© 2022 WUKY
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

UK Symphony And Chorale Breathe New Life Into 2001: A Space Odyssey

This weekend, University of Kentucky student musicians will sync a live, real time performance of the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack with the 1968 Stanley Kubrick classic at the Singletary Center.

When you think of movie openings, it doesn’t get more iconic than a shot of the sun peering over the earth accompanied by the sudden, ominous chords of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra - images and sounds so closely wedded in the pop culture mind as to be virtually inseparable.  

Credit Josh James / WUKY
2001 event poster

So when UK Symphony Orchestra conductor John Nardolillo approached the Southbank Arts Center in London to see if UK might screen the film and recreate the soundtrack live, the answer was, well, Kubrickian.

"They basically said no," Nardolillo recalls.

After another round of audition tapes, a flurry of phone calls, and an in-person meeting in Washington, Nardolillo won the green light from the center, meaning UK would be the first university to attempt what only a handful of professional outfits in London, New York, and D.C. have so far accomplished.

And then came rehearsals, with the students and the directors, including choral maestro Jefferson Johnson, quickly learning what it’s like to see a monolithic page of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s work staring back at them from the stand.

"There was a little bit of shock when we first opened the scores and we saw how much ink there was," Johnson remembers. "The rhythmic complexity, gosh, it's hard to describe."

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Sheet music for 2001 performance

Leave that to UK student Jessica Bayne.

"It almost sounds like bees buzzing to me when you put it all together," she says.

Bayne is one of the fewer than 30 Chorale singers tasked with mastering a piece that features nearly as many individual parts. That's just one reason why the students are outfitted with earbuds during rehearsal.

"To keep us on track, we'll occasionally have a piano app on our phone or iPad and we'll just pick a note and kind of check where we're at. It just helps keep us grounded," Bayne explains.

And staying grounded is crucial, as the musicians will not only be performing challenging work but in time with a more than two-hour long film.

"Well, I joked that the orchestra gets to play The Blue Danube Waltz while we're singing polytonal, microtonal, serial, atonal music," Johnson laughs. "But in truth the orchestra's part is very difficult also."

Credit Josh James / WUKY
UK Symphony Orchestra's John Nardolillo conducts Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra

Meanwhile, crews are busy installing projectors and a surround sound speaker system to deliver a special super print of the film, stripped of all but its sparse dialogue and sound effects.

"Even the source for the video is really curious," Matthew Gibson with the Singletary Center adds. "It's streamed to us over the internet, so there's not a DVD or a Blu-ray or film. There's no physical media that comes with it."

Still, the ultimate responsibility for marrying the elements rests on the shoulders of the symphony’s conductor – and Nardolillo describes the process as “a little tricky.”

"There's a time stamp on the film which I'll be able to see but which the audience won't, which will say '10:03' or whatever and be counting, and I'll know that at 10 minutes and 3 seconds we've got to be at a certain bar in the music," he says.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
2011: the first live run-through

But Nardolillo and the students have been relishing the challenge, one the conductor knows from firsthand experience is worth the work. It was a rare live 2001 performance in Washington, D.C. that inspired him to launch the project at UK in the first place.

"When that moment arrived and the film started, the crowd gave out a huge cheer. They were so excited to see it in this format," he says.

As for those skeptics who say, “Nahh, I’ve already seen in,” he has just a few words.

"Yeah, they haven't seen it like this."


Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 31, and 3 p.m. Sunday Feb. 1, in the Singletary Center Concert Hall. Tickets are available at the Singletary Center box office and  SCFAtickets.com.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.