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Music and Philosophy in 2001

February 16, 2013

The three central pieces of music in 2001: A Space Odyssey are

  • Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra – heard three times, once at the beginning of the film, once at the end of the hominid sequence, and once on the emergence of the Star Child,
  • György Ligeti’s Atmosphères – heard three times, once during the original alignment of the spheres, once on the moon, and once when Dave enters the star gate,
  • Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz – heard three times, once during the docking sequence, once during the trip to Jupiter the moon, and once over the final credits.

I’m not up to decoding the role of music in 2001, but let me mention a few points that might help a bit. Richard’s Strauss’ piece shares a name with (and was partially inspired by) a philosophical work by Nietzsche which focuses on the way in which a man might become a superman (i.e., superman as in the Übermensch, not as in Kal El). To put it in a way that might better serve our purposes, it’s about how a human being may transcend her own humanity. Here’s a bit of Part I, Section 3:

When Zarathustra arrived at the nearest town which adjoineth the forest, he found many people assembled in the market-place; for it had been announced that a rope-dancer would give a performance. And Zarathustra spake thus unto the people:
I TEACH YOU THE SUPERMAN. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have ye done to surpass man?
All beings hitherto have created something beyond themselves: and ye want to be the ebb of that great tide, and would rather go back to the beast than surpass man?
What is the ape to man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame.
Ye have made your way from the worm to man, and much within you is still worm. Once were ye apes, and even yet man is more of an ape than any of the apes.
Even the wisest among you is only a disharmony and hybrid of plant and phantom. But do I bid you become phantoms or plants?
Lo, I teach you the Superman!
The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman SHALL BE the meaning of the earth!
I conjure you, my brethren, REMAIN TRUE TO THE EARTH, and believe not those who speak unto you of superearthly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not.

It’s probably significant that this piece is played during two transformational scenes: the beginnings of humanity and the beginnings of whatever comes after us.

Ligeti’s piece is the sort of thing that people think of when they say, “I really don’t like modern music.” It’s understandable. Good luck finding much in the way of melody or rhythm in it. You certainly don’t go away from the film whistling the tune, and you won’t exactly tap your toes while it’s playing. But Ligeti knows that, and so does Kubrick. Melody and rhythm are precisely what give music a location in time, and their absence here calls attention to the way in which time begins in the consciousness of the hominids when the Monolith first appears, and the way it comes to an end (or begins to come to an end) for Dave when he falls into the star gate. As I’ve argued, or at least claimed, Dave undergoes a process of transformation in which he sees various times overlapping and then, after being reborn as the Star Child, he sees creation sub specie aeternitatis. If any music is appropriate to that point-of-view, it’s Atmosphères.

Johann Strauss’s work is a little difficult to peg. I suspect it’s meant to play Apollo to Ligeti’s Dionysus, à la Nietzsche. But it’s also worth coming down hard on the fact that it’s dance (more specifically a waltz). The image of dance and the dancer is common in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. He (or at least Zarathustra) tells us, e.g.,

I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance.

Yet dance is a way of guiding motion through space over time. I’ve suggested above that I think 2001 plays ideas like these quite a lot. To overcome time is, in a way, to overcome the need for dance or for any kind of motion through space.

The relationship between music and philosophy is obscure, to the say the least. The ambitious might want to try to tackle Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music or Adorno’s Essays on Music, but both a quite difficult.

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