March 31, 2011 / 7:23 AM / in 7 years

2001: A concert odyssey blasts off in London

LONDON (Reuters) - Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” made the timpani intro of Richard Strauss’s “Thus Sprach Zarathustra” a cliche for a dramatic entrance and the crescendo of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” a cult classic.

Now fans of one of the most influential soundtracks of all time can hear it in sound that will out-Dolby Dolby for an ambitious programme at London’s Southbank Center that combines a new print of Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi masterpiece with a large chorus and full orchestra playing the film music live.

“It’s absolute goosebumps,” said Gillian Moore, head of contemporary culture at Southbank, where two concert showings of “2001: A Space Odyssey” will be given next week (April 7 and 8).

“It’s like an opera,” added German conductor Andre de Ridder, whose job it is to coordinate the massive forces of the orchestra and chorus with a film that was never meant, unlike some silent films, to have a live musical accompaniment.

“I would say it is the perfect marriage of sound, theater, drama and visual art,” he added -- covering all the bases.

The two screenings mark a return engagement for an experiment that sold out last year and is one of the main attractions of a month-long “Ether” festival of contemporary classical and art music that has dance and other strands thrown in for good measure.

One of those offerings -- sure to appeal to fans of James Cameron’s “Avatar” -- is a 3D performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” with a dancer inside a cube whose movements are recorded by cameras and projected onto a screen. The audience will see effects that at one point make the dancer’s movements look like snowflakes, and hear the music played live (April 23).

Kubrick, who embraced cutting-edge technology and whose special effects in “2001” still look futuristic 40 years later, would have gotten a kick out of the 3D ballet, and the efforts that have gone into making his sci-fi opus concert friendly.

The main obstacle was that his original soundtrack mixed the music, sound effects and the remarkably small amount of dialogue into one multi-track recording, bound together for eternity.

“It wasn’t separated out into dialogue, sound effects, music etc, it was mixed together so there would have to be a job done to separate it. Warner Bros helped us hugely in doing this,” Moore said.

De Ridder said new software was used that projected various frequencies in different colors on a screen, so the dialogue and sound effects could be distinguished from the music.

“Technically it remains a miracle to me,” he added.

With that out of the way, the main challenge is to get the chorus and orchestra consisting of well over 100 people to play in synch with the film -- but de Ridder said the fact that Kubrick cut the movie to fit the music is a big help.

He particularly enjoys the way Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” accompanies the movements of a pen floating in weightless space. “It works in a lovely way with that pen,” said de Ridder, who has memorized the film so he can hold it all together.

Kubrick’s other masterstroke, common to most of his movies, was a seemingly unerring ear for using existing works of classical music, and the occasional folk or pop tune, that suit his films better than any purpose-written Hollywood score.

His big discovery for “2001,” apart from having rescued Strauss’s “Zarathustra” from concert-hall obscurity, was three pieces he used by the then little-known Hungarian avant gardist Ligeti, who was pleased by the exposure but annoyed that no one had bothered to tell him his music was in Kubrick’s film.

“I think they sort of became friends, but Ligeti was still pouting about it (years later),” de Ridder said.

Ligeti was a particularly apt choice for a film about outer space and eternity because his use of micropolyphony -- meaning the sounds in between the 12 tones contained within a piano octave -- creates a feeling of irresolution, French music scholar Simon Gallot, who has written a book about “Gyorgy Ligeti and Popular Music” (Editions Symetrie, Lyon), said.

“Sometimes there are violent clashes between the voices...and different rhythms, which scramble the sounds, until in the end all the dissonances are resolved,” Gallot said.

Which is fine for the music, but what about the movie? Forty years on, people still debate what it means, but as far as Moore is concerned, what really matters is that it is “an absolutely extraordinary film.”

Editing by Paul Casciato

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