Hans Zimmer is arguably my favourite film composer of the 21st century. His use of bass overtones and rich synth sounds alongside orchestral music put across tone in such a bold and confident way that the scene asserts itself with more purpose and vigour. In particular, the music he creates to describe a journey or impediment have perfect tonal shifts that reflect the scene beat for beat. Using unsettling harmonic minor keys and bold drum solos a new layer of complexity is added to the film.
Director and long term collaborator Christopher Nolan began the process of conscripting a composer for his new project interstellar in early 2014. On a cold February morning in central London the two men met to discuss this project over coffee. Strangely Nolan did not reveal any details of the film bar one which he revealed in the form of a request. He asked Zimmer to write a series of ten pieces based around the relationship of a father and his son. This subtle hint blossomed into an incredible soundtrack that broadened the vision of the film to extraordinary lengths. In the knowledge of Zimmer having a son himself Nolan subversively encouraged the pieces to become personal and reflect the composer’s internal dialogue. In doing so the music found new depths and correlated in its theme of the strength a paternal relationship can bear through this. In the actual film the relationship between Cooper and Murph a father and his daughter lie at the epicentre of the film and appears to be a recurring theme. As time progresses through the tune the story tests the promise held by Cooper to return in the form of accelerated time and the physics of outer space. In his own words Nolan wanted the music not to ‘pay attention to the genre of the film’ and to ‘engage hands in a pure creative process’. Therefore any associations with the epic space opera genre or any tropes that may undermine the depth of the film’s story.
Nolan wrote some dialogue and ideas centred around the film in a way that is framed around this relationship and asked that zimmer base it around this. Unexpectedly this first taste of the film’s purpose resulted in a piece of music that formed the basis for the entire score. Repeated thematically throughout the movie at different pitches the viewer is forced to recall the major themes and to feel moved toward the unexpected and unexplored capturing the emotional qualities of the film in great detail. This developed a symbiotic process of creation as through the stages of production and screenwriting the music was echoed by the approach to the filmmaking itself.
In accordance to the film’s large scale and theme of exploring the complete unknown the theme of religiosity and worshiping the great unknown encouraged the music to change course and adapt to the use of a large church organ alongside a series of repeating chords changing octave.The metaphysical and extraordinary represented in this music would reflect the core ethos of space travel and human curiosity as the space traveling characters explored new reaches of the universe.
A third figure entered into this equation to emphasise the belief that the live real human will always add a bit of magic to the production of the score. This came in the form of Roger. A humble organ player with an ear for pipe music, Roger was able to tune and refine the music in a way that surpassed the modern day synthesiser. The collaborative process increased pace as all three characters complimented the ideas of one another, shifting the tone’s brightness or depth.
Air blows through the pipe to create a sound of one pitch and as it shifts to a different colour or tone a new pipe is blown through to create a phenomenally complex and admirable harmonic structure. The human element was further emphasised by the medium as the air that passed through the instrument is necessary for it to breathe and live to give the sense of a human presence in the music. This instrument also helped to shift from extreme intimacy in the music to a broader and more spectacular scale often just over the course of a few bars or notes.
Piece by piece the music changes and flips in a form of musical acrobatics to depict strongly the themes and emotions that carry the story. Dreaming of the crash is the first score piece played and begins with the crashing of waves and sound of wind which slowly blends with organ music playing lightly and delicately in the background to give a sense of space and isolation in the unknown. The low synth base that strikes in the second part constructs a second phase to the music as the chords move inn arpeggio form to bring intrigue and awe with the exploratory visuals. After this the music crescendos like the movement of emotion or a breath in and we are made aware that this is a memory and a vision of past failure. It feels distant and lamenting and underlines and predicts the uncertainty of the central plot.
Following this piece Cornfield Chase repeats the same chord arpeggio format and adds a layer of music followed by quick starry high notes to continue the flying imagery and emphasise the excitement and bonding of Cooper and Murphy. The music has a sense of momentum and excitement as though it is reaching toward something stopping abruptly to signify the end in their relationship later in the story. The next piece’s title reflects one of the film’s ecological themes being named ‘Dust’ to reflect humanity humbling by its own lack of vigilance and recognition of it’s limitations – dust in the solar system. This uses pan pipes in an eery slanting manner to almost mimic the incompetence of humans in protecting the planet and as the film shifts in sharpness it sounds like a tune is attempting to balance itself tediously as it sways from side to side. Then the main theme enters forming a circular pattern that repeats itself like the chugging of a train in motion on the train tracks. The stakes of space travel at this point are low and the anticipation is reduced by the melodic sound of harp in the background as the space crew admire the beauty of space around them. During the final part of the tune the natural overtures from the first appear again as a premonition of what is to come and to represent the haphazard nature of flight.
As the scale of the film widens so does the tune. The score stay centres around an emotional departure using long notes and synth noises to relate the sorrowful feelings suffered by Murphy during this scene raising to a crescendo at the end. An iteration of this tune is used again in the fourth dimension as the theme and the vision of this time repeats itself. We feel the pangs of regret from Cooper at him not staying as he lives through a repeat of this exact scene from the outside.
Further emotional punches are delivered in Message from Home which takes a substantial shift. Moving to a classical keyboard groupings of three notes in sparse repetitions set up this scene for an intense piece of dialogue. We watch Cooper crying as he realises the time he as missed in his children’s lives and this steady build up mirrors the slow realisation of his own loss as a father. The music often muffles itself as we here Cooper’s sobs indicating that he is struggling to come to terms with this hardship as he tries to dull the feelings of loss.
My description so far of Zimmer’s work in this movie makes it seem advanced, experimental but not varied however it is in the piece The Wormhole that the tone shifts again for a moment of dramatic tension during which time the spaceship enters the wormhole. Mimicking the psycho scream music the organ rises and falls in short peaks in a way reminiscent of a ship entering a whirlpool. The deep bass copies this with a seconds delay as though it was standing on the shoulders of the organ piece. The religious theme comes through as the crew attain stability using a synth to mimic a human choir sound. The effect of this is to reflect the awe and comfort of experiencing the Wormhole’s visuals.
In conclusion, it is my belief that the composition in music is to be experimented with and explored but most of all not to be undermined. Hans Zimmer fully comprehends the material that he works with and the value of music in its own right as a separate element to film. At times it feels as though modern day composing follows the visuals, mimics the story and does not strive for a symbiotic relationship but instead a pathetic flourish. Zimmer proves that music’s role in film is essential in the full experience and that music should always be created from personal and collaborative experiences.
ZIMMER: COMPOSING INTERSTELLAR