The last article originally written for suite101.com and published on 01/06/09. Now hosted over at Xomba.

Perhaps best known for its exquisite juxtaposition of classical music and futuristic images, there is more to the soundscape of 2001: A Space Odyssey than the score.

2001: A Space Odyssey is arguably the first film to use sound design in the way that we understand it today. Although the term itself would not be coined for another eleven years in relation to Walter Murch’s work on Apocalypse Now and perhaps is nearer to the preceding term of sound montage. The overall ‘vision’ of the sound and music as it combines with the visuals, is nonetheless recognisable as sound design.

The film radically redefined the way that audiences and critics alike understood the interaction between image and music, and opened the door for the possibility that the whole soundscape – dialogue, effects, music – could do the same on a grander scale. In many ways, the indulgence and decadence of the soundscape, prepare audiences for the innovation and experimentation of the next decade.

Minimal Dialogue has Maximum Impact

The film’s duration is 149 minutes, yet only 40 of those are composed of dialogue, with the first line not being spoken until at least half an hour of the film has passed. For the rest of the film the narrative is composed entirely of music, image and non-verbal sounds. Almost all the dialogue takes place between three characters in the middle of the film, Dave, Frank and HAL, but the dialogue that does exist is rather memorable.

For all that the dialogue usage within the film is minimal, it is made to count for a great deal; even managing some neat tricks with the dialogue. Notably, when HAL reaches the brink of his madness, and Dave is inside the processor shutting him down; HAL’s voice changes as Dave works. The very last dialogue from HAL as he sings in first a childish and then increasingly slurred manner, is somehow one of the creepiest parts of the film.

With the exception of an early scene that seems to take place outside of the overall storyline, the film adheres strictly to the ‘space is silent’ school of thought. As the battle of wills between Dave and HAL heats up, they have a tense stand-off accompanied only by the sounds of Dave breathing within his helmet and the sounds of the ship, hydraulics, buzzes and clicks, that make HAL seem almost as alive as the human crew.

Innovations in Music and Narrative

2001 follows a three-part structure, which owes more to the movements of a piece of classical music than the traditional three-act structure of classical Hollywood narrative. Controversially for the time, most of the film was edited to the music that Kubrick intended to accompany the visuals with. Although this technique is one that modern audiences are familiar with – Quentin Tarantino’s work comes to mind – at the time there was considerable critical backlash.

Audiences expecting a conventional science fiction narrative with an equally conventional film score were in for a surprise. Even now, when audiences are used to directors playing with narrative conventions and audience expectations, viewers are often surprised by the audacity of the film. Covering such an epically long swathe of time, a jump cut of several million years, music that carries on for several minutes after the credits finish and a denouement that raises more questions than it answers.