Music of the Spheres

In Interstellar, Hans Zimmer scores the universe.

Hans Zimmer in Interstellar.
Hans Zimmer plays an integral role in Interstellar.

Photo illustration by Slate. Interstellar photo courtesy Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros., Zimmer photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty Images.

Reviews of Interstellar—Christopher Nolan’s delightfully grandiose effort to send Matthew McConaughey though wormholes, black holes, and plot holes in order to save the world—have been appropriately mixed, but critics agree on one point: It is very, very loud. The kind of loud that invites violent adjectives (pounding, pummeling) and stormy-weather metaphors (rumbling, thundering). Slate’s Dana Stevens nicely captures the experience of one particularly rattling scene, during which I had to cover my ears: “Here, it’s Michael Caine bellowing quite a bit of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ as a spacecraft launches deafeningly into the stratosphere, Hans Zimmer’s booming music jockeying for a place in the mix.”

Whether you think this degree of loud is too loud will depend on your personal tolerance—and the audio setup in your theater, the unevenness of which appears to be causing problems in certain locations. But technical difficulties aside, the high volume itself is no mistake. Zimmer, the prolific film composer and longtime Nolan collaborator probably most famous for devising the “BRAAAM” brass hits in Inception, cares so much about the sheer force of his score that he has delayed the soundtrack album release until two weeks after the film’s premiere. He explained the rare move in an interview with HuffPost Live:

[W]e wanted people to really hear it for the first time with the movie on really big speakers in a theater … I just didn’t want people to go and hear everything on tiny little speakers on their Mac or something like this. I wanted them to go and have the visceral experience of being pinned in their seats.

Mission, I think we can all agree, accomplished. But while Zimmer’s score for Interstellar measures highly decibel-wise, it’s a shame that people are focusing on that rather boring attribute. Because it is also a piece of music that, like the movie for which it was written, is rich in ideas. In fact, in order to do its supporting job as a score for a film that depends on so many difficult concepts, it had to be smart: Emotional heft alone won’t cut it when your camera is headed for a singularity. Zimmer had to find musical ways of reinforcing Nolan’s astrophysics textbook of a script, and while it may be difficult to catch all the clever work on the first, overwhelming listen, it’s definitely there. (When I asked Zimmer how much influence the movie’s science had on his music, he was clear: “You have no idea.”) Zimmer is sometimes dinged for repeating himself, but for Insterstellar he has done something fresh and fascinating: He’s created a beautiful score that also functions as program music for the universe.  

Before Zimmer could apply string theory to his string section, he had to understand what this new movie project was all about—and Nolan, true to form, initially presented him with a cryptic challenge. The director asked Zimmer to write a cozy bit of music in response to a brief fable about a father and child, no churning accretion discs in sight. Only after the composer presented Nolan with his intimate “love letter” of a tune did the director reveal that this material—or, at least, musical extrapolations based on it—would have to get a crew of astronauts to another galaxy and back. Zimmer and Nolan have told this story multiple times, and it’s very cute—but it doesn’t tell us much about the dexterity required to capture musically both that basic familial love and cosmological experiences that barely flicker at the edge of our understanding. Zimmer’s real challenge begins once the Endurance takes off, when he must score the most alien of phenomena: wormholes, time dilation, higher dimensions, the warping and twisting of space itself. Which key is best for a black hole called Gargantua?

When I asked him about this, Zimmer launched into the technical backstory of one of the film’s central themes. “Well, at one point Chris sort of said, ‘You know we really need to figure out a way to coalesce the idea of gravity and time,’ ” he recalled. A tall order for an artist more comfortable with meter and harmony, but Zimmer had an idea:

The only way I knew how to do that was I wrote a ginormous, very sort of Mahleresque, Straussian love theme, with the notes forever reaching upwards. There’s a musical trick, if you will, whereby I was trying [to make it seem] like the notes would carry on going upwards all the time, whereas really what happens is the counterpoint to it was going downwards. You kept having this idea that things are going upwards, to infinity, like a barber’s pole.

Whether this compositional technique “coalesces the idea of gravity and time” is debatable. But it certainly helps to articulate a sense of scale, holding our hand as we try to grasp the unfathomable distances over which gravity works, and the vastness and vexing slipperiness of cosmic time.

And the “reaching theme” is not the only aide of this sort. Nolan’s script requires that we first get a real feel for our typical, three-dimensional experience of the world. And so Zimmer offers melodies that are angular and disjunct, with steps and leaps that you could trace on a grid. Then Nolan needs us to gather the basics of relativistic time dilation in a few minutes—so Zimmer punctuates rhythms that count the seconds, reminding us that for our heroes each one is immeasurably precious. Nolan’s itinerary demands that we orbit, slingshot, and somehow direct ourselves in the directionlessness of outer space; Zimmer provides Glassian swirlings of his own, providing an aural foothold in the visual confusion. Nolan asks that we comprehend a cosmic object whose massive physical presence and power is wildly beyond our experience; Zimmer answers with the lowest, fattest note on the most powerful instrument mankind has ever built, in this instance the four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ housed in London’s Temple Church. “By having that note, it gave me the opportunity to reach up into space … it gives you this foundation,” Zimmer explains.

Providing a foundation for a director’s flight of fancy is a film composer’s most important task, and Nolan has said that Zimmer’s score “has the tightest bond between music and image that we’ve yet achieved.” I think he’s right, at least as far as the intellectual content of the film is concerned. Emotional or narrative resonance—the metric by which we usually judge the success of a film score—is more of a mixed bag, especially during the first act on Earth, where quaking bass notes and awe-filled, “Space, the Final Frontier” shimmers can sound premature among wilting cornfields. That said, Zimmer and Nolan wisely tether their extradimensional exploits to human experience; the breathy centrality of the organ voice is powerful in that regard, as is the palpable presence of real musicians in the mix. As Zimmer explains, “There had to be virtuosity in it—the organ pumps are incredibly virtuosic. I wanted to show how amazing man can be. I wanted to show the best of man. And all the players were sort of working at an extreme of their capabilities, be it emotionally or be it technically.”

That all this extramusical stuff does come through in the score is all the more striking given the relatively modest materials with which Zimmer chose to work. In hewing to acoustic instruments—deployed with the added colors of bridge-slapping, mouthpiece-buzzing extended techniques—Zimmer’s timbral pallet eschews the semiotic shorthand that electronics might have provided in a sci-fi movie. And though the sonic vocabulary is quite different from the Dark Knight’s bombastic horns and drums, the score is, at heart, more of the “maximal-minimalist” stuff at which Zimmer excels—languid melodies over roiling undercurrents, bewitching use of tension-mounting suspensions, explosions of simple themes into grand textures. And yet, even so, Interstellar sounds as new and wondrous as an untouched galaxy.

Indeed, if you can get past the loudness, I think you’ll find that Zimmer has reinvented his sound in this score, in no small part because of the challenge posed by the movie’s content. During our interview, Zimmer observed that Nolan’s movies are “forever asking questions” and that he sees his job as “figuring out how to answer [them] in my language.” Obviously Nolan is asking similar questions of his other collaborators, but I suspect that Zimmer, despite working in a medium not generally valued for its information-carrying capacity, has come up with the most effective replies. There’s been much talk of how Nolan’s team used complex equations and terabytes of data to render the stunning vistas of Interstellar and to transport the audience to far-flung galaxies and beyond. But for me, it was Zimmer’s music—written by one human and played by a few others on some centuries-old assemblages of wood, metal, and string—that made Nolan’s cosmic voyage feel real.

Physicists once thought space was empty; they now recognize it to be teeming with virtual particles popping into and out of existence. Such an invisible foamy landscape is difficult to imagine, and so we rely on funny little doodles to assist in our understanding of reality. The truth may be that no matter how far science advances, we will always need art to help us comprehend the universe. In his lovely, intelligent, humane music for Interstellar, Zimmer has, if nothing else, added a data point in favor of that hypothesis.

Read more about Interstellar in Slate.