

I find this version of events a little hard to believe. North was a veteran of many film scores by that time - including at terrific contribution to Kubrick's Spartacus, presumably how he came to work on 2001. He must have suspected something fishy when he was just asked to stop working on a half-finished score. But the grievance of the director who's a little too in love with his temp score is a common one among film composers, so it's no surprise that North's unused score became something of a cause celebre for the film scoring world.

North's 2001 became a mythical, Grail-like object for film music aficionados, since the original tapes were lost and very few people had ever heard it, let alone seen the score. It's down to North's friend Jerry Goldsmith and Robert Townson, a producer for Varese Sarabande records, that we have the re-recording of the unused North score available today, since Goldsmith recorded it in 1993 with the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

This segment is supposed to be about both the official soundtrack album and North's version. Honestly, the selections present in the official recording of the 2001 score need little comment. They work for me, and for the film, on a visceral and intellectual level that is nearly impossible to imagine differently. I could write an essay about the use of music in 2001 and its revelation of the thematic content of the film . . . actually, I have, but I'll spare you those ten or twelve pages. They're full of stuff about Nietzsche and other people that undergraduates like to talk about to seem super-smart.

With this score CD, though, it is possible to imagine how different some scenes may have sounded, with a little bit of creative manipulation of a home entertainment system and a quick finger for the "play" button -- a little more DIY than the Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon experiment, but do-able.* We did just this one day in the class on Stanley Kubrick's films that I took (fittingly enough, in 2001) from James Naremore at IU. (That's the class for which I wrote the essay.) I told Prof. Naremore that I had a copy of this recording, and he proposed that we do a little experiment in class with some of the scenes and North's score. The verdict was nearly universal: Stanley Kubrick made the right choice.

You only have to listen to North's proposed substitute for the Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra theme over the opening credits (Track #1) to realize that it just isn't quite right. Maybe that's unfair, since Zarathustra is so thoroughly embedded in our synapses as the "theme from 2001." But North's fanfare, while structurally similar - right down to the lingering pipe organ in the last few instants - and actually more musically sophisticated, just seems too courtly and refined for that awesome and soul-shaking shot of planetary alignment. Strauss' primal C-G-C is just impossible to top.

Prof. Naremore was perhaps a little unkind to the shreds of score that we attempted to match to the picture in 2001. Of the drum-heavy, Stravinsky-esque score that North wrote for the "Dawn of Man" sequences (Tracks #2-6), he remarked, "it sounds like Spartacus II." I think the music deserves a little better than that. It's good stuff, really. (It's a little similar to what Goldsmith himself did that same year on Planet of the Apes, actually.) It's just not the right stuff (ahem) for Kubrick's magnum opus.

Some people in the world of film score buffs - including Jerry Goldsmith himself, apparently - insist that North's score would have worked better for the film, since it's more thematically and stylistically unified, while still capturing the essence of the musical ideas in the temp tracks that eventually became the score for 2001. (Goldsmith knew a thing or two about having scores rejected, so he may understandably have been a little bitter about the whole business.) Even the liner notes sound pretty defensive. For Track #9, "Moon Rocket Bus," the notes state that "North's music would have underscored thee scene just as effectively while being more interesting as music."

I'll concede the fact that North's composition is more consistent. But again, watch the space station docking sequence with North's cue "Space Station Docking" (Track #7). North's music shimmers prettily, but Kubrick's choice of The Blue Danube waltz shows a sly sense of humor, marrying the trite with the miraculous. Kubrick was up to something with music as metacommentary, and he never did go back to using an entirely composed score in the rest of his film career - not always with such great results. (Just think of that stupid repetitive piano in Eyes Wide Shut. Or don't, actually.)

As with the deleted scenes and often-way-too-long "directors' cuts" of movies themselves, I can understand why cuts and deletions were made, including entire scores like this. I love having them to see and hear what might have been, but ultimately I think they end up justifying the choices of film editors -- and in this case, its director.

*Gee, speaking of this, the plot thickens -- Somebody has discovered that Floyd's song "Echoes" lines up nearly perfectly with the "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" sequence in 2001. It's on YouTube, of course: Judge for yourself. Personally, I think this may just be proof that it's easy to convince stoners of nearly anything.

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