- Composed by Hans Zimmer
- WaterTower Music / 2014 / 72m (regular release)
Christopher Nolan’s latest is his attempt to make a science fiction film of meaning, a 2001 for this generation perhaps, with life on earth reaching its end due to overpopulation and humanity needing to find a new home. Matthew McConaughey plays a former pilot who leads the way with a small group of scientists, leaving behind his beloved daughter; when she grows up she resents this but ends up working for the remnants of NASA just as her father did.
This relationship – what it means to be a father, to sacrifice so much for your daughter – was the hook with which Nolan got composer Hans Zimmer, who initially wrote a bit of music based on that idea without knowing what the movie was about. (And by the way – since the movie was released two weeks ago and my own daughter was born two weeks ago, I haven’t seen it – so I’m afraid I can’t talk about it here, but only review the music on its own terms.) Everybody knows this, because for the last few weeks it’s been impossible to leave the house to go to the supermarket without falling over Zimmer being interviewed by somebody or other, explaining how revolutionary it all is. I don’t ever remember another film composer doing so much PR for one score before – it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a photo of him with a “GIVE ME AN OSCAR NOW” tattoo across his forehead any time now – and there’s been such an excess of bluster in all those interviews, there’s a danger it (and the rather irritating way the music has been released to the public – more on that later) creates a sour feeling about the music even if you’ve never heard it – it couldn’t possibly live up to the billing it has been given, and it really isn’t unlike anything we’ve heard before, and it really doesn’t push musicians to the boundaries of their capabilities – and that’s such a shame because actually the music is more than capable of speaking for itself. It’s one of the most impressive creations of Zimmer’s career and that central idea – that father-daughter bond – seems to have inspired him to create something unusually personal and about which he is understandably proud.
The influences on the music seem to range from the 2001 connection (some textures here are certainly reminiscent of Ligeti) to the more unexpected, with Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi apparent at times – and even James Horner’s signature rumbling pianos. (One frequently cited influence is Ennio Morricone’s magnificent Mission to Mars, but I can entirely believe Zimmer’s claim to have never heard it because I can’t hear anything remotely like it.) But in the best film music tradition, Zimmer does something that Horner himself has done so often which is to take these influences and bring them together into something entirely his own – this is Hans Zimmer music through and through, an evolution in his sound for sure but it’s unmistakably his sound and I suspect is quickly going to become many other people’s sound, as happened in the past with Gladiator and Inception.
The album’s opener is “Dreaming of the Crash”, the music itself gradually emerging over the sound of wind and rain. When the score’s main theme does make itself known, it’s revealed as a slow piece, quite grandiose and as the score’s signature sound – the organ – pushes forth it takes on what sounds to me like a religious (specifically Christian) sound. I don’t know if that was intentional – indeed, I suspect it wasn’t – but so ingrained is the sound of the organ with the sound of the church, I suspect many will make that same association. More obviously, that familial bond that runs through the score is very obviously felt.
The organ remains at the fore in “Cornfield Chase”, assuming here a spectral quality, the composer pulling out all the stops (forgive the pun) and creating a dazzling fantasy of a cue, dancing and shining and moving. “Dust” is another fascinating cue, a starker string melody – in the piercing highest register – accompanied by undulating rhythms, like waves lapping their way ashore, then a more urgent, up-front melody (the organ is back, accompanied this time by lower-register strings) not a million miles from some of the composer’s Angels and Demons take on 80s electronica. That dies down again, leaving dark electronics, a rumbling piano. “Day One” begins with a softer piano arrangement of the main theme, later the strings start soaring, the organ returns; and this leads into the score’s most sublime piece, “Stay”. It’s Zimmer’s brand of minimalism – maybe not in the strictest sense, but certainly in spirit – with a little melodic cluster being fed between winds, organ, a distant choir, later the brass section, sounds of nature accompanying it, the piece becoming more and more intense as it progresses to its stunning organ crescendo conclusion. Subtle it isn’t – subtlety is not a word one would associate with this composer – and nor is it complex. In fact it is from its very simplicity, its direct approach that its power comes – it is so obviously from the heart, so extraordinarily vivid and done with such grandeur and indeed gusto, it’s really quite breathtaking. I hope its power isn’t diminished somewhat in the years to come by trailer music hacks and lesser film composers incessantly copying it (as happened with The Thin Red Line‘s “Journey to the Line” and Inception‘s HORN OF DOOM) and that the piece is allowed to live on for a while as the heart and soul of Interstellar.
A couple of much briefer pieces follow – the pared-down “Message From Home” with its piano version of the main theme, and ominous histrionics in “The Wormhole” – then is the fantastic “Mountains”, low-key rumblings accompanied by col legno violins (I think! – it’s important to remember that I’m an idiot) at precisely 60 beats a minute, brilliantly conveying the passage of time, in the first half and a veritable explosion of sound in the second. “Afraid of Time” is a more low-key piece, ditto “A Place Among the Stars”, though there’s a real tension brewing in the latter, more grand gestures beginning to emerge as the piece progresses but darker ones this time, leading perfectly into a jabbing piano introducing “Running Out”. “I’m Going Home” returns to the territory of the first part of the earlier “Dust”, slightly eerie, celestial textures shimmering away somewhat mysteriously; I love it, particularly the way it evolves into perfectly peaceful sounds later on.
Another of the score’s standouts follows, the longest cue, “Coward”, a slow-burner of an action track whose rather humble beginnings lead into another of those organ setpieces, half Philip Glass and half Kraftwerk, contrasted with a delicate piano line that works beautifully in tandem. In the cue’s second half, things have developed into an absolute cacophony, piano and organ going neck-and-neck. It’s intense, maybe it is too overbearing for some; I am seriously impressed. “Detach” is even better, going for the emotional jugular in the same way as “Stay” did earlier on the album, adding in the ticking-clock col legno effect, and this time not starting small and getting big but starting big and getting bigger. “S.T.A.Y.” is another piece of minimalism, a simple pattern rocking back and forth, a sense of perpetual motion. “Where We’re Going” is a nice finale, cleverly suggesting an adventure just beginning rather than one ending, returning the score to where it began, completing the circle.
If you buy the regular CD from a record shop, then that’s where the music ends. The good news is that as an album it’s a wonderful listening experience, and there’s no sense of there being anything missing from it. But there’s also the digital version of the album, which features all that and (currently) eight additional tracks, including one that wasn’t initially there but was later added. And there’s another single track available only to those Americans who bought their tickets for the movie from a certain website. And coming soon is a super-deluxe album with yet more music on it not available on the other versions. It strikes me that this is a particularly cynical way of releasing a soundtrack – people want to have it quickly, so they buy the regular edition, whether in physical or digital form. Then an extra track is unexpectedly added to the digital one, so those who bought it early now have to spend more money on getting another track. Then there’s another track which they didn’t know about which can only be (legally) obtained from a rather obscure source. And they’re buying all this knowing full well that they’re going to have to then spend a small fortune on the super-duper edition a few weeks down the line, most of the music on which they’ve already bought. Seriously unimpressive and it strikes me that it’s a mechanism of releasing music that virtually begs people who want to hear it to download it illegally rather than jump through all the hoops and spend money several times in order to get everything they want legally. Maybe I’ve missed the point, but I really hope it’s not a sign of things to come. Anyway, I decided to stick to reviewing the regular album and like I said, the good news is that as a standalone album it’s absolutely fine.
Hans Zimmer’s a continually controversial figure, not just because of his music but the ridiculous bluster of his statements in a seemingly never-ending stream of promotional interviews and, recently, rather eccentric behaviour on social media. That makes it very important to separate the music from the man and for me, there’s never been any doubt that when he’s really on top form, he is a game-changing figure in film music, leading the way that others inevitably follow. Interstellar marks the next step of his creative journey and is up there in his top tier of music along with The Thin Red Line and Inception. It is music of grand gestures but with an intimate heart – clearly music written of the soul. Most music is created from love, but film music is of course a job – and you can hear when the composer’s heart isn’t really in it. Likewise you can hear when a composer is so taken with a film he or she just reaches a special place, and that’s the case with Interstellar. Its lack of subtlety and its emphatic grandeur from moment one makes me wonder how it could function as a film score that doesn’t overwhelm its film by treating everything as being so important – and I’ll have to wait a while to be able to experience it for myself in that way – but the album lives perfectly well without the film. It has the sense of being special all the way through, creative and dazzling, big and bold and brash and reveling in drawing attention to that.
Inception Hans Zimmer