Stellar performance: this powerful orchestral odyssey does Kubrick’s genius justice.

2001: A Space Odyssey
Sydney Symphony, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs/André de Ridder

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, January 24

No filmmaker has ever married striking visuals and classical music with such impact as Stanley Kubrick; you can hardly recall a scene from his 1968 epic without the trumpet of Thus Spake Zarathustra blaring its way into your consciousness. Which is why I waited with bated breath while the opening credits started to roll – I don’t believe it’s true what they say; that in space, no one can hear you fluff a note. But the Sydney Symphony players acquitted themselves admirably under the precisely synched and computer-monitored baton of André de Ridder, the timpanist’s mallets held high and proud. That mighty, radiant C Major chord that sets the world alight was a triumphant introduction to this three-hour immersion in Kubrick’s universe of vision and sound.

Unlike the SSO’s concert screenings of Metropolis and West Side Story in recent years, there are long stretches of tacet in the 2001 soundtrack. That gave the musicians a chance to conserve strength and perhaps even get lost in space for a scene or two, thanks to the stimulus of the cinema screen above them. But they were alert and fired up for every single note, the bold, bright and meticulously composed Kubrick aesthetic well matched to the crisp, clean playing in the SSO strings, particularly in the slow, lyrical unison of Khachaturian’s Gayane Adagio, which captures so poignantly the vast loneliness of space. By contrast, the phrasing was elegant yet buoyant in the Blue Danube waltz that accompanies the whirling dance of two spacecraft – music Kubrick described as the “poetry of motion”.

The Sydney Philharmonia undoubtedly had the toughest – and most haunting – music to perform. They were visceral, if a little tentative at first, in Ligeti’s Requiem, the microtonal, bone-marrow chill of clamouring a cappella voices that herald Kubrick’s towering monolith and its mysterious, timeless power. And it is Ligeti’s Atmosphères, as our last surviving cosmonaut loses his mind hurtling through space and we see his journey as a synaesthetic montage of colour, that builds up such a dark, spectral orchestral and choral palette of timbres (especially winds and brass), refracted through long-sustained cluster-chords. 

Ligeti didn’t even know his music had been used until a friend congratulated him after seeing the film in New York – a lawsuit and settlement followed before Kubrick eventually featured the Hungarian composer’s music in two other films. That wasn’t the only musical scandal associated with Space Odyssey: Kubrick had engaged Spartacus composer Alex North to write the original score, but was so taken with his own classical “temp” tracks that he furtively used those instead. North only discovered he had been dumped when he attended a screening. But perhaps playing second fiddle to Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II, Khachaturian and Ligeti isn’t so bad. 

To those who don’t think seeing a film of this calibre with a live orchestra adds another dimension to the experience, I point to how much more nuanced an understanding of Space Odyssey I feel I’ve arrived at after such an intense musical focus. There is also the communal spirit and the exhilaration of being among thousands witnessing a tour-de-force performance, and giggling all together about the Zero Gravity Toilet onboard Kubrick’s commercial space carrier. Certainly I didn’t miss the Berlin Phil from the original recording. And with the transparent acoustic sound reflector rings, or “clouds”, hovering high over the stage like UFOs, we really could have been en route to the moon. Seeing those massive forces of more than 150 people bonded together to interpret the pinnacle of man’s cultural achievement, as the apes of Kubrick’s Dawn of Man are shown bashing rocks on the screen above… Shows just how far we have come.

2001: A Space Odyssey plays again at the Adelaide Festival Centre March 8–9. View event details here.

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