A Film Music Review by Nelson Dodge
You could count on one hand—sometimes one finger—the number of movies I see in a theater in a year. When I learned that an organ figured prominently in the score of Interstellar, opening this weekend in theaters, I was instantly curious to hear more. A quick review of several online trailers didn’t reveal any hint of organ, so I magnanimously invited my wife out for (turn on the reverb) a night at the movies.
Interstellar is director Christopher Nolan’s latest collaboration with favorite Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer. I generally find Zimmer’s film scores musically interesting—his theme in Gladiator is one of my favorites—so I was particularly intrigued to see what he would do with an organ. According to the Film Music Society website, Zimmer credits Nolan with the idea of using organ in the score. From the website:
“By the 17th century,” Zimmer points out, “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. And very little, other than Gothic horror movies, has recently been written for the pipe organ.
“All over the world you have these magnificent machines. You stand next to them and you can hear the giant that is breathing. It is the central voice of the score,” he says.
The “central voice” is the IV/61-rank Harrison & Harrison organ in The Temple Church in London, built for and by the Knights Templar as their headquarters in the late 12th Century. The church’s director of music, Roger Sayer, is the organist for the soundtrack. Harrison & Harrison has been building organs in the English tradition since 1861 in Durham, U.K. The organ at The Temple Church was originally built in 1924 for Glen Tanar. It was moved to The Temple Church in 1954 and updated in 2013. (The organ in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle is a IV/72 Harrison & Harrison from 1965).
The Interstellar story is epic: a trio of heroes must save the human race from extinction, due to a dying planet Earth and the failure of food crops, by attempting to reach one or more planets in distant galaxies explored on previous NASA missions. Problem is, with limited data, it isn’t clear which planet is best suited for sustaining life. Thus the voyage begins.
Along the way, we encounter the requisite elements of classic film making: love and romance, good and evil, and some treachery. With a half dozen main characters, all the archetypes are there. There are two father-daughter “teams” that frame the backbone of the story and are exploited to their full dynamic potential. It’s pure Hollywood, including hewing closely to the humanist theology at the core of the story.
Categorically, this is a science fiction space voyage, with all the advanced technology you would expect (and need) for easily navigating the universe—and not just the trip of a lifetime, but a trip that spans a lifetime. All manner of space hazards are encountered and survived: cosmic storms, time warps, gravitational and relativity anomalies, fifth dimensions…and more imaginary science that isn’t really science at all…it is fiction after all (note to self: just relax and enjoy the ride…oh yeah, don’t forget to listen for the organ).
Zimmer’s score is primarily orchestral, anchored by masses of strings and woodwinds, and includes a 60-voice choir, the Harrison & Harrison organ and several pianos. Although the music was recorded live with acoustic instruments, these big budget film soundtracks go through so much processing and sound design that the distinction between recorded acoustic sound (the orchestra, choir and pipe organ) and engineered sound is lost much of the time: it all becomes one big morphing mass of sound. And it does get BIG at several points—those space storms are brutal—the sound is punishingly loud (earplugs recommended!).
But in the more musical moments, when the orchestra, choir, organ and piano are distinct, one can hear Zimmer at work. I would have liked to hear the choir more prominently: if you weren’t listening attentively (easy to happen when Anne Hathaway’s face was full screen) you could miss the choir altogether. A shame when you think of the efforts of so many live musicians compared to doing it digitally, which, dare I say, probably could have achieved the same effect when relegated to being part of the overall “texture.”
As expected, the organ has a more central solo role. It debuts with a thunderous chord (what else?) à la the introductory climax in Strauss’ tone poem Zarathustra, or as the average bear would know it, the opening theme of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike in 2001 (well actually 1896 via 1968), Interstellar’s “big organ” rumbles with amped up 16’ and 32’ pedals to the point it felt like we were actually in the spaceship hurtling through space, obviously the intended effect. In the world of sound design 2014, it’s impossible to tell where the acoustic organ sound stops and the sound engineering starts: the distinction between music and sound is ambiguous. Truthfully, I prefer 1968…perhaps I’m just showing my age.
When the organ comes to the fore as the “central voice,” it is truly beautiful and distinctive. A solo principal pipe voice (8’ and 4’ maybe?) methodically articulating a spare haunting theme, alternating between romantic and plaintive in the tonal space that is uniquely the organ’s domain. I wondered: “does anyone in this theater besides me know they’re hearing organ pipes?” Few, if any, would have the musical reference points to know, plus it wasn’t the stereotypical context for organ: a wedding or funeral scene, or some sort of Frankensteinian reveal.
Ultimately, Zimmer has done an unconventional thing in focusing on the essence of the organ—the purity of a principal pipe—as the star solo instrument in his orchestra. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few within the film music and organist circles, such innovation will go largely unrecognized and uncelebrated. I suggest skipping the movie tickets—the best way to acknowledge what Zimmer has done is to buy the CD and enjoy the music at home at a level that won’t damage your hearing…and spread the word.
Harrison & Harrison Organs
Hans Zimmer Interstellar Adventure
About the Temple Church
More about The Temple Church
Update: Zimmer nominated for an Oscar for Interstellar score
Update: Variety article on Zimmer and Oscar nomination