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Gyorgy Ligeti, Stanley Kubrick and 2001. A Story with a Sting in the Tail.

György Ligeti (left) and Stanley Kubrick (right) [Source: Wikipedia]
György Ligeti (left) and Stanley Kubrick (right) [Source: Wikipedia]

Ok, so you’ve heard of the film ‘2001’? The one set in space with the black monolith and the mad A.I. computer HAL? And its legendary director Stanley Kubrick? You know, the one who was a notorious perfectionist and whose cinematography also includes films such as the ‘Dr. Strangelove’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘The Shining.’

So who is György Ligeti and what does he have to do with Kubrick and that movie?

Ligeti is one of the most important composers in twentieth century music. 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, so you may hear a lot more of his music about the place this year. He belongs to a set of composers sometimes referred to as the 'post-war avant-garde.'

‘Post-war avant-garde’ refers to a group of composers, including figures such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio, who were considered the most cutting-edge and radical figures of their time. Some would say that this makes their music hard to listen to. We consider that a matter of opinion. It’s radical, strange, even ‘difficult,’ but that doesn’t stop it being absorbing and often plain sumptuous.

It is an opinion that was shared by director Stanley Kubrick. When editing his film ‘2001’, considered by many to be his masterpiece, Kubrick selected a number of pieces of music to act as ‘placeholders’ before commissioning composer Alex North to write an original score.

These well-known works include ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ by Richard Strauss, the ‘Blue Danube Waltz’ by Johann Strauss II and also several works by György Ligeti: his ‘Atmosphères’ for orchestra (1961), ‘Aventures’ for 3 voices and 7 instruments (1962), ‘Lux Aeterna’ for 16-part choir (1966) and his Requiem for voices and orchestra (1963–5).

On hearing Alex North’s music Kubrick came to realise that these placeholder pieces worked better, so he decided to keep them. This was devastating for poor North, who went to the New York City premiere of the movie expecting to hear his score, only to find that the dastardly director had left it on the cutting room floor.

To be fair, Kubrick makes superb use of the works by the other composers.

Richard Strauss’s phenomenal Also Sprach Zarathustra is used twice in the opening, where it is intercut with the music by Ligeti (more of which in a moment) and at the end of the film:

Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz is used to suggest the beauty and weightlessness of the spececraft in the following scenes:

It is the music of Ligeti, however, that is seared into the memory. His ‘Atmosphères’ is a work that makes use of a dense kind of writing he developed known as ‘micropolyphony.’

‘Polyphony’ is a term used to describe the sounding together of independent melodic lines that nevertheless fit together in a way that makes harmonic sense. The simplest form of this is a round or canon, such as Palestrina’s 3-part Dona Nobis Pacem.

Ligeti’s micropholyphony makes use of many more individual parts, which are clustered closer together and make use of all the notes on the keyboard, resulting in a dark, dissonant texture that bristles with energy.

Kubrick opens the film with this extraordinary work by Ligeti and, in one of the most famous scenes in all cinema, at the end of the movie almost the whole work is played beneath the abstract ‘stargate’ sequence:
Ligeti’s Requiem shares the micropolyphonic style of ‘Atmospheres,’ except it also includes voices, making it especially dramatic and, frankly, a tad scary. In the film it becomes associated with the mysterious black monolith:
'Lux Aeterna' also makes use of microplyphony. With just 16 voices and no instruments, however, the effect is of a more transparent, cleaner texture more akin to the polyphonic works of composers by Palestrina already mentioned. Lux Aeterna’ means ‘Light Eternal.’ In the film, to paraphrase composer Barnaby Martin, this represents the light or ‘information’ that the monolith is giving to the astronauts, leading them to Jupiter.

The Sting in the Tail

The appearance of Ligeti’s music in the film did much to popularise his work, making him one of the few avant-garde composers to be known in wider popular culture. Unfortunately this story comes with a nasty twist.

The problem was that Ligeti was not consulted about the use of his music in the film. When he learned about it from a friend he said: “I was absolutely astonished. I became very angry.” After filing a lawsuit, Ligeti received the pathetically small sum of $3,000 for his trouble.

For Ligeti to become so associated with a cinematic work may also have been galling for him because, despite the fact that the compositions used by Kubrick do represent the cream of his works in the 1960s, there were many masterpieces that followed.

These include his crystalline and (for listeners) very accessible Piano Études, a wonderful Chamber Concerto for 13 instrumentalists, a fiendish but exhilarating Piano Concerto and an opera, 'Le Grand Macabre,' complete with its prelude for car horns:
So perhaps, in this, his 100th anniversary year, it’s time to challenge yourself with a bit of Ligeti's music beyond the soundtrack to '2001.' And after that, why not seek out some of those other avant-garde composers mentioned? Sometimes more difficult things reap deeper rewards...

P.S. And if you’re interested in the rest of the music that appears in 2001, why not play through some of it here on 8notes. Links below:

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