Dayton Hare: Monoliths and microtones

Thursday, September 27, 2018 - 5:56pm

The University Musical Society kicked off their 140th season a week ago with a bold move. Rather than opening with a standard-fare concert, theatre or dance performance, the arts presenter opted instead for a hybrid film screening/orchestral performance, free of charge for anyone who could make it into Hill Auditorium.

Stanley Kubrick’s innovative space epic “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released in 1968, a time that feels at once markedly distant and alarmingly relevant to our own epoch. For the film’s semicentennial, UMS and a handful of other organizations and orchestras around the world independently took up the task of offering a live performance of the movie’s soundtrack, played along with a screening of the film. As far as movie selections go, it’s a good choice — Kubrick had an ear for exactly the right music to convey his ideas, running the gamut from eerie to ironic, and “Space Odyssey” dabbles in this kaleidoscopic soundworld to an even greater extent than most of his other films. Perhaps more than any other movie of the era, the music of “2001” has inextricably lodged itself into our cultural memory, so much so that 30 years on people were still referencing it in children’s movies like “Toy Story 2.”

But the music of the ’68 film is interesting for more reasons than just its longevity. Music is, by necessity, the most abstract of the arts — it is, after all, fundamentally just vibrating air, representing nothing more or less than the sounds themselves. Its role as an accompaniment to staged drama or film has always been a fascinating one, and the way that it somehow draws out assorted emotions from its listeners still remains something of a mystery. “2001” is a particularly interesting case: Kubrick pulled from a wide selection of musical sources, ranging from the popular fin-de-siècle Viennese dance music of Johann Strauss II to the gnarly and petrifying avant-gardism of György Ligeti, with everything in between. A huge portion of the movie is silent — fitting, for space — but whenever music is present, it is absolutely inseparable from what is happening on screen. The famous planetary sunrise of the movie’s opening just can’t exist without Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Try watching it on mute — you feel nothing. And an audience member simply wouldn’t be able to recognize the sheer depth of loneliness present in the jogging scene without the mournful lyricism of Aram Khachaturian’s “Gayane Ballet Suite” in the background.

But the most interesting aspect of it, to me, is the way that Kubrick makes use of the terrifying “Kyrie” from Ligeti’s “Requiem.” The piece is the first thing you encounter in the film, as you face a black screen with a chorus darkly murmuring the music in the background, building in a disturbing crescendo. The piece forms the harrowing emotional core of the film and comes to be associated with the ominous monolith that first appears among the community of hominids in the prehistoric section of the film. It recurs throughout the remainder of the movie, often when the monolith is present, menacing and brooding in the background. I’ll leave it to the film critics to hash out what the monolith itself means, but for me, the music conveys the message clearly. Ligeti’s piece augments the unease we feel about the towering black object and connects the image of sleek modernity with some primitive, fearful aspect of our being. It draws us back to some instinctual place of quiet terror and forces us to recognize this thing of darkness as somehow our own, an oft-unnoticed part of ourselves.

And to me this is what the film is really about — for all its futurism, “Space Odyssey” is more a journey into the question of what it means to be human than it is one across the solar system. And the image of humanity it shows us is frightening and base, yet nevertheless recognizable. An odyssey, after all, is a journey back home.