2001: A Space Odyssey Live at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham

2001 SHLast night I was at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham for a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with live music performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra with organ and chorus.  Yep, if you are a fan of the movie I know what you are thinking- this was indeed an absolute thrill and unique opportunity.

To be honest, just the chance to watch 2001 on the big screen was enough to get me buying the tickets, I mean, this is 2001 for goodness sake. I have only ever seen the film on television before now, so have always felt I’ve only really had half the experience that is, well, 2001. One of cinema’s absolute classic milestones for so many reasons, 2001 was unique when it first appeared on screens back in 1968 and there has been nothing else quite like it in all the years since. It’s no ordinary movie, after all. Its detractors typically point incriminating fingers at its slow pace, its minimal dialogue, it’s suspect plot… but all that is quite possibly missing the whole point- 2001 is as much about the medium of cinema itself, as it is regards what actually goes on within the movie. 2001 attempted to change the language of cinema. Traditionally films used language -in dialogue, subtitles, voice-overs etc- to tell the story, to move the narrative, but in 2001 Kubrick tried to do so using just visuals and music, keeping any dialogue to an absolute minimum.  His use of classical compositions, both familiar and obscure, was particularly unique for the science fiction genre, a genre previously considered the domain of cheap b-movie dramatics. This new cinematic method excited and infuriated cinema-goers back then and viewers of the film for decades after, and carved the film a niche in cinematic history forever. The opportunity of hearing the film’s extraordinary soundtrack,  with its mix of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz, and Gyorgy Ligeti’s unnerving Atmospheres amongst other worksbeing performed live during the screening was just pretty mind-blowing.

It is also, strangely, such a natural, perfect ‘fit’-  being one of the most unique cinematic/audiovisual works ever created, 2001 is perfect for an orchestra performing  live alongside a screening of the film. That said, its quite a challenging score of classical works to perform to the visuals live.  Just how in the world would it work? Any reservations beforehand were met by assurances from the venue that the presentation was in association with BFI and Warner Bros,  the screen’s dimensions around 15.4m x 7m or larger and the film shown in Cinemascope widescreen, aspect ratio 2.39:1. It wouldn’t be the complete Cinerama experience of the 1968 flagship performances but it would be a magnificent digital projection (rear projection, I believe, as it turned out) with the sound channels for the dialogue and sound effects complete but the music soundtrack reserved for the live orchestra conducted by  Benjamin Wallfisch.

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The photo above shows how the large screen was positioned above and behind the orchestra. The terraces to the immediate left and right of the main stage was where the large choir was positioned. During the performance it was very impressive -and actually unnervingly effective- how the voices on either side complimented the orchestra, for instance  during Ligetti’s Requiem as the Man-apes encounter the mysterious monolith.  The conductors podium had a digital counter which I would imagine he used as a tracker to keep the music in synch to the film performance.

The performance included the original overture and intermission from the roadshow performance (familiar to everyone with the film on Blu-ray), Ligetti’s Atmospheres setting the mood perfectly and instantly demonstrating how faithful and authentic this performance was going to be.  At the end of the overture the lights dimmed fully and the MGM logo appeared on the screen, the organ rumbled and as the first image of the sun rising above the Earth in alignment with the moon to the powerful and stirring Also Sprach Zarathustra, I began to appreciate what an amazing experience this would be. This wasn’t just a film, it was something else- more than ‘just’ cinema, a piece of art like something Da Vinci created, art for the ages?  I don’t know. Maybe this is what cinema really is, beyond the confines of audience-satisfying popcorn blockbusters, or what cinema could be. Sadly no-one could make a film like 2001 today. Sure the technology is there, and the creativity and ability of our finest directors is there.  The technology we have now, the fx they can throw on a screen, the possibilities are extraordinary, but no-one will ever get the opportunity. Somehow Kubrick did, and somehow, within that positive 1960’s era of actually going to the moon, back when it seemed bases on the moon and huge space stations were not just possible but actually inevitable by the year 2001 (so wildly optimistic!),  that moment in time was captured by this crazy, ambitious, mind-boggling, beautiful, infuriating and dividing movie. It isn’t a movie for everyone. The couple in front of my wife and I did not return following the intermission (which made me curious as to what, after all these years, they were expecting to see/hear).

But certainly the film was impressive as always, and yes, on a large screen the visuals actually all the more spectacular (somehow the front-projection studio sequences during the Dawn of Man section were even more convincing, the models, particularly the Discovery, even more extraordinary) but the music was simply exhilarating performed live by such a large orchestra and chorus in such a fine acoustic arena. My appreciation to all the musicians and technicians who made it possible. I am sure there is a very interesting tale to be told about how such a performance is created, what it was like performing it. Could have been the subject of a documentary in itself. Imagine that as a featurette on a future special edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Blu-ray. Oh well, an opportunity lost on Warner Bros.

I have been to the Symphony Hall to see concerts before – Laurie Anderson, Mary Chapin Carpenter for instance- but I had never seen a full orchestra there before. I had always wanted to, a natural curiosity regards what a full orchestra would sound like, feel like,  live in such a fine arena. The fact that my first such experience was with the film 2001 gave it all a strangest kind of synchronicity. I wonder what Arthur C Clarke or Stanley Kubrick himself might have thought experiencing the film this way (I have no idea if they ever had such an opportunity)? The film was larger somehow, in so many ways. Quite an experience.

I know the film has been performed this way before – the Philharmonic having done so in 2010 and 2011 at London’s Southbank Centre, so hopefully it will be again. If you ever get the chance then go for it. Beats Star Trek Into Darkness at the local multiplex anyway.

DSCF5108After the screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, there followed an amazing post-concert performance by the Ex Cathedra Choir of  Alec Roth’s Earthrise. Inspired by the famous Apollo 8 photo of the Earth rising above the moon’s surface, an image predicted in 2001 of course, this piece of music was written for unaccompanied 40-part choir. The photo here shows that inspirational image projected on the screen while the stage was being cleared of the orchestra and prepared for the Ex Cathedra choir. What audience remained post-movie moved down to the stalls, Claire and I sitting in something like the fourth row lending it all an intimacy belying the large hall surroundings. Again, listening to such a large choir live performing unaccompanied a piece written expressly for the human voice was something all-new to me. Poly-choral, harmonised climaxes, it was a piece lasting something like 25 minutes and quite unlike anything I had ever experienced before. It left me curious to hear more, and I have learned that Ex Cathedra are based in Birmingham and date back to 1969. If anybody from Ex Cathedra ever read this, please tell me more!

It was a perfect coda to the 2001 screening and the end of quite a night. Life is full of surprises, and 2001 performed live, well, thinking back to when I first saw 2001 on the BBC, one Christmas many years ago, well, who would have thought back then that I would have spent a night like this one? Makes you wonder what the future will bring. Just like 2001: A Space Odyssey must have made people wonder back in 1968.

2 thoughts on “2001: A Space Odyssey Live at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham

  1. gregory moss

    Nice write-up Ian. There was a similar event here in Adelaide earlier this year for the festival, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra providing a live accompaniment. I’m kicking myself I missed it. The last time I saw 2001 on the big screen was back in 2001 with a brand new print – an amazing experience!

  2. Cheers Greg, must say I was very impressed at how the film holds up better on a large screen- the models had more weight, mass… I don’t know. Just seemed more real than it does even in HD on the Blu-ray. And yes, the live orchestra added to the experience. I was very lucky to catch the event as I only stumbled on it by chance whilst browsing the Symphony Hall website late last year. It had been sold out for a few months before the event and quite a number of people were inquiring about returned tickets. Nice to know something like this is so popular.

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