2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange: Stanley Kubrick’s Aural Experience

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“2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange: Stanley Kubrick’s Aural Experience” is an essay that explores Stanley Kubrick’s importance of sound design in the films listed to our understanding of our contemporary sonic experience 

Author: Alberto D’Onofrio

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The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed the continuation of Stanley Kubrick’s virtuous directorial career in two successive films: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). While both films exhibit masterful imagery, the director’s sound design is also an influencing element in their sonic environment. Embracing silence, voice and music, Kubrick’s aural experience enhances cinematic value as it connects the audience to the spaces, settings and minds of the characters based in 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange. Additional work by theorists Rick Altman, Michel Chion, Mladen Dolar, Jonathan Sterne, Michael Bull, and Cara Marisa Deleon will be referenced with the purpose of recognizing Kubrick’s work as a significant study for understanding our contemporary sonic experience.

The importance of sound in 2001: A Space Odyssey is evident in the opening sequence that consists of an excerpt from Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmospheres and a blank screen. Already setting the mood with an uncanny sound design, Kubrick’s Overture, a film’s musical introduction, challenges the ontological argument by critics Rudolf Arnheim and Bela Balazs that, “Image without sound still constitutes cinema, while sound without an image is no longer cinema” (Altman 2012). In retrospect, as argued by Rick Altman, music accompanied with a blank screen has been previously practiced in cinema, especially for the blockbuster epics of the 1950s and early 1960s. Furthermore, this cinematic practice used in 2001: A Space Odyssey reflects the ideas of Michel Chion’s semantic listening:

“The consequence for film is that sound, much more than the image, can become an insidious means of affective and semantic manipulation. On one hand, sound works on us directly, physiologically (breathing noises in a film can directly affect our own respiration). On the other, sound has an influence on perception: through the phenomenon of added value, it interprets the meaning of the image, and makes us see in the image what we would not otherwise see, or would see differently” (Chion 1994).

The Overture is one of many sound-dominant sequences in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is evident that Kubrick’s sound design expresses the film’s psychological and physical environment by examining its particular uses of sound in view of Chion’s semantic listening and supplementary theoretical perspectives.

Kubrick incorporates a sound element that is uncommon in most films because it is essentially the absence of sound effects and ambient sound, or in short, silence. The superior fidelity of the new magnetic strip recording system made it possible to achieve silence and quiet recordings (Buhler, 2010). Silence destroys all depth cues to audio as a blank screen does to an image, but this is effective and noticed in two instances:

In the “Dawn of Man” sequence, soft winds and quiet sounds of the natural environment underline the peacefulness of the setting (Buhler, 2010). When the leopard attacks a gorilla with a heavy growl, it disrupts the sound space and penetrates the sanctuary with an act of violence, a symbol of mankind that Kubrick examines in his work (Walker 1971).

Silence establishes space as a hum does the space station. Destroying all depth cues in imagery and sound, Kubrick uses silence realistically since space is black and silent (Buhler 2010). Metaphorically, silence can symbolize death, which is what the characters are fearful of when entering the mysterious void. Hence, horror and isolation is established in the film’s atmosphere, especially when silence is cut with the pulsating sounds of an astronaut’s breath. This feeling of helplessness and suspense is directed to the audience throughout the film, especially when the first half of the film ends in silence (Walker 1971).

Relative to Kubrick’s use of silence, Mladen Dolar’s theoretical view on the matter expresses that, “The absence of voices and sounds is hard to endure; complete silence is immediately uncanny, it is like death, while the voice is the first sign of life” (Dolar, 2006). The eeriness of silence in the film is increased when juxtaposed with sequences of sound effects and dialogue. Conversely, the dialogue present in the film shows signs of life, but even the mechanical voice of HAL, a computer that is programmed to control the operations of the space station, can be uncanny while introducing additional semantic interpretations.

Expanding his theory, Dolar explains that a human voice has a personal touch that reflects one’s individuality. Once a voice is mechanically reproduced similar to HAL’s, it will always be strange (Dolar, 2006). As described by film critic Alexander Walker, HAL’s voice is, “Bland, neutral, reassuring and also ambiguous, sinister, untrustworthy” (Walker 1971). Hypothetically, the voice would have signified ideas of sexual relationships with the astronauts if Kubrick would have decided to make it a female voice as originally intended in the script (Walker 1971), but nonetheless, the “Death of HAL” sequence offers interesting semantic observations. When our protagonist, Bowman, is in the process of disconnecting HAL’s circuits, the modifications on his voice shows signs of anxiety as it slurs and slows down. Following this, the machine’s memory decreases to forms of infancy, revealing his basic training exercises by singing the silly tune Daisy, Daisy (Walker 1971). Elaborating on Dolar’s theory, a machine’s voice is not human, but a human can “keep it at bay” (Dolar, 2006); meaning an individual can stop it before it becomes a problem, similar to Bowman’s actions on HAL.

Although a strict amount of detail is given to dialogue, it is not often used in the overall sound design of the film. Instead, music is the fundamental aspect of its sound design. As Kubrick explains the reasoning behind this, he states, “There are certain areas of feeling and reality. Non-verbal forms of expression such as music and painting [referring to the visual element of the film] can get at these areas” (Phillips 1975). Music was used in part of an aesthetic trait that was developing in the 1960s and 1970s to re-contextualize known music by placing them in contemporary films (Donnelly 2001). For 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick chose classical music including Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and The Blue Danube. The accented sounds of the heroically optimist horns in Also sprach Zarathustra righteously accompanies and intensifies the wonder of Kubrick’s masterful imagery in the opening and closing sequences of the film, while, as Kubrick calls it, the “machine ballet” pacing of The Blue Danube symbolizes the harmony and beautiful movement of the universe (Walker 1971).

Transitioning nicely to Kubrick’s next directorial achievement in A Clockwork Orange, classical music dominates the film as it did in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A Clockwork Orange challenges the viewer to think sonically, a term from theorist Jonathan Sterne meaning to think of sound in the, “Contexts in which they happen, the ways of hearing or not-hearing attached to them, the practices, people and institutions associated with them” (Sterne, 2012). Analyzing Kubrick’s soundscape, the relationship between the music and the filmic world presented in A Clockwork Orange is evident.

Theorist Cara Marisa Deleon expands on Sterne’s contextual thinking by stating that, “This can only occur through a solid, familiar foundation” (Deleon 2010) and the film accomplishes this in the opening sequence. Adding well-known orchestrations that are performed with a moog synthesizer, the film’s Overture is an electronic rendition of Henry Purcell’s classical piece Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary by Wendy Carlos. The familiarity of the music allows the audience to acknowledge the piece while the synthesizer indicates that the fictitious and dystopic world surrounding our protagonist Alex is different from what we know (Deleon 2010).

Alex’s actions fit the dystopic world appropriately as he and his “droogs” perform acts of violence and terrorize their neighborhoods with domestic invasion, rape and assaults. The theatrical skills of actor Malcolm McDowell, in his portrayal of Alex, is demonstrated as he sings and dances to Gene Kelly’s song, Singing in the Rain while invading the home of Mr. Alexander and his wife. Kubrick turned the horrific reality of the scene into a form of entertainment resulting in what he calls, “Comical sadism” (Walker 1971). The juxtaposition between such a violent act and an uplifting song makes the scene very unsettling. As the film progresses, another purpose of the song Singing in the Rain is discovered, which Kubrick calls, “Magic coincidence” (Walker 1971). Alex is cured from his violent acts and fate coincidentally finds him back at Mr. Alexander’s home when searching for a place to stay. The next day, Alex is chanting Singing in the Rain while bathing. When Mr. Alexander hears the song, the sound of Alex’s voice reminds him of that horrifying night. Traumatized, he realizes the man he let back into his home is the same man responsible for his wife’s death.

Extending Dolar’s theory of the voice, as discussed in examining HAL’s mechanical voice in 2001: A Space Odyssey, this sequence represents his ideas of the human voice that, “We can almost unfailingly identify a person by the voice, the particular individual timbre, resonance, pitch, cadence, melody, the peculiar way of pronouncing certain sounds. The voice is like a fingerprint, instantly recognizable and identifiable” (Dolar 2006). Reading this, one would ask why it would take Mr. Alexander that long to recognize Alex’s voice. Cured from his violent behavior after intense therapy, Alex is a miserable man, and did not have the same tenacity and confidence in his voice. Alex is happy to have found a home and singing, as discussed by Dolar, brings voice to the forefront and consequently, “appears to be the locus of true expression” (Dolar 2006), the same expression of happiness Alex felt when invading the man’s home. The same voice was projected and as Sterne acknowledges in what he calls the audiovisual litany, a set of attributes to hearing and seeing, “Sound comes to us” (Stern 2012), as the sound of Alex’s voice came to Mr. Alexander.

The irony of Kubrick’s music in A Clockwork Orange, as with his use of Singing in the Rain, is also present with Schiller’s song Ode To Joy and presents an additional point from Sterne’s audiovisual litany. When Alex and his “droogs” are at the milk bar, Alex hears a lady sing Ode To Joy. Listening, Alex is mesmerized and as Sterne specifies, “Hearing is about affect” (Stern 2012). It is ironic that a joyful song about brotherhood amongst men would captivate a cruel man like Alex. As Kubrick explains, art has no ethical purpose and this statement is also made in Anthony Burgess’ novel. Art’s purpose is to provide ecstatic behavior and the kind of joy depends on the person who is having it (Walker 1971). In an interview, Kubrick acknowledges that a man like Alex loves some of the most respected music and supports this by stating, “I think this suggests the failure of culture to have any morally refining effect on society. Hitler loved good music and many top Nazi’s were cultured and sophisticated men but it didn’t do them, or anyone else, much good” (Ciment 1983).

Being an admirer of classical music, Alex states that his favorite composer is Ludwig van Beethoven and this association is important to the film. Using Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as the soundtrack to his violent acts, Kubrick also uses it to cure Alex in a therapeutic experiment. Alex is forced to watch an endless amount of disturbing footage displaying acts of brutality accompanied with the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony until he is finally sick. Finally cured, the thoughts of violent acts and the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony make him nauseous. Theorist Michael Bull speaks for contemporary iPod users but uses sound theory in the process that relates to Alex’s sonic environment. He explains that sound, “recreates and reconfigures the spaces of experience” (Bull 2012). After therapy, Alex associates the sound of Beethoven with the disturbing acts of violence he witnessed on film. This is another example of Kubrick’s “magic coincidence” as Alex’s favorite music drives him to attempt suicide after Mr. Alexander spitefully plays the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Kubrick used Beethoven’s music affectively to represent Alex’s stimulant while being a symbol of his power and downfall. Finally, this soundtrack offers an appropriate conclusion to Alex’s story by ending the film on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony while a happy Alex, who can live recklessly once again, expresses, “I was cured alright!”

The relationship between Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange is not only the fact that the vinyl for 2001: A Space Odyssey is coincidentally seen in front of a crate of records in A Clockwork Orange. The director uses sound in both films as a significant storytelling device in the audio-visual medium to represent the psychological and physical sonic environment of the film. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, silence and mechanical voice is uncanny while classical music in A Clockwork Orange is a contextual soundtrack to a man’s stimulus. Exploring both films’ sound design elements alongside academic theories of listening, silence, voice, music and context, Stanley Kubrick’s aural experience is a significant study for understanding our contemporary sonic experience.

Bibliography

2001: A Space Odyssey. DVD. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. United States, United Kingdom: MGM, 1968.

A Clockwork Orange. DVD. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. United Kingdom: Warner Bros.,  1971.

Alexander Walker. Stanley Kubrick Directs (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 229-296.

Cara Marisa Deleon. “A Familiar Sound in a New Place: The Use of the Musical Score Withing The Science Fiction Film” in Sounds of the Future: Essays on Music in Science Fiction Film, ed, by Matthew J. Bartkowiak. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010), 10-21.

Gene D. Phillips. Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1975), 136-169.

K.J. Donnelly. Film Music: Critical Approaches (New York: Continuum, 2001), 12.  

James Buhler, David Neumeyer, and Rob Deemer. Hearing the Movies: Music and Sound in Film History. (New York: Oxford UP, 2010), 16, 345.

Jonathan Sterne. “Sonic Imaginations” in The Sound Studies Reader, ed. by Jonathan Sterne (New York: Routledge, 2012), 1-17.

Michel Chion. “The Three Listening Modes” in The Sound Studies Reader, ed. by Jonathan Sterne (New York: Routledge, 2012), 48-53.

Michel Ciment. Kubrick. (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1983), 163.

Michael Bull. “The Audio-Visual Ipod” in The Sound Studies Reader, ed. by Jonathan Sterne (New York: Routledge, 2012), 197-208.

Mladen Dolar. “The Linguistics of the Voice” in The Sound Studies Reader, ed. by Jonathan Sterne (New York: Routledge, 2012), 539-554.

Rick Altman. “Four and a Half Film Fallacies” in The Sound Studies Reader, ed. by Jonathan Sterne (New York: Routledge, 2012), 225-233.

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2 thoughts on “2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange: Stanley Kubrick’s Aural Experience

  1. Pingback: Happy New Year! | steve emmett

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