Tuesday, October 18, 2016

2001: A Music Odyssey

The San Francisco Symphony has a “Film Series” where they play the musical soundtrack from a movie live while the film unspools on a screen above them, which has always struck me as a bizarre waste of a great orchestra, but the idea seems to be very popular with audiences. Where the concept would make sense is accompanying a silent film, many of which were originally shown with full orchestral accompaniment.

The major exception that I have always wanted to see and hear is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are only 25 minutes of dialogue during its 140 minutes, and the remainder is a mixture of sound effects (heavy breathing, total silence, beeping alarms) and the most eccentric, modernist, and audacious soundtrack ever attached to a major Hollywood movie release, half of which consists of the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti at his most fearsome.

Last weekend the SF Symphony presented the movie for three performances with a huge orchestra and the Symphony Chorus in one of the most breathtaking marriages of sound and images I have ever experienced.

I write that without ever having been much of a fan of the film itself, which always struck me as slow, pretentious and without much narrative sense. However, I have long been friends with worshipers of the movie, including my spouse who saw the film as a teenager when it was first released. The movie so galvanized him that he ended up majoring in film and math at Boston University, and to this day his iPhone wallpaper is none other than the insane computer HAL 9000.

Kubrick always wanted to use classical music for the film, but MGM executives said no way and they had him commission a more traditional movie score from the esteemed film composer Alex North, who had also worked on Kubrick’s Spartacus. North managed to finish the music for the first hour of the film, but never heard back from Kubrick, and was mortified when the film was released to find that his work had been trashed and the “temporary” soundtrack of Khatchaturian, Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, Jr., and lots of Ligeti, which Kubrick had used to edit the images, had somehow made its way into the final cut over the studio execs’ protests. (The recording above was made by friends of Alex North, including conductor and fellow movie music composer Jerry Goldsmith, in the early 1990s.)

Watching the nearly 50-year-old film for the first time in years was fascinating. Though there are female scientists in the early moon shuttle scenes, the Future otherwise seems to be All White Male. The longest section of the episodic film, the Mission to Jupiter, still reads as bizarrely gay, with astronaut Gary Lockwood above spending his first fifteen minutes in the film running around in tight white shorts looking like a 1960s porn star, and the HAL 9000 computer sounding like an unctuous, evil queen. “Look, Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over,” he says after murdering every human onboard except for ridiculously handsome Keir Dullea as Dave.

The excitement this weekend was hearing all the strange, modernist Ligeti music (Atmospheres, Kyrie from Requiem, Lux aeterna, and Aventures) performed by a great, live orchestra and chorus with the slow-motion, art film images perfectly in sync. This is not to even mention the overwhelming, opening fanfare from Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra played at least three times, including the Starchild finale of the film. To paraphrase another Kubrick film, the experience made me finally stop worrying, and learn to love the bomb that is 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

You've made me wish I had gone to this.

Civic Center said...

Dear Patrick: I wasn't going to go because the Symphony PR department said they could only guarantee one ticket because the shows were selling so well, and the whole point was to take the 2001-worshiping Tony to see it, so I told them to go ahead and sell as many tickets as they could. Sometime last week I got an email saying somebody had canceled at the last minute and I could have two tickets, which turned out to be awesome 14th row aisle, and the live performances of LIGETI were amazing in this context. And so was The Blue Danube and the Khatchaturian and Also Sprach. I had to reevaluate everything I'd ever thought about this movie and acknowledge that my weirdo friends were probably right, it's an Art Film Masterpiece.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

You know I love live Ligeti and the words "Art Film Masterpiece" -- with initial caps, no less -- are like flowers to this bee.

Your remarks about what they did and did not envision in the future reminded me of seeing Barbarella for the first time recently; in that film they seem to have anticipated Skype by several decades but there's no sign of the feminist movement that would became a major force in just a few years. Funny what people imagine vs what they can't see even if it's right in front of them. . . .