2001: A Space Odyssey - Alex North's unused Soundtrack

Alex North's 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack CD cover Stanley Kubrick had worked with Alex North before on "Spartacus" and called upon him to create a score for his first science fiction film "2001: A Space Odyssey". In briefing North, he had made it clear that he was quite attached to some of his temporary tracks which were all classical works, but nevertheless he wanted North to produce a score for this great film. North set to work, all the time discussing, playing and polishing his ideas with the director, and the tracks were duly recorded to Kubrick's apparent satisfaction. Then one day, when he was about three-quarters of the way through the film, North was asked to stop. The composer was philosophical about this assuming that Kubrick had as much as he wanted, and that the rest of the movie would use the classical music. It was only when he attended a preview of the finished movie that he realised that Kubrick had decided to retain classical music throughout and not one of North's tracks were used.

This incident is a particularly tactless example of something that can happen frequently in the movie business, where much material can end up on the cutting room floor. However something of a cult following developed over the intervening years. One or two people had heard various snippets from the unused recordings, and North himself had used some of the ideas in other compositions. Musicians and film buffs alike who had appreciated North's work were saying to themselves "The released soundtrack was striking and memorable, but what was the unused score like?". A legend had developed but would the score ever be heard? Robert Townson the music producer struck up a friendship with North and they agreed to re-record his score under the baton of Jerry Goldsmith. The project took some time to organise, and Alex North died before it was realised. Nevertheless, Townson and Goldsmith booked the National Philharmonic Orchestra into Abbey Road Studios and recording took place. The result was this soundtrack titled "Alex North's 2001".

The Main Title follows closely in form to Richard Strauss's fanfare opening to Also Sprach Zarathustra from the "temp track" laid down by Stanley Kubrick. Starting with a low held note, it has three repetitions of a section which each time lead to a loud "tutti" from the orchestra, on the third occasion culminating in a majestic statement of joy and triumph which ends on a sustained chord from the organ. Hints of this title music recur at various points in the film to suggest the work of the mysterious monoliths.

The next five tracks were created for the Paleolithic scenes with the proto-humans, drums, percussion and brass tending to dominate the music and conveying their brutish nature. (This section may bring to mind Goldsmith's own Planet of the Apes but any resemblance must surely be coincidence.) The Foraging paints the harsh landscape inhabited by "Moon-Watcher" and his tribe. Food is scarse, and the music is almost formless with a bleak sadness. The Dawn of Man is an alternative track for this opening segment, which is more unsettled but less sympathetic to the apes. Both North and Kubrick preferred "The Foraging". The Bluff accompanies the sequence where there is a confrontation between two tribes near a waterhole, establishing the intense competition for these scarce resources and the threats between tribes. Night Terrors sees the apes resting uneasily in a cave, some sixth sense alerting them to strange events outside and they remain apprehensive. Eat Meat and The Kill is the culmination of this "Dawn of Man" sequence where the primitive Moon-Watcher (intelligence sparked by some strange artifact) learns that bones can be used as tools and weapons. There is plenty of percussion in this section with bone-smashing cymbal clashes and the woodwind seemingly yelping in sympathy with the beleaguered tapir. It ends with him smashing a tapir skeleton as a bone is thrown into the air... There is an ambivalence to North's music, representing a major discovery and evolutionary leap, yet at the same time it signals the start of a new phase in man's violent nature.

There is a complete contrast as we move forward 4 million years with the beauty and wonder of space travel in Space Station Docking. This is one of North's best tracks, an impressionistic dance, waltz-like at times but with more complex rhythm's too. The interaction between the strings and woodwind seem to suggest a kinship with playful "Mercury" from Holst's Planet Suite, and the woodwind feature more prominently in the space sequences. Space Talk is background music to the pleasantries exchanged aboard the space station, as though the playful dance music is resting after its journey, Interior Orion accompanies the scientist as he "phones home", and Trip to the Moon moves even further from the Blue Danube, bringing a sense of unearthly wonder with enchanted tinkling woodwind. The music of Moon Rocket Bus introduces a wordless voice as the mystery deepens and more is revealled about the dig on the moon and the strange artifact found there, culminating in the emission of its signal towards Jupiter. This track builds in excitement and mystery and suggests the direction that Alex North might have taken if he had completed music for the final sections of the film.

2001: A Space Odyssey released soundtrack CD cover The last track on the CD is Main Theme Entr'acte, the comprehensive sleave-notes suggesting that this was written as an intermission for the film. The music initially suggests the tone of the main title with its timpani, brass and tutti chords, but is more complex in structure seemingly vearing between suggestions of a spirited Western and a Jazzy dance. It might seem very tempting to compare individual tracks with Kubrick's classical selection. Let's be honest, North's title track in particular could not possibly compete with the Strauss opening in raw musical terms. However, it is grossly unfair to try to attempt such a comparison since the purpose of each individual classical piece is wholly different from the cues on a film soundtrack. The released classical pieces were variously composed as serious concert works, light dance or ballet music. North's music was composed solely for the purpose of supporting this monumental film, and this it does so skillfully and confidently. At mfiles we prefer North's soundtrack to the released one, and our reasons are: 1) There is a greater sense of unity about the score, with overt and subliminal thematic references across the millions of miles and years; 2) Without losing the enigmatic quality, it brings a greater feeling of humanity to an otherwise cold and clinical movie - an emotional identification with the participants even where they seem not quite human; 3) We prefer our classical music to be without visual associations, and most of all complete and uninterrupted. Whether or not you agree with us, it is now possible to enjoy two completely different musical realisations of this great film. Wouldn't it be great if a DVD were released with alternative soundtrack options? Since this review was first published a few videos have appeared on youtube which sequence the film with North's soundtrack though none are complete: What might have been part 1, What might have been part 2 and 2001: Alex North title.

This soundtrack represents one of the great moments in an alternative film history which might have been. That the recording was widely anticipated can be seen by "notes" quoted in the accompanying booklet by Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini and John Williams. Who can tell with any certainty what the outcome would have been if the movie was released with this soundtrack. We might hazard a guess that the course of events might not have been so different, the film may have had just as much of an impact on the public and film-making, though perhaps the opening of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra might not be so widely known as today. At any rate we can now now hear the originally commissioned soundtrack and make up our own minds. This Premier Recording of the legendary original score is available from Amazon.co.uk in the UK or Amazon.com in the US.

Track listing:

  • Main Title
  • The Foraging
  • Eat Meat and the Kill
  • The Bluff
  • Night Terrors
  • The Dawn of Man
  • Space Station Docking
  • Trip to the Moon
  • Moon Rocket Bus
  • Space Talk
  • Interior Orion
  • Main Theme