It’s an undeniable epic: Stanley Kubrick’s classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which turned 50 years old this past Apr., is known to be one of the most wildly influential films of all time. Pioneering visual effects, bold aesthetic decisions — including scene length, dialogue, music (or lack thereof) — and abstract plot classify the film as contemporary art. By itself, it can be an intense movie-watching experience, given its length (just shy of three hours) and unconventional pace. But add a live orchestra, and you’ve got a new movie-watching experience entirely.
To kick off their 140th season, the University Musical Society presented “2001: A Space Odyssey” in conjunction with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Though Hill Auditorium seats over 3,500 people, community members began lining up for the free event long before 8:00 p.m., and by the time it began, nearly every seat in the house was full.
The music featured in — and now cognitively inseparable from — “2001: A Space Odyssey” is almost as famous as the movie itself; the opening piece, a theme from the Richard Strauss tone poem “Also sprach Zarathustra,” begins with those iconic three notes — the root, the perfect fifth and the octave — (you know the three), followed by those next two notes, the dramatic half step between the minor and major third. It’s one of the most famous musical phrases of all time. I’ve heard it a million times before, and this was not my first time seeing the film. Yet there was something different about hearing the notes from a full, live orchestra, performing right under a huge projection of the movie.
The grandiosity of Hill added a sense of greatness to the event — even from the balcony, I could feel the energy of the hall, the audience and the cohesion of art in front of me. I’d never seen a movie and a live orchestra playing simultaneously, and as I sat watching it among the 3,500 other people around me while the DSO played, I began to notice a strong similarity between the experience I was having and that of going to the opera. I don’t know exactly what it was that triggered the association, but watching the overarching story happening on the screen, with the orchestra and conductor on stage, reminded me of what it feels like to sit in the audience of a show like “La Bohème” or “Cosi Fan Tutti.” It’s an experience where you can see the instruments in front of you producing the sound that completes what you are visually intaking; it is an experience that is well-rounded — one that you can almost feel throughout your entire body, with all of your senses engaged in a way that doesn’t happen every day.
This also got me thinking: While the music used in “2001: A Space Odyssey” was not written specifically for the movie, most films have scores that are commissioned for the sole purpose of complementing the movie at hand. Today, a few composers who are known for film scoring are household names: John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Alexandre Desplat, to name a few. The mental association of melodies with their respective movies — such as the “Indiana Jones” theme, the “Star Wars” theme, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme — is unbreakable. They are as essential to the movie as the plot itself. So why is movie music generally not taken as seriously as, say, the music written for operas by Mozart, Puccini and Verdi?
In the Academy Award-winning 1984 film “Amadeus,” Mozart is shown composing and conducting operas he has written — operas that are now considered some of the greatest and most famous of all time, such as “The Marriage of Figaro,” “The Magic Flute” and “Don Giovanni.” When his performances finish and the operas come to a close, we see the audience erupt in to applause and praise. He is portrayed as a rock star of his time. The stories that these operas reflect, however, already existed in some capacity before they were made into an opera by Mozart. “The Marriage of Figaro” was first a play, “The Magic Flute” is based on Viennese literature and “Don Giovanni” tells the much-performed story of Don Juan. But it is when Mozart tells these stories through music that they become something else entirely, evoking emotion in audiences that is only possible through music.
There are fundamental differences between an opera, where the entire production is done through music, and a film, where the music is usually not the absolute focus, but the two may not be as contrasting as we might think. Rightly so, operas and films are not overtly considered to be competing art forms, as they embody quite different characteristics and require distinct preparation, pre-production work and post-production work. But as I sat watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” with the orchestra playing right there, I realized that, although the evolution of entertainment is often examined through a technological lens — beginning with early forms of radio and moving through the subsequent decades from there — it is worth considering the commonalities between the viewing experience of an opera and that of a movie.
Maybe having a live orchestra with a film screening will become more common and accessible; maybe audiences will like having a special, extravagant movie-going experience that parallels that of going to the opera, realizing it combines the excitement of seeing a movie with the exhilarating nature of seeing live performers. Maybe something like this will be the new iPic. Who knows. But either way, seeing “2001: A Space Odyssey” in this way completely transformed my experience watching the film, listening to the music live and understanding the marriage between the two.