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29 June 1995 Amazon links updated 02 June 2001

2001: an ambient legacy

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Wr. by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, Dir. by Stanley Kubrick (MGM/UA Home Video M203103; 139 minutes), 1968.

2001: a space odyssey is available on widescreen VHS (or a deluxe set with CD soundtrack), and DVD (1999 release, remastered 2001 release, or limited edition 2001 release) from Amazon.com. Need help?

Please note in the purchase links above that new releases of the restored BFI 2001 version are available on Amazon as of June 12, 2001.

The bet is this: I can make a solid argument that, over 27 years after its release to critical acclaim, Stanley Kubrick's science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, continues to be a cutting edge ambient, multimedia accomplishment.

Well, you say, that's easy. Sure, it's a masterpiece of filmic art; it could be Kubrick's highest achievement. It's arguably the finest of the science fiction genre (you can trace its influence through the ensuing years even to today's most recent releases, like Apollo 13). No doubt about that.

Beyond these obvious hallmarks, I've become convinced that a great deal of the ambient revolution, now and for the past couple of decades, owes much of its impetus to the achievement of 2001. I can make this sweeping declaration because I'm intimately familiar with the film. I grew up with it, I dreamt about it as a child, I studied it as a film student, and return even today from each viewing with new revelations (I still find new metaphors and elements hidden in it; Myst has nothing on 2001 for hints and puzzles). As an adult reviewer of music, film and computing products, I see a multitude of prophecies and legacies within its Cinerama frame. But most of all, I listen to it, and know it so well that I can close my eyes and hear it in my head.

The soundtrack has always chilled me. The whole film is a mind-blower, yes, but this starts with all the bold choices Kubrick made in deciding how 2001 would sound. The film combines eerie contemporary music with classical waltzes and ballet suites, grunts and snarls with pneumatic hisses and synthesized beeps. One character has a rough, throaty voice but a computer talks with a soft, mellifluous tone (the classic characterization of a smooth-talking villain). In 2001, space is accurately depicted as a truly silent vacuum, but Technological Man fills this world with the sound of circulating air systems, humming computers and hissing doors. (The sonic menace of a hulking ship was later taken to an extreme in Ridley Scott's Alien.) 2001 is alive with sound, and most of it is environmental. That is, most of it is ambient.

2001 begins with a desert plain, and the sounds of wind, insects, vultures ... and ape-men digging in the dirt for a morsel of vegetation. When a leopard snarls and attacks a man-ape, it rocks the soundtrack. The film ends with Dave Bowman, breathing ... then stepping into a fabricated room on the alien world (while weird, deceleration sounds are heard outside), and the dripping of water in the bathroom, and finally himself as an older man, dining on an elegant breakfast meal. (Eating is a crucial element throughout the film.) Both of these framing scenes are made suspenseful not just by their slow pacing, and their unfamiliar placement, but the eerie, subdued, anxious sonic matrix. The room at the end is, to me, excruciatingly tense ... because Bowman keeps patiently scraping his plate with the silverware and then -- suddenly -- smashes his glass of water on the tiled floor. The sound, more than the act, shocks the listener like a cold shower.

Another famous scene that illustrates this contrast is the sequence in which Bowman is rescuing his murdered shipmate, Frank Poole. The silence of space, through which Poole spins and falls to his doom, is absolute. Where earlier, the space walks were accompanied by the methodical breathing of the astronaut in his helmet, here there is no breath, no life, no sound, only lifelessness, a pure void broken by the anomaly of a bright orange space suit tumbling away into an absolute Nowhere. But inside Bowman's craft, the shipboard radar tracker pings loudly, building in intensity. The juxtaposition of the silence of a dying man floating alone in space with an annoying radar scope, insistently chirping away, is about as violent a contrast as one hears in the film; as the dead man drifts into view through the window, the audience senses how alone man is in space.

Later, when Bowman maneuvers to reenter the ship without his helmet, through the very same cosmic void that killed his partner, the subtle sounds and "whirrs" of the craft are irritating. They abruptly give way to loud, obnoxious warning tones, and a banshee-like alarm as he prepares for the worst. Again, the sound design, built of authentic ambient structures, determines the tone and the overriding texture of the scene. By themselves the sounds are neutral, but contextually they take on greater emphasis.

This is what a lot of ambient music is about ... building an alternate space in your listening room, or in your head. An aural assemblage that is greater than the sum of its parts. 2001 is a mythological fable that plays out in the imagination, and the contrasting soundscapes are an integral feature.

In another way, the sound design contributes to the dialogue. It's not a fluke, since most of the actors' lines "talk around" the issues; in fact, almost every line is evasive and misleading. Dr. Heywood Floyd uses a ruse with some Russian scientists, and later emphasizes the need for a security cover-up to the American Clavius Base administrators. Bowman and Poole are deceptive when discussing problems with the HAL 9000 computer, and even talk in generalities when in private (HAL says later, "I could see your lips move.") Most of the characters make this kind of small talk; Bowman and Poole, probably conscious of conserving valuable air, rarely talk to each other at all, and (oddly enough) nothing is said during the space walks.

It's possible that Kubrick's indirect dialogue pattern inspired then-fledgling filmmaker George Lucas. As film critic Roger Ebert noted in a review, the human characters' dialogue in THX-1138 is "half-heard, half-forgotten; people talk in a bemused way... Their words are suspended in a muted, echoing atmosphere in which only the computer-programmed recorded announcements seem confident."

The space station intercom mentions a lost cashmere sweater. HAL is programmed to sound just like a human, though in a soothing, unemotional tone. So, too, is the audio track neutral. Rarely does the music contribute to any emotional depth, it just acts as a segue from one scene to another. The background sounds, the ambience of 2001, are as innocuous. The background noise of machinery and beings rustles throughout the film like a distracted janitor ... but the absence of the sound (as when Poole's air hose is severed, also silencing his helmet mike) is jarring. Take the ambient texture away and all is in disorder.

The legacy of 2001's sound design is clear in later films such as THX-1138, Carroll Ballard's Never Cry Wolf, David Lynch's The Elephant Man, Francis Coppola's Rumble Fish and Ridley Scott's masterful Blade Runner. Filmmakers became far more conscious of the revolutionary possibilities that effective sound editing offered. Noise, quiet, eclectic effects, all contribute to a scene's power, but treating a film as an extended sonic performance, as well as visual, expanded the art. Dolby Labs boosted the film medium (and the film studios) by developing innovative technology for cleaning up playback fidelity, and offering multi-channel surround formats. At this time, Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Richard Pinhas and other pioneers of electronic and ambient music were exploring a new, deconstructed form of music, "unlocking the notes" as Eno has put it. A lot of this music has an undercurrent of sci-fi/fantasy to it. Otherworldly music can't help but appeal to the cosmic-minded.

And the slow, haunting cycles of ambient music relate to the slow, metered breathing of 2001's astronauts. The slow, unhurried development of theme is indigenous to space music, and another notable feature of 2001. It seems to take forever to see where the story was going, and even after viewing, some audiences wonder what it's all about. Quite a lot of people wonder what ambient music is all about! Both share the same unhurried development and extrapolation

True to its pseudo-namesake, 2001: A Space Odyssey is built up from cycles, and is itself an encompassing cycle. Eating, birthdays, water, returning,... even the scientifically accurate hardware like centrifuges, buttons, camera lenses, knobs, switches, hull designs, windows, utility arms -- everywhere in the film the image of a circle or globe appears. Just as ambient music often returns to an emotional origin (many pieces are meant to be played in an endless loop), and the origins of ambient music (even ambient multimedia works like Myst) can be linked back to Kubrick's sound design, 2001 begins and ends with a sunrise on Earth, as the Bowman/Star Child returns home to grace our blue orb. Some believe that ambient music is about personal introspection, and 2001 could be summarized as a depiction of man's quest to know himself by knowing all else. Over twenty years later, one of the most popular and recognized groups in ambient techno music is ... The Orb. The mind-expanding music of The Orb, Steve Roach, Seti, Suspended Memories, Tuu and so many more, in turn, reminds me of space, rhythmic breathing, the soft voice of HAL 9000 ... and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

-- D.B. Spalding

A self-described multicareerist, D.B. Spalding is a writer, musician, independent radio producer, computer consultant and online sysop; he writes frequently about music, film, computing and the mass- and multimedia.

Retrieve contact information for record labels whose material we've reviewed. (Updated periodically.)

See also:

2001: Part II -- Stanley Kubrick's parable of man versus his own supercomputer comes true in 1996/1997.

2001: a space odyssey FAQ Additions -- Suggested corrections and additions to the alt.movies.kubrick FAQ.

Zero Gravity Toilet instructions from the Aries spacecraft.

Last revision: 29 Jun 95 (minor revisions 24 July 1997)

© Copyright 1997 D.B. Spalding/Korova Multimedia. All rights reserved.







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