Monday, October 10, 2016


In 1964 Stanley Kubrick, who had by this time directed several notable and some Oscar-nominated films (Killer's Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove) as well as one multiple-Academy-Award-winner (Spartacus), was now diving deep into science fiction. He'd become interested making a film about extraterrestrial life and was reading the work of top genre writers in search of a source novel that he could adapt. A knowledgeable acquaintance pointed him in the direction of Arthur C. Clark and though Clarke hadn't yet worked in film or had any of his novels adapted - and was wary - he was persuaded to collaborate by the dynamic and visionary Kubrick. Together the two would devise the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Clarke would concurrently write a novel of the same name.

In developing what would become a stunning visual contemplation of the evolution of man's consciousness, Kubrick would research heavily and spend a good amount of the film's production budget on technical invention. He referenced the writings and photographs of paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey in exploring man's past. In looking forward, Kubrick wanted ideas and designs from companies like IBM, Honeywell, Boeing, General Dynamics and others and persuaded them to participate by offering to display their corporate logos in his film. Space consultants Harry Lange and Frederick Ordway, both formerly of NASA, were contracted to work on 2001, Lange to design spacecraft and Ordway as principal technical advisor. 

In considering the groundbreaking film's musical direction, Kubrick, according to his biographer Vincent LoBrutto, had early on tried to hire German composer Carl Orff, who had written Carmina Burana, a piece the director often listened to "for atmosphere" while working on the screenplay with Clarke. Orff, in his 70s at the time, reportedly said no, explaining that he felt he was too old to take on a project of such magnitude.

During the course of production Kubrick compiled a temporary music track, or "temp track," of previously recorded music to accompany the film in the interim. It wasn't until December 1967, four months before 2001's release, that veteran film composer Alex North (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Misfits, Cleopatra, Prizzi's Honor), who had composed and been Oscar-nominated for his music for Kubrick's Spartacus, was hired to score the film. Because the work on 2001's monumental special effects wouldn't be finished until post-production was complete, North was told he would be unable to watch the finished film while working on his score, that he would have to create his score based on viewing an early part of the film and on in-depth discussions with Kubrick.  The director played his temp track for the composer, telling him that he wanted to keep some of the pieces on the track in the film. North balked at this, believing he was equal to composing original music that would express Kubrick's vision just as well.

Over a three week period in January 1968, North composed nearly 50 minutes of music. Severely stressed by the tight deadline, he was stricken with muscle spasms and back pain. He later remarked, "I was taken to the recording in an ambulance because my whole body was tied up in knots from having to work day and night." Though North expected to return to the studio again in February for another recording session, Kubrick contacted him to say that no more music was needed. It wasn't until he attended a screening of the film just before its wide release in April 1968 that Alex North found that his score, or partial score, had been jettisoned in favor of the music on Kubrick's temp track. The 15-times-Oscar-nominated composer was shocked and devastated.

The story of the lost North score for 2001 would become something of a controversy and a legend, and 25 years would pass before it would again be heard. The North score first resurfaced in 1993 [Alex North's 2001, Varese-Sarabande, VSD 5400] when it was re-recorded by North admirer and fellow film composer Jerry Goldsmith (Chinatown, Alien, L.A. Confidential), and the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Then, in 2006 the Intrada Special Collection, Music for 2001: A Space Odyssey/The Original Score by Alex North, North's own copy of the music he originally recorded for the movie, was released. North did not live to see the release of either recording; he died in 1991 at age 80. Of his 2001 score he had said, "I'm glad I did it, because I have the score, and I did some very fresh things as far as I myself am concerned."  He was one of many who believed that Kubrick had become "so latched onto" his temporary music track that he couldn't "adjust to a new score."

A portion of Alex North's score for 2001: A Space Odyssey

Kubrick commented on his decision to reject North's score during an interview in the mid-'70s. He said that though he had played the temp track for North before the composer set to work, North's final score, in his opinion, "could not have been more alien to the music we had listened to...and was completely inadequate for the film."  Kubrick went on to imply that he had, at that late date, no other option than to use the music on his temp track as 2001's score. Others who have since examined the evidence in detail believe Kubrick, a meticulous detail man, simply chose the music because he felt it best suited the film.

Though many have hailed the North score as a lost masterpiece and eminent film composers, most vocally Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Taxi Driver), severely criticized Kubrick's use of existing concert hall music, not everyone agrees that the North score is superior to the final score. Roger Ebert had this to say:

"North's score...would have been wrong for 2001 because, like all scores, it attempts to underline the action - to give us emotional cues. The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action."

A sampling of the music Stanley Kubrick chose for 2001:

 Richard Strauss's "Also spake Zarathustra"

Gyorgi Ligeti's "Requiem"


The San Francisco Symphony launches its 2016/2017 film series season with Stanley Kubrick's epic 1968 sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Oscar-winning classic will be presented on the big screen on three successive nights, Thursday October 13 through Saturday October 15, with the symphony performing the film score live. Those who arrive early will hear a pre-concert discussion by Kate McQuiston, author of We'll Meet Again: Musical Design in the Films of Stanley Kubrick and Associate Professor of Music at the University of Hawai'i, as she provides unique insights into Kubrick's use of music in 2001.

On October 13, special guest Keir Dullea, famous for his role as astronaut David Bowman in 2001, joins McQuiston for a conversation about working with Kubrick on the film. Click here for more information.

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is on view now through October 30 at San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum. Click here for details.


Stanley Kubrick: A Biography by Vincent LoBrutto (Donald J. Fine Books, 1997)

"Stanley Hates This But I Like It!" North vs. Kubrick and the Music of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Paul A. Merkley (The Journal of Film Music, Fall 2007)


Many thanks to the San Francisco Symphony for providing tickets to this event. 


  1. Wonderful background to the making of 2001 Lady Eve. I was ignorant of this aspect of the film, and North's "lost" score. Judging from this and Kubrick's later films, especially Barry Lyndon, I know how immersed he was in the music for his films and the role it played in setting mood and background for story and characterization. I still remember the total experience watching this movie was when seeing it on its first release.I await part 2.

    1. Thanks, Christian. As I understand it, Kubrick used previously recorded music on all or most of the remaining films he made.

      I also remember watching this movie for the first time in 1968. Quite an experience.

  2. Such a great film - timeless. I really enjoyed your backstory on the score. Poor Alex North goes to the premiere expecting to hear his music and instead hears the original temporary track - that's like a composer's worst nightmare. What's most awful is that Kubrick didn't give him any warning - what was he thinking?

    1. No one knows what Kubrick was thinking but I imagine he was under a lot of pressure to get the film completed and into theaters - it was an enormously expensive film and I'm sure the studio was anxious to get it out. As I understand it, Alex North did use some part of his "2001" score on another film later on, possibly "Dragonslayer."

    2. North's music sounds excellent, but I feel that the familiarity of the classical pieces that Kubrick used helped contribute to a sense of human history, it rooted the audience, connecting it with the past and the familiar, which contrasted nicely with humanity evolving into the next stage of consciousness, the unknown. I also felt the well known music had a certain ironic power that made for an interesting mix of feelings.

    3. I like North's music very much, too, but think Kubrick did a superb job of selecting music for 2001, most of it now inextricably identified with the film. He had to have been aware of, and pleased with, the irony of juxtaposing the well known pieces with futuristic images.