Soundtracks On Vinyl - Alex North's 2001: A Space Odyssey

We take a listen to the original 2001 score by Alex North on vinyl. 

Stanley Kubrick’s still divisive masterpiece of science fiction, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is best known for being among the earliest uses of preexisting classical as well as avant-garde pieces of music on the soundtrack.  From Richard Strauss’ recurring opening cue Also Sprach Zarathustra to Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz as well as multiple atonal pieces by Hungarian avant-garde composer György Ligeti, Kubrick’s film bore an eclectic mixture of music the likes of which weren’t heard in unison on film before.  To this day, when Also Sprach Zarathustra comes on the radio, a television commercial or film, people automatically think of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Even Hans Zimmer’s score for the recently released Christopher Nolan film Interstellar owes numerous cues to Also Sprach Zarathustra with its overbearing organ howls.  In other words, the soundtrack to 2001 proved to be the basis for which almost all following science fiction films would follow.  But what you may not be aware of is that originally before director Stanley Kubrick elected to go ahead with preexisting pieces of music, he initially commissioned an original score by longtime composer and colleague Alex North.

Having formed a working relationship with Alex North during the production of the 1960 historical epic Spartacus as well as providing contributions to Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick turned to North once again to compose and record a complete original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Kubrick provided temp pieces as a reference point to North when he was in the early stages of editing.  It didn’t take long for Kubrick to realize he in fact preferred the temp pieces of music to what North had turned in, and he ultimately scrapped North’s score at the very last minute.  Most unfortunately for North, Kubrick didn’t even bother to notify North his music wasn’t going to be used and he had no idea about it until he attended the film’s 1968 world premiere at the Cinerama in New York City.  Kubrick had this to say on the matter, “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?”  Right or wrong, North was devastated by the revelation and concluded “Well, what can I say?  It was a great, frustrating experience” Despite not being used in the finished film, Alex North’s indisputably glorious original score, has been released on a limited edition vinyl record set by Mondo with some select platters aptly dubbed Beyond the Infinite color tinted to resemble the star gate sequence. 

Taking great care to recreate what might have been for listeners and fans of the film, Mondo worked closely with North’s estate to create the ultimate package for his abandoned work.  Presented in a black cover akin to the ominous monolith seen throughout the film with a gatefold resembling the star gate sequence concluding the film, the sleeve design of the set is exquisite.  Also included are liner notes by Jon Burlingame detailing how the score originally came to be, how it was ultimately dropped and explanations behind every track as to where it would appear in the final film or where it might have appeared in the film’s original two-and-a-half-hour premiere cut.  It’s worth noting North’s original opening cue did sound pretty close to what ultimately ended up on the film’s soundtrack.  Where it begins to differ is an opening prologue encompassing the Dawn of Man sequence.  Kubrick ultimately largely chose silence over the vistas of barren desert landscapes crawling with life forms including but not limited to pigs, apes and big cats, but North’s introduction offers an eerie, somber ambience to the proceedings with soft bass rumbles and gentle strings.  Scenes of the apes fighting over the water hole are augmented by percussive beats and sharp strings resembling the switchblade fight sequence North scored in Rebel Without a Cause.  When the film makes the transition to present day the score takes on a far more ethereal quality, conveying the awe and wonder of space travel.

Upon listening to the score, even synced up to the finished film, it’s easy to see why it was ultimately rejected in the editing process.  Again, much like Lalo Schifrin’s unused score for The Exorcist, North’s music is simply far too informative with regard to how the viewer should react to the scenery.  With the atonal music by Ligeti instead, with disembodied human voices and strings off key just enough that they sound alien in origin, you’re not sure how to feel and thus are alone in your interpretation of the film.  Still, for Kubrick aficionados as well as the bona fide 2001 completest, this is a fantastic addition to anyone’s soundtrack library, offering an alternative behind-the-scenes listen to one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.  If nothing else, Mondo has done a wonderful job bringing the score home with its elite packaging and detailed historical information including time stops for viewers to cue their favorite scenes up with the unused music.  At long last, North’s efforts have not been forgotten or gone to waste.

-Andrew Kotwicki