Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Future As It Was

The Holy Grail of film-music appeared in my mail-box this week. The "lost" chord. The "score" that got away. It was just another mystery in a film that is full of them.

But now, all is revealed.

Alex North's unused score for "2001: A Space
Odyssey." Stanley Kubrick commissioned it, probably to keep some worried MGM execs off his back. By North's telling, the director was already well on his way to using classical pieces for his cobbled-together "score." But North really enjoyed the results of his collaboration with Kubrick on "Spartacus" (it's one of his best scores in a career full of great ones), and felt he could write something that would top Stanley's record collection.

He scored half of the movie. But few have heard it. North attended a screening before the world premiere and was shocked to hear that none of his work made it in. It was a bitter experience for him. He worked hard on those pieces for the strange science fiction film, and nothing came of it. North kept one cassette of the music, and lost it. And there has been endless speculation about the work and what sort of difference it would have made in the film. Jerry Goldsmith recorded a CD of it, immediately after North's death, in tribute. But now, the original session tracks (in mono) have been released on CD thanks to the Kubrick and North Estates, and it is a revelation (and you can listen to selections of it here or here).

So, last night I pulled my DVD of "2001" out of storage and synced the music up to the film (using timings supplied in the booklet) and watched the film for the first time with North's score.

And it sucked.

Not the music. The music is superb; brutal and isolating in "The Dawn of Man" sequences: fluttering and keening in the "Heywood Floyd" sections. Beautiful. Jarring. Triumphant in places...especially in the piece accompanying man's first use of a thigh bone as a weapon--North's ballsy attempt to supplant "Thus Sprach Zarathustra." The music is exotic and daring apart from the film.

But it's an education to see the music with the film it was composed for. Never has so much fine music been so wrong-headed.

The Dawn of Man: filled with despair and quick-silver drums

First off, the "Dawn of Man" sequence is scored "wall-to-wall" (with the exception of a space for the music accompanying the apes dawn-discovery of the monolith) which makes the experience relentless and oppressive. The music "matches" well here (it was an early sequence shot and edited with no special effects) and communicates a sense of despair and foreboding.

And that's the problem with it. North's music is constantly telling you what you "should" feel whereas in the film as it stands the only accompaniment is a sparse sound effects track. You get the same sense of space and isolation from this, but without the theatrics of the score. And again, the music is non-stop. There is no "breathing room" for the sequence and no respite from the dramatics.

One becomes aware watching both "versions" that the non-scored film requires input (and attention) from the audience to tell its story. There is no dialog (sorry, the ape grunts don't count) and no narration (though in the screenplay there was), and so the audience has to meet the film more than half-way in order to get anything out of it. With North's score emotional information is provided, allowing less attention from the audience and I'd speculate less involvement. Plus, the music brings a very real sense of artificiality to the scene. For that reason, the ape costumes seem less real, the action more rehearsed, and for this sequence, at the very start of the film, that's like taking any semblance of verisimilitude and clubbing it with a tibia.

The Waltz of Technology: whispy flutters and keening strings

The section of the transit to the Moon is where it gets really messy.

The music is less of a perfect match (in "The Dawn of Man" North actually accentuates every little nuance) owing to the late arrival of special effects and Kubrick tinkering with the film after a disasterous preview. But you can get the direction North was going in.

For the space-docking sequence, his music is fluttery and high-flying--a valid evocation of grace and flight. But when the scene shifts to the ship's interior--and Floyd's floating pen--North's music turns atonal and strange--dissonant and other-worldly.

And that is so wrong.

Much criticism was leveled at Kubrick for the use of waltz-king Johann Strauss' "Blue Danube" for these sequences ("banal" and "kitsch" were the terms most used by the pigeon-holing critics). But faced with North's alternative the choice seems obvious. Kubrick is using this traditional all-too-familiar waltz to show the orbital mechanics of space flight as a form of dance, a pretty sophisticated concept, especially in comparison to North's high-flying "music of the spheres." The use of the waltz implies a contained circular movement while also covering a distance of ground and that is a perfect analogy to the careful approaches that objects encircling the Earth must take to "rendezvous." But it is the carrying over of the music into the passenger-area and cabin-scenes that is the master-stroke. Where North makes these scenes of passenger-space-travel exotic and unnatural, Kubrick's use of the waltz conveys a sense of common-place--an every-day occurence as familiar to the people of "2001" as a trans-continental flight would be to its contemporary audiences (and doesn't the use of Pan-Am as the shuttle-carrier make that stunningly obvious?) The comforting waltz of "The Blue Danube" conveys complacency with humor making the complications of zero-gravity not bizarre/strange, but an amusing inconvenience while travelling in space.

And one further observation. "2001" is a film built without the under-pinnings of melodrama. It is as un-theatrical as it could be. North's music, unfortunately, is very much a part of those traditions, and adding its histrionics to Kubrick's work is a bit like taking a subtle dessert and covering it in Hershey's syrup. His music, though sophisticated and lovely, tamps down the uniqueness and experimental nature of "2001" and turns it into "just another" Hollywood sci-fi epic, making it less an experience and more of a roadshow.

Film-music fans do a lot of breast-beating about the "slight" to North, and where Kubrick might have made a phone-call informing him of it, he also didn't let Martin Balsam know that he wasn't using him as the voice of "Hal" or all the participants in the planned "talking-heads" prolog that it had been axed. Why?Probably because Kubrick was feeling his way on "2001," eliminating things in the eleventh hour--like the initially-planned narration--that he might have wanted the option of using, after all ("never say never"), or maybe he just didn't want to justify a decision he wasn't too sure of in the first place. Whatever. The fact of the matter is, North took his "2001" music (with its pay-check) and re-used some of it for his score of "
The Shoes of the Fisherman," and then again in the score for "Dragonslayer." Three on a match. And a separate salary was generated for each. Nice work if you can get it. Plus, North's reputation never suffered. He was always working as one can see by looking at the eclectic list of films on his imdb listing. He is, after all, the man who wrote "Unchained Melody" and introduced jazz to film-scores with his music for "A Streetcar Named Desire."

He'll always be remembered for that.

Alex North won a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1986

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