Ligeti’s Atmosphères as a Musical Foreshadowing of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“First in Cologne in 1957 and later during my long stay in Vienna in the ’60s, I gradually evolved a musical style in which I abandoned structures conceived in terms of bars, melodies, lines and conventional forms. In this respect my first two orchestral works, Apparitions and Atmosphères, are the most radical. Atmosphères is just floating, fluctuating sound, although it is polyphonic.” Ligeti – (1983, p.14).
Stanley Kubrick was a director who was very specific in his use of composed and sourced music in his films. His relationship with sound and music is one of the most analysed in audio-visual academia and his musical choices have lead to an endless stream of readings within his work. Towards the middle of his career, he began to experiment with classical music of the 20th century rather than having a composer score his films. With hindsight, this relationship with 20th century composers is one of Kubrick’s defining autueristic traits.
This essay aims to focus on one defining point in Kubrick’s relationship with music of this period by looking at the first instance of its use. Several modernist composers, such as Béla Bartók and Krzysztof Penderecki, had their work famously showcased in Kubrick’s films; often being many viewer’s first experience of such music. One composer however, had music appear in several of Kubrick’s films and was the first to have his music showcased out of the modernist and experimental composers, not just within a film over a scene, but in its own right.
György Ligeti will be this essay’s main case study, specifically looking at his piece, Atmosphères. Atmosphères was composed in 1961 so Kubrick’s use of it in 1968 to open his science-fiction feature, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is quite miraculous in terms of the average time between the composition of classical music and when it eventually makes its way into audio-visual media. Most importantly though is the context with which this music is used and why Ligeti’s composition is so fitting for Kubrick’s intentions.
Unlike most mainstream American cinema, 2001: A Space Odyssey starts with a blank screen. This screen remains blank while a large section of Atmosphères plays. This use in itself is interesting but the object of this essay is to not merely question this relationship. It is instead to look in detail at Ligeti’s musical techniques and thematic material in order to show how his intentions to break away from previous musical norms paralleled the reasons for its use in Kubrick’s film. This desire to tear away from musical norm is almost the perfect parallel to Kubrick’s and Arthur C. Clarke’s narrative; in other words, through musical techniques and ideas, Ligeti’s Atmosphères is a musical foreshadowing and a precursor to the philosophical ties within the cinematic narrative.
Inside the bellows of Atmosphères, Kubrick found a way to surmise the entirety of his own complex thematic material, almost as a prelude to 2001 itself. Because of this relationship, it is clear that Atmosphères holds many layers and musical depths behind its initial chaos and seething horror. This essay will not only address this in a musical context but also examine the historical and cultural dynamics that may have lead Ligeti to address such issues. Firstly though, some musical analysis of the piece is essential to set up the criteria of the arguments and to start the process in acknowledging the musical foreshadowing.