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INTERSTELLAR – Hans Zimmer

November 22, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

interstellarOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is a science fiction epic on a grand scale. Set in a future where life on Earth is in jeopardy due to a series of environmental disasters, the film follows Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot turned corn farmer, whose precocious daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) believes she is receiving messages written in dust from a ghost in her bedroom. One of these messages eventually leads Cooper to a secret NASA installation where, under the radar and away from the public eye, Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and astronauts Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) have been working on a project to save humanity. Their plan involves piloting a ship to the space around Saturn, where friendly ‘fifth-dimensional beings’ have placed a wormhole to the far side of the galaxy. The hope is that, on the other side of the wormhole, a new planet capable of sustaining human life can be found and colonized.

Visually and conceptually, Interstellar is an absolute triumph. The cinematography of Swiss-born DP Hoyte Van Hoytema is magnificent, capturing both the starkness of the increasingly desolate Earth, and the spectacular vistas of alien worlds, beautifully. In IMAX format the film looks especially wonderful. Conceptually, the film examines a number of difficult themes, including concepts of theoretical physics, black-hole related gravitational time dilation, representations of fifth dimensional reality, extrapolations on Einstein’s theory of relativity, and ontological paradoxes related to time travel; I have to admit that some of these advanced scientific ideas went over my head, but screenwriter Jonathan Nolan collaborated with the celebrated theoretical physicist Kip Thorne to make sure the science of the film was as accurate as possible. However, Christopher Nolan has consistently stated that, at its core, at its heart, Interstellar is a story about parents and children, and the lengths to which we will go to protect them. Having this very human, very personal story at the center of such a massive intergalactic adventure allows the characters to be relatable, and gives the audience a chance to empathize with the choices they make. The parent/child story also feeds into the film’s score, which was written by Nolan’s regular collaborator, Hans Zimmer.

According to an article by Tim Appelo in the Hollywood Reporter, Nolan approached Zimmer about the score before shooting even began. Without telling Zimmer that he was planning a futuristic science-fiction film – and without even telling him what the movie was about – Nolan sent Zimmer a typed letter, outlining what he saw as the theme of his film and asking Zimmer to spend one day writing some musical ideas. In one night, Zimmer wrote a four-minute piece for piano and organ. “I really just wrote about what it meant to be a father. Nolan came down and sat on my couch and I played it for him. He goes, ‘Well, I’d better make the movie now.’ And I’m going, what is the movie? And he starts describing this huge journey, this vast canvas of space and philosophy and science and all these things. And I’m going, ‘Hang on. I’ve written you this tiny little thing here.’ And he goes, ‘Yes, but I now know what the heart of the story is’”. This juxtaposition between the monumentally epic and the intensely intimate feeds directly into Zimmer’s music, which somehow manages to capture the essence of both notions simultaneously.

The score was recorded mainly in London, for a comparatively small ensemble emphasizing strings and woodwinds, a choir, and featured solo performances for piano, violin, harp, steel guitar and, most notably, organ. The organ was performed by Roger Sayer, the master organist at Temple Church in London, and in many ways is the core musical identity of the score – appropriately so, as the sound immediately triggers in listeners the ingrained response of ‘religious awe’, except in this instance the sound relates to awe at the vast depths of space. In an interview with Jon Burlingame for the Film Music Society, Zimmer explains that he was also inspired by the instrument’s shape, and its historical importance as a technical marvel. “By the 17th century the pipe organ was the most complex machine invented, and it held that number-one position until the telephone exchange. Think about the shape of it as well: those pipes are like the afterburners of space ships”. In terms of the orchestral and choral parts of the score, Zimmer also experimented with unusual performance and recording techniques to get the sound he wanted, asking the woodwind players to make strange and unusual sounds with their instruments, and having the members of the choir face away from the microphones so that their voices were distant and distorted.

Stylistically, Zimmer’s score can be compared with the rhythmic, minimalist ideas of composers like Philip Glass, notably works like Koyaanisqatsi and the other Godfrey Reggio documentaries, while at times the use of the pipe organ recalls Ennio Morricone’s Mission to Mars; Morricone also used the organ to capture the magnificence of space, to excellent effect. The main theme, a slow, reverential piece for strings and organ (which, bizarrely, reminds me of the slow movement from James Horner’s The Land Before Time – a complete coincidence), is representative of the relationship between Cooper and Murph, the heart of the story that Nolan and Zimmer captured in that first, tentative original composition before the film was shot.

Its performances in cues such as the opening “Dreaming of the Crash,” “Day One,” the intensely moving and dramatic “Stay,” “Message From Home,” and the anguished, cathartic “Detach,” keep the focus of the score on the film’s most important element. Musically, the crescendos at the end of “Stay” and “Detach” are phenomenally powerful, overwhelming emotional cacophonies, while “Message From Home” is a small and personal piano solo, a beautifully stripped down version of the theme which captures the isolation of Cooper and his team, 746 million miles away from Earth. Some cues, such as “Dreaming of the Crash” and “Stay,” also feature the sounds of nature – wind rustling through a cornfield, distant thunder, raindrops on a window pane – reminding both the listener, and the characters in the film, of the world they are leaving behind.

Interestingly, Zimmer also has an ‘isolation theme’ for stark, but elegantly mysterious strings, which first appears in “Dust,” and depicts the agriculturally devastated Earth as a desolate, inhospitable place increasingly unfit for human habitation. He revisits the theme later in “I’m Going Home,” sonically linking the barren earth with the barren planet on which the explorers find Dr. Mann, one of the initial group of space pioneers sent through the wormhole to scout out possible inhabited planets.

With the exception of “Cornfield Chase,” a wonderfully vivid organ piece, action does not play a more significant part until the score’s second half. “The Wormhole” is an exercise in tension and anticipation, with the strings rattling nervously, and the organ pulsating breathlessly. Later, the way the wooden percussion keeps a tick-tock rhythm in “Mountains” addresses the all-important notion of severe gravitational time dilation, where each hour on the surface of the planet orbiting the black hole Gargantua is the equivalent to seven years on Earth; the explosions of sound in the cue’s second half – a heady collision of choir, organ and brass – is epic and frightening. “A Place Among The Stars” has a much more ominous and unsettling feeling, with a bass element that plays somewhere between a deep cello and a humming male voice choir, while “Running Out” features stark, nervous piano chords, again playing in a staccato manner that suggests clockwork, and the ever-present problem of insufficient time.

interstellarposterThe epic “Coward” is one of the best cues on the album; beginning quietly, it builds up through several minutes of abstract textures into a wonderful sturm-und-drang organ-led middle section, counterpointed by a careful piano performance of the main theme. By the end the music explodes into a furious, Rachmaninoff-like frenzy of piano and organ tones which fans of James Horner’s ‘crashing pianos’ will find deeply satisfying. Some of the chord progressions here have a touch of Pirates of the Caribbean about them, notably Davy Jones’s theme from the second film, albeit without the sea shanty overtones. Finally, the score’s conclusion, “Where We’re Going,” revisits the main theme with a sense of soft intimacy, and builds in the sounds of nature, the religioso organs, and noble horns, bringing the album to a rewarding end.

The special expanded edition, which is available for digital download only, contains six bonus cues totaling 30 minutes of extra music. The most notable of these are “First Step,” another gentle performance of Cooper’s father/daughter theme; “No Need To Come Back,” which has a moody, oppressive atmosphere full of agitated string lines; “Imperfect Lock,” which is a seemingly endless exercise in tension-building that, again, has a touch of James Horner to it; and “What Happens Now?,” a dreamy synth-based drone which somehow has a meditative, optimistic aspect, slowly fading out into the sounds of nature. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is a performance of Dylan Thomas’s famous 1951 poem by cast members John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Casey Affleck, Jessica Chastain, Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy. The poem plays a significant philosophical role in the film’s narrative, being quoted several times, and its inclusion here is an interesting, worthwhile choice.

The album situation for Interstellar is very complicated. The regular, standard edition contains 16 cues, runs for just over 70 minutes, and comes in a “star wheel constellation digipak”. The special expanded edition contains the aforementioned six bonus cues totaling 30 minutes of extra music. A seventh additional track, “Day One Dark,” is available only as an exclusive download from movietickets.com, and an eighth, “No Time for Caution,” is available only as an exclusive download from iTunes. If that was not enough, a 28-track 2-CD “illuminated star projection edition” with bonus content, including 30 minutes of music unavailable anywhere else, will be coming out later this year. While I know that this has nothing to do with Zimmer, the situation is absolutely ludicrous, forcing film music fans to scour the web and buy multiple versions of the same soundtrack in order to hear the full effect of the music.

Those commercial and promotional issues aside, Interstellar is nevertheless one of the most impressive scores in Hans Zimmer’s recent filmography. There’s an interesting thing that happens when Zimmer works with Christopher Nolan; the director challenges him to come up with some of his most original ideas, and those ideas subsequently go on to be imitated by other, lesser composers countless times in the subsequent years. Irrespective of personal taste, it’s undeniable that Zimmer’s scores for Nolan’s Batman trilogy, for better or worse, defined the action music sound of the 2000s, while Inception was similarly influential, introducing the world to those iconic brass blasts. Despite the negative connotations these sounds now have, we tend to forget that, when Zimmer first wrote them, they were original to him, and were undeniably effective. The pastiches and ripoffs that followed in their wake are not Zimmer’s fault – in fact, I think he would prefer them not to exist – but such is Zimmer’s command of Hollywood scoring trends, such things are inevitable. Whether the music in Interstellar will prove to be similarly trendsetting is unclear, but it will be interesting to see what happens over the next 18 months or so in terms of people using pipe organs or small-scale piano themes in movies that would otherwise have received more bombastic scores.

I also said that Interstellar is amongst Zimmer’s best recent scores, and I firmly believe that this is true. The conceptual development of the score, from that first day in Zimmer’s studio to the final version on screen, shows a composer completely in tune with the soul of his director’s film. The orchestration choices, especially the stripped down ensemble and the use of the pipe organ, shows a composer not afraid to think outside the box, and find unique solutions to the musical problems his film presents, and the emotional content of the score is high, but not overwhelming. It’s an absolute lock for an Oscar nomination, and is one of the best scores of 2014.

Buy the Interstellar soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • REGULAR RELEASE
  • Dreaming of the Crash (3:55)
  • Cornfield Chase (2:06)
  • Dust (5:41)
  • Day One (3:19)
  • Stay (6:52)
  • Message From Home (1:40)
  • The Wormhole (1:30)
  • Mountains (3:39)
  • Afraid of Time (2:32)
  • A Place Among the Stars (3:27)
  • Running Out (1:57)
  • I’m Going Home (5:48)
  • Coward (8:26)
  • Detach (6:42)
  • S.T.A.Y. (6:23)
  • Where We’re Going (7:41)
  • EXPANDED SPECIAL EDITION
  • Dreaming of the Crash (3:55)
  • Cornfield Chase (2:06)
  • Dust (5:41)
  • Day One (3:19)
  • Stay (6:52)
  • Message From Home (1:40)
  • The Wormhole (1:30)
  • Mountains (3:39)
  • Afraid of Time (2:32)
  • A Place Among The Stars (3:27)
  • Running Out (1:57)
  • I’m Going Home (5:48)
  • Coward (8:26)
  • Detach (6:42)
  • S.T.A.Y. (6:23)
  • Where We’re Going (7:41)
  • First Step (1:47)
  • Flying Drone (1:53)
  • Atmospheric Entry (1:40)
  • No Need To Come Back (4:32)
  • Imperfect Lock (6:54)
  • What Happens Now? (2:26)
  • Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night (written by Dylan Thomas, performed by John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Casey Affleck, Jessica Chastain, Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy) (1:39)
  • ADDITIONAL BONUS TRACKS
  • Day One Dark (6:57) — exclusive bonus track from movietickets.com
  • No Time for Caution (4:06) — exclusive bonus track from iTunes

Running Time: 71 minutes 38 seconds (Regular Release)
Running Time: 92 minutes 29 seconds (Expanded Special Edition)

Watertower Music WTM39546 (2014)

Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway and Richard Harvey. Orchestrations by Bruce Fowler, Walt Fowler, Suzette Moriarty, Kevin Kaska, Carl Rydlund, Elizabeth Finch and Andrew Kinney. Additional arrangements by Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro. Special musical performances by Roger Sayer, Hans Zimmer, Ann Marie Simpson, Chas Smith, Frank Ricotti and Skaila Kanga. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster and Alan Meyerson. Edited by Alex Gibson and Ryan Rubin. Score produced by Christopher Nolan, Hans Zimmer and Alex Gibson. Album produced by Chris Craker, Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan.

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  1. Rob
    November 22, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Everybody I know including myself wanted the “No Time For Caution” for the spin docking scene, easily one of the most thrilling movie-watching experiences I ever had, and it’s in the more obscure corners of the web when it should have been in the main album. It’s everyone’s favorite music moment but they dilberately kept it from us.

    • Rob
      November 22, 2014 at 11:13 am

      And even that didn’t quite sound the same. As one commentator said, sounded more like a string ensemble and this was an earlier version before they did the organ.

  2. November 22, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Yuck, that album situation reminds me of “Tron: Legacy,” where the best cue of the film (“Sunrise Prelude”) was similarly only available from the Nokia Ova store of all place. Whoever’s been producing Zimmer’s albums of late really needs to go back to their day job.

  3. November 22, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    Excellent review, Jon! It’s indeed a very fine score, probably Zimmer’s best since Rush.

  4. November 24, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    I also was reminded of James Horner’s Land Before Time score. I thought I was the only one! It was almost more of a feeling than an actual musical comparison.

  5. Norbert
    January 15, 2015 at 9:51 am

    Thank god I found someone with the same feeling! I believe that Land Before TIme features five same notes as Zimmer’s score. It’s strange how little we need to make the connection. Although I find the Zimmer’s score quite epic, that Horners reference always kicks me out of the feeling of the movie.

  1. January 2, 2015 at 4:51 am

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