Both University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra director John Nardolillo and choirs director Jefferson Johnson are fans of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, both as film fans and as musicians.
"It's a great masterpiece of cinema," Nardolillo says. "It is so beautifully and elegantly paced. He takes as much time as is needed to set the mood, and the music is a great part of that. It's one of the great movie soundtracks of all time."
Johnson says, "The idea of a doing a live performance of a score of a Kubrick film is sort of like a dream come true."
And really, it's a dream neither musician thought he could have. After all, movies are usually regarded as done when they are released. Sure, there might be re-edits, directors' cuts and things of that sort. But coming back in and being an essential element of a serious presentation of a cinematic icon isn't something most artists consider.
But that's what the UK Symphony and the UK Chorale will be doing Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, with the Singletary Center's presentation of 2001: A Space Odyssey Live. The performance is a complete screening of the movie, with the UK ensembles playing all of the music live, from the majestic fanfare of Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra that opens the film to the haunting, modern choral works of György Ligeti that usually appear in scenes with the mysterious black monolith.
The University of Kentucky ensembles are the first collegiate groups to receive permission to perform the live version of the film. Nardolillo sought permission after hearing about performances by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra.
"I went out there to see it in Washington, D.C., and it was spectacular," Nardolillo says. "And I met the people from the British Film Institute and the Southbank Center in London, which is their Lincoln Center, and I talked to them about it, and I proposed that we do it.
"It took some convincing."
That launched an eight-month process of sending the organizations recordings and video of both the orchestra and the chorale performing a variety of material to convince them that the student ensembles could handle the music, which is no easy task.
"This is the hardest music we have ever done," Johnson says, referring Ligeti's choral works. "Preparing this has stretched me as an educator and a musician. I have had to come up with different ways of teaching, peer instruction, small-group rehearsals, large-group rehearsals and technology."
At the heart of the challenge is Ligeti's style of music.
"The music the choir sings in 2001 is atonal — it doesn't have a tonal center; there's no 'do,'" Johnson says, referring to the traditional "do, rei, me ..." scale.
"That's the most difficult music to sing, because there's no place to hang your hat musically, aurally. The other thing about our music for 2001 for the chorus is it's 12-tone music, and musicians will understand that 12-tone music is very difficult because any note on the piano is fair game for melody."
"It's a cacophony of pitches with rhythms that's almost impossible to perform. This is the picture of chaos."
To Johnson, the chorale's approach to addressing some of the challenges in the music has been very much in the spirit of the film, which imagined technology of the early 21st century, including passenger spaceships and video phone booths. At a Monday afternoon chorale rehearsal, most students have an earbud in from their tablets or smartphones, which would usually be a major no-no at choir rehearsal.
"We're using two apps," Johnson says. "One is a keyboard app where they can play their note at a specific time to find their pitch in lieu of using a pitch pipe, which other groups have used performing this, and another is a metronome app, which they can use to keep the beat."
Nardolillo and the orchestra face different challenges. The movie's music ranges from the traditional Blue Danube Waltz by Johann Strauss II to Ligeti's Atmospheres, which Narolillo says is the largest score, physically, that he has conducted, because each instrument has multiple parts, and it comes with special instructions to rival the movie's famous zero-gravity toilet.
"It calls for quite a large orchestra with four of every kind of wind instrument: six horns and four trumpets and four trombones; an organ, piano and percussion; plus lots of string players, plus a choir," Nardolillo says.
He has to handle the difficult score while keeping everything in sync with the film. To do that, he has a monitor on stage with a clock and a notated score saying where they should be in the film every few measures.
It's a full presentation of the movie, with a surround-sound system for the speaking parts and dialogue and two digital movie projectors housed in a projection booth built at the back of the Singletary Center concert hall.
One thing that makes the live performance work well is that music is never spoken over, and it's combined with other sound effects only a few times, Nardolillo says.
"It is a movie that really put the music front and center," Nardolillo says.
And this weekend, the UK ensembles will be doing the same thing.