The Rest is Noise – 2001: A Space Odyssey

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The Philharmonia Orchestra performs music by Ligeti for a live-score screening of Kubrick's groundbreaking film

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Live-score screenings often seem rather pointless affairs, but Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey lends itself brilliantly. After all, Kubrick always intended the film would ‘hit the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does…’ Its epic narrative is visually driven: there’s no speech at all for nearly 40 minutes of the film. And the score – borrowed from that curious trio of György Ligeti, Richard and Johannes Strauss – has a key role in creating its disturbing tone, a curdled mix of satire, horror and documentary.

The evening began with Ligeti’s Atmosphères, the glacial stillness of whose tone clusters conjures instantly a zero-gravity world of intense alienation. (The fact that Kubrick never asked Ligeti’s permission to use the music was bizarrely compounded in this concert by the inexplicable omission of all composer details from the uninformative programme).

Just as Kubrick deals in multiple visual perspectives, with characters filmed upside down, from above and moving around a 360 degree space, so Ligeti’s micropolyphony rotates in multiple harmonic planes, an aural cubism to match the screen. Seeing the singers create their spooky sound clouds from Lux Aeterna live was a useful corrective: it would be easy to assume such sounds were computer-generated; the fact they are not injects that element of human vulnerability just as surely as the close-up of the astronaut’s eye.

While the use of Also sprach Zarathustra to denote a leap forward in human understanding has since become hackneyed, in 1968 it was an apt choice. The slow progress of spacecraft set to Strauss’s Blue Danube, however, has not lost its power to amuse – and discomfit – the viewer. Kubrick’s cosy, toy world of waltzing elephantine space stations, aglow with polite computers, ready-meals and banal exchanges is rendered absurd in the vastness of space.

Time is a pitiless destroyer of futuristic works of art, but Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s sci-fi creation not only stands up, but has acquired new, chilling familiarity. Steering clear of explosions, monsters, sex and sweaty close-ups, it inches forward with agonising sloth. Though Richard Branson might try to persuade us otherwise, Kubrick knew that space travel would be profoundly boring. We feel the painstaking tedium of life on board a space station, the arduousness of maintaining the human body in a hostile, sterile environment.  A significant part of the soundtrack aboard the Jupiter mission is simply – and effectively – that of human breathing.

So much of what they envisioned is now with us: the satellites, the computer that talks back, the skyping, virtual environments, even the personal ‘tablet’ (Samsung recently contested that Apple had stolen the idea of the iPad from the film). The footage now coming back from Saturn is far stranger than even Kubrick’s psychedelic ‘Stargate’ episode attempted. We’ve yet to build the computer that can throw a fatal tantrum, or have we…? As the credits rolled, the Philharmonia broke into the jarringly comfortable Blue Danube, and a stunned audience just about remembered to clap.

Find out about the other concerts in 'The Rest is Noise' series on the Southbank Centre's website.