Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)
Hans Zimmer, 2014, WaterTower Music
16 tracks, 71:39 (Standard Version)
24 tracks, 96:37 (Deluxe Version)
Already a legendary film, mere weeks after its release. Even the music received widespread media attention. Does it live up to all the hype?
Review by Pete Simons
What is it?
“Interstellar” is an almost instantly legendary film by Christopher Nolan, that works on two levels. On the one hand it’s a film about life on Earth becoming unsustainable and our mission to find another planet – to migrate to. On the other hand it’s an intimate family drama, particularly focusing on the father-daughter relationship and how this is affected by dad’s departure. Tying into that are themes of discovery, survival, love, aging and death. It’s ambitious if nothing else; but it is something else. Whilst not without its flaws, the film is a triumph.
I wrote a review. Not surprisingly – it’s what I do. It was a long one. Spent quite a bit of time on it; listening to the score over and over again. This is after seeing the film as well, of course. I had my reservations about the score. I liked it – or wanted to – but it was flawed. And I was all too happy to point that out. Yet, with each listen my perception of the music changed a little. I obtained a different copy with marginally improved sound quality and my perception changed a little more.
I deleted my review; and wrote this one instead. Then I nearly deleted this one as well. Talk about a divisive score!
What does it sound like?
Wind and a faint horn-like instrument open the album (“Dreaming of the Crash”). Instantly the music creates an atmosphere of loneliness and desolation. A dark, bassy sound is added and a theme is echoed between – what sounds like – a trumpet and a horn; but both are so quiet and fragile it’s hard to tell exactly what instruments they are. Likely they are synths, but it could even be a very faint organ. This sense of loneliness initially carries over into “Cornfield”, but before long this cue becomes a lot livelier with arpeggios for organ and piano (it does after all depict a chase). The track comes to an abrupt end and makes way for the mysterious sounds of “Dust”. The melody (for lack of a better word) that plays in “Dust” is almost intangible – it’s not quite a random collection of notes, but it’s not far off. The notes aren’t important, the atmosphere is. Tremolo strings, breathy woodwinds as well as flutter-tongue techniques create a mood that is both eerie and full of wonder. In a way it reminds me of Alan Silvestri’s music for the ‘pseudopod’ in “The Abyss”. After two minutes of abstractness, the organ kicks in. Not for the first time, but it makes more of statement here than it did in the previous cue. Here it makes you sit up and pay attention. It plays on an ominous ostinato, augmented with deep basses (so typically for Zimmer) and crashing piano chords.
So far, the score as heard on album is quite subtle. If you’re listening to these cues without having seen the film, they certainly don’t give anything away as to the grand spectacle that is to come. However, in context these cues are quite bothersome. The basses during the second half of “Dreaming of the Crash” produce a rather annoying rumble in the cinema; whilst “Cornfield Chase” – like most of the score – is distractingly loud in the film’s mix. More about that later.
“Day One” represents the heart of the film. If you haven’t heard the story of its conception by now you’ve probably been on an interstellar mission yourself. Nolan approached Zimmer and asked him to spend one day writing music based on a one-page letter. Nolan gave Zimmer the letter; a fable about parenthood. Zimmer wrote this heartfelt little cue, musically depicting what it’s like to be a dad. Only later did Nolan reveal the true nature and scale of his film. “Day One” presents a few linked ideas. There is a rather fleeting piano melody, followed by slowly see-sawing motif for organ. The latter I personally find absolutely mesmerising. It is incredibly simple, and even simplistic, but it sounds so melancholy it hurts. And I love that.
“Stay” is about leaving. The main theme plays quietly (as it did in the opening cue). During the mid-section of this cue, organ is added. Again, only very softly. And again, it’s mesmerising. It’s like you’re walking through the German mountains, and far in the distance you can hear the echoing notes of a church organ – but only those that are accentuated enough to find their way to you. The melody gradually builds in intensity until it explodes in a fury of strings, basses and fast-paced organ arpeggios. In the film it is so loud that all nuances are lost, but on album you can hear quite a lot of detail. This big sound is immediately contrasted by the solitary piano of “Message From Home”, which plays a deconstructed version of, what I believe to be, the parenthood theme.
“The Wormhole” uses pulsating bass and interesting woodwind sounds to create tension. The woodwinds here, and elsewhere throughout the score, remind me of Marc Streitenfeld’s “Prometheus” score. Streitenfeld made a point of recording live woodwinds and playing them back in reverse, so to create an eerie, undefinable but acoustic sound. Not to dissimilar to Zimmer who deliberately asked the wind players to do all sorts of effects with their instruments (I’m assuming that playing with lots of extra air/breath is one of those techniques). Collaborator Richard Harvey joked that these musicians spent their lifetimes studying not to sound like this.
The pulsating sound I mentioned is also something that returns several times throughout the score; representing time and how it is affected by gravitational forces. Cleverly, and thankfully, Zimmer uses different instruments to create these clicking noises. In “The Mountains” he uses woodblocks, elsewhere it’s col legno strings, piano keys and even hammering directly onto the string of the piano.
Speaking of “The Mountains”, this is quite the powerhouse of a cue. The cue builds and builds before the composer unleashes massive chords that surge like the waves they represent in the film. These chords, augmented with organ and screaming choir, are as close to “Inception” and its brass blasts as “Interstellar” is going to get. It’s actually quite amazing to note the things that “Interstellar” does not have. It doesn’t have massive drums. those overly familiar string ostinato or horns of doom. Zimmer really went out of his way to approach this one differently, especially from an orchestrations point of view. You see, there are still ostinati, but they’re performed on an organ. And I think we still have something of a ‘braaaam’, but it’s evolved into something much organic using the pipe organ.
“Afraid of Time”, “A Place Among the Stars” and “Running Out” are three understated cues, with the last two sounding quite sinister (at times almost “Prometheus”-like). “I’m Going Home” retains an intimate atmosphere, but overall sounds more hopeful than the preceding cues. It reprises the atmospheric effects heard in “Dust”.
“Coward” is a lengthy cue underscoring one of the film’s most dramatic scenes. Low piano keys are used to create another tick-tock rhythm, whilst various organ- and synth arpeggios are being played off against each other. Towards the end, no less than four grand pianos play a series of rising notes that are double, tripled and quadrupled to create a nerve-racking cacophony. Fans of James Horner may enjoy some of the techniques applied here. The track comes to a sudden end and makes way for another movie highlight: “Detach”. It starts rather eerie, but slowly Coop’s main theme starts to emerge; softly first with low piano notes and synths creating a tense atmosphere. Just before the 4-minute mark the theme bursts to the fore with all its might, as it did in “Stay”. The rising strings in the background are incredibly effective in getting the adrenaline rushing through your body. The cue ends quite majestically, almost Straussian. Subtle it is not, but it is totally engaging.
The highlights keep on coming and “S.T.A.Y.”, which really is a variation on “Day One” is my personal favorite cue. You’ve probably already seen the film by now, but I won’t write any spoilers. But I can feel the character’s pain and desperation in this cue. It is simple, but it is beautiful and it feels ever so melancholy. “Where We’re Going” continues in the same vein, though the organ arpeggios make a strong return towards the end of the cue. This also marks the end of the standard album edition.
There is a Deluxe Version, which contains 8 further cues totalling around 24 minutes. Whilst one could argue that these cues offers nothing new, they are worth purchasing. “First Step” is a variation on “Day One”; whilst “Flying Drone” offers a playful version of the parenthood theme. “Atmospheric Entry”, “No Need to Come Back” and “What Happens Now” are mostly atmospheric cues, offering reprises and variations on some of the eerier themes. “Imperfect Lock” and “No Times For Caution” are two highlights underscoring what are arguably the most impressive scenes from this already impressive film. The latter was added to the iTunes album after fans cried out for it; though once it was released fans have noted that it’s not quite the same as the version heard in the film – it seems less powerful. Still it’s great to see that Zimmer and/or the record company listened to the fans and made this cue available sooner rather than later.
The album ends with various cast members reading the poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” (written by Dylan Thomas in 1951). A fine poem it is, and it plays an important part in the film, but I don’t think it adds anything to the soundtrack album. In fact, the voice performance by the actors is rather dull and uninspiring.
Is it any good?
There are things I don’t agree with. First and foremost I believe the score is mixed too loudly in the film. I’m not the only one to complain about this; it has even made national news. Nolan says it’s deliberate. I say I don’t care. If I can’t hear the dialogue for the music, then that’s a negative in my book. I also disagree with the deep rumbling sound whilst nothing of particular significance happens on screen. Nor do I approve of (perhaps: understand) the sudden organ-led crescendo when Cooper walks to the window and looks out over his crops. Sorry – why? In context, the score is so loud that all nuances are lost. I know now that those nuances exist, but ‘as heard in the film’ it comes across as a very simplistic piece of work. An overbearing one, at that. This, however, all relates to the music’s mixing within the film and isn’t necessarily Hans Zimmer’s doing.
On CD it’s a different beast altogether. At home you can turn the volume down, so the furniture doesn’t rattle along. At home you can put headphones on and focus on the intricacies. It took me a little while to realise it, I have to admit, but Zimmer’s score is full of interesting little details. In a way, this score isn’t really about the themes, though it is a very melodic (practically leitmotivic) work. It is much more about the sound and the atmosphere. I had to get my head around this, before I could fully enjoy the score. Perhaps the melodies are simple, because they represent simple family values. And perhaps the sound design is full of complexities to represent the scientific aspects of the story. Perhaps…
Now, there are still some things (even on album) that frustrate me a little. The organ is great, it really is, but I wouldn’t have minded hearing a little less of it. It has a massive, bellowing, all-encompassing, resonating and reverberating sound. Yes, it is absolutely majestic. Yes, it is gorgeous (who doesn’t love a good organ). Yes, it is a genius choice. But it also drowns out a lot of the other things that are happening; inadvertently creating a big blurry wall of sound. Especially in the cinema. The main theme is nice, but it’s not a masterpiece. As I alluded to earlier, the whole composition is rather straightforward. And whilst Zimmer makes a big deal about all the experimentation that went on with the live musicians, I can’t help but wonder “really?”. Zimmer is not the only one experimenting with sound; and you could wonder what this ‘experimenting’ really entails. He’s not the only one pushing the boundaries of both musicians and audiences. He’s not the first, nor the last and certainly not the only pioneer in music (but yes, he is one). I do believe that recent works by Marco Beltrami and Steven Prices have been much more challenging and pioneering for all parties involved. For all it’s whispering, huffing and puffing, blowing and piping “Interstellar” is still a reasonably conventional score.
Yet for all my frustrations… the music is absolutely fascinating. It’s mesmerising, captivating, inspiring; all of those adjectives! The quiet moments are very beautiful, whilst the grand moments are sure to rattle your teeth. It’s easy to argue that the themes are not particularly intellectually challenging, yet they’ve been going round and round in my head for the past two weeks or so. It’s a score I initially snobbishly wanted to dismiss as simplistic noise, yet I just can’t get enough of it! The sheer raw power of it is nothing short of addictive.
The more I listen to it, the more it gets in my head and under my skin. This score is a true journey… hence I had to come back to the review, more than once, make edits and increase its rating.
We’ve all grown tired of those infernal drums, so Hans ditched them. We’re all fed up of those endless string ostinatos, so Hans got rid of them. That friggin’ horn of doom – gone! We’re all tired of samples and synthesizers creating fake orchestral sounds, so Hans used a real orchestra even for the ‘sound effects’. We all wanted to hear a score by Zimmer without an arsenal of co-composers… and here it is. The man has tried hard. The man has worked hard. And what he has delivered may take a few spins to get your head around, but boy – it is one hell of a ride.
1. “Dreaming of the Crash” (3:55)
2. “Cornfield Chase” (2:06)
3. “Dust” (5:41)
4. “Day One” (3:19)
5. “Stay” (6:52)
6. “Message from Home” (1:40)
7. “The Wormhole” (1:30)
8. “Mountains” (3:39)
9. “Afraid of Time” (2:32)
10. “A Place Among the Stars” (3:27)
11. “Running Out” (1:57)
12. “I’m Going Home” (5:48)
13. “Coward” (8:26)
14. “Detach” (6:42)
15. “S.T.A.Y.” (6:23)
16. “Where We’re Going” (7:41)
Deluxe edition bonus tracks
17. “First Step” (1:47)
18. “Flying Drone” (1:53)
19. “Atmospheric Entry” (1:40)
20. “No Need to Come Back” (4:32)
21. “Imperfect Lock” (6:54)
22. “No Time for Caution” (4:06)
23. “What Happens Now?” (2:26)
24. “Do not go gentle into that good night” (recited by John Lithgow, Ellen Burstyn, Casey Affleck, Jessica Chastain, Matthew McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy) (1:39)
Interstellar is/will be release in three different formats. See the WaterTower Music website for more information.