Some people hate it, but I love the long dialogue-free scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A space odyssey (1968). For one of these scenes he used Johann Strauss II’s overplayed, sweeter-than-syrup Blue Danube waltz (1866). When I hear it I can’t help but think of a bunch of geriatric tourists concluding their trip of the European capitals at an André Rieu Concert in Antwerp. (It is a well-known fact that Kubrick used existing music without permission in the film soundtrack – most notably works by Ligeti. In this case the piece is in the public domain and therefore free to use by anyone, although the recording that he used may not have been).
Removed from its original Viennese ballroom context, the viewers/listeners are forced to reconsider the music, to ‘re-hear’ it. How so? We are faced with a type of incongruence: the music doesn’t seem to fit the scene in terms of our expectations. Space is a place for the ominous soundtracks associated with alien invasions! (And later, the ‘epic’ nature of Star Trek and Star Wars-like soundtracks.) In my view Strauss’s music serves to highlight the gentle dance between the rotation of the earth, the rotation of the space station, and the movement of the space shuttle. At the same time it makes us acutely aware of the fragility of the carefully choreographed ballet – it can derail at any moment: the Pan Am stewardess’s anti-gravity shoes almost make her lose her balance for just a moment, the stray pen is caught just in time before the forces of nature let it float away, and the space shuttle has to navigate its docking very carefully. The music does not acknowledge the silent battle between the possibilities of modern technology and the strength of nature, which, as I suggested before, makes us very aware of it.
Be sure to watch 2001: A space odyssey if you haven’t yet, and listen for extracts from Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Don’t even try to find a ‘standard’ interpretation of the film’s ending; there isn’t one. And don’t expect Star Wars.