Sie sind auf Seite 1von 11

Outer-Space Minimalism:

Understanding Hans Zimmers

Score for Interstellar
While Interstellar heavily draws inspiration from films like 2001: A Space
Odyssey in most departments, its soundtrack takes a much different approach.
The grandiose adapted score featured in Stanley Kubricks classic space opera
inspiring the sound of Star Wars, the film attributed with bringing the post-
romantic orchestra back to its place in film music supremacy is here replaced
by a minimalist approach, one much closer to Phillip Glass Koyaanisqatsi than
to Kubricks masterpiece. The majestic yet often heavy-handed brass chords,
virtuosic woodwind slurs, and the heart-pounding timpani, all of which are often
associated with space sci-fi films thanks to 2001 and Star Wars, are nowhere to
be heard. Instead, we get a sense of fragility, represented by light
orchestration, themes comprised of very few notes, and repetition lots of

What is so good, then, about Interstellars score? Is it a forced, wrong approach,

that works thanks to its surprise element? Or is there a stronger reason behind
Zimmers and Nolans decisions? You have probably realized the answer is the
latter, but lets take a closer look at understanding the music itself before
jumping into the scores dramatic justifications.

First Things First: Whats Minimalism?

The answer may seem obvious to some, but the clue here is understanding
what is so minimal about minimalism.

In music analysis, the smallest intelligible piece of music is called a cell, and a
recognizable cell or groups of cells make up a motif. Here is an example from
the famous Star Wars theme:

There are different approaches to this since some consider the cell to be the
motif but you will notice how different the approach is when it comes to
minimalism. To keep things simple, lets consider the one above a cell, and the
example below a theme or motif:
You see/hear what happens? The first half note is replaced by three notes, and
before they hit home base (middle C) they make a leap and play that C an
octave higher. Thats called theme development! There is a clear question (the
first bar) and a clear answer (the second bar).

Now lets see whats so different about Interstellars approach. Heres a theme:

And here is the development of that theme:

What? Yep. Its almost the same thing, over and over, with minimal change.
Think of a very delicate piece of work that requires patience and a lot of
repetition. Think of a very large loom. Each thread would be a cell, and the
minimalist piece is the loom full of these tiny, repeating cells. But isnt it
pretty? Listen to it a few times, and contrast it with the Star Wars example. As
you have probably realized, this is almost the exact opposite of every sci-fi
score that you have heard since 2001! So now that we understand the what,
lets start looking into the why.

Space is Vast and Infinite: Why the Minimalism?

A few things probably come into play here: the political aspect of which I
can only speculate and the artistic aspect. Regarding the so-called political
aspect, it may be worth noting that when you are working for an award,
originality matters. A lot. The space opera approach that worked so well with
2001: Space Odyssey and the Star Wars saga (and was a novelty at a time
when synthesizer scores were the way to go) has been done, and on the same
page, the great and very unique score for Gravity was very well received last
year, earning Stephen Price his first academy award. But this is just a theory.
What matters here is why it works so well as a score, artistically speaking, and
for that we need to understand what Zimmer was trying to underscore.

My take on the film Interstellar is that it is a film about the vastness of space as
much as it is about the minimal space that humans occupy in it, and their
inability to fully comprehend what is out there (including human emotions).
Bringing out the fiction in Science Fiction, storytellers always exploit the
unknowns in science, and make fantastic interpretations of what may fill those
gaps that still havent been deciphered. Human emotions are a huge part of
the film and a huge part of Zimmers score, but just like Nolans themes, their
space is understood within a much larger realm: the universe. They matter a lot
in the film, yet they are given the place that they deserve in the entire
universe, and not the relative space that they take up in the human brain. That
is in my opinion the key to understanding this score: It is a score about the
vastness of space, the importance of human emotions, and the place that
humans occupy in this infinite place.

And speaking of human emotions, take a look at the one emotion that plays a
key role as a theme in the film: love. There is a listenable love to be found in
Zimmers score. Much alike the score of the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi written
by one of the fathers of minimalism, Phillip Glass, and very likely an important
influence for Hans Zimmer Interstellars score is about love. It is about
stopping to smell the flowers and paying attention to all the small details that
make up our world (or in this case, universe). There is some form of correlation
between the small cells that make up the score and the giant stars that look
small to the human eye, and that make up this (almost) homogenous, starry
space fabric. Take a second look:

Humans are a very fragile thing that make up a tiny space in the vastness of
the universe, and so are stars, and every cell and motif that make up Zimmers
score. While the most sophisticated scores have little to no relation to what you
can see focusing on feelings and emotions, which cant be seen there is
almost a visual and proportional correlation between the literal visual imagery
and what is heard in the score. For many film buffs and music analysts this will
sound like Eisensteins papers on Prokofievs scores, but whether that is a
positive or negative thought and I personally think that Eisensteins papers
are a quite off target there is at least a tiny bit of truth in his words when you
look at the source material.
According to director Sergei Eisenstein, Prokofievs notes on the paper linearly
match what happens on screen
When director Christopher Nolan first approached his regular composer, Hans
Zimmer, to write the score for Interstellar, he wanted to avoid the clichs
associated with the science-fiction genre and engage Hans in a very pure
creative process. To do this, Nolan sent Zimmer a single typewritten page with
snippets of dialogue Nolan had written for the film along with some general
ideas that, he said, described the relationship between a father and his son.
(Only later was Zimmer told the son was actually a daughter, probably to avoid
film-music stereotypes of femininity.) The genre and scale of the film were
deliberately withheld from Zimmer and he was given one day to write his initial
ideas and present them to Nolan. These ideas, which can be sampled below,
certainly suggest a more intimate and emotional film than comes to mind when
one thinks of the sci-fi genre.

But the score for Interstellar is also notable for its prominent use of the pipe
organ, an instrument that, in film, is normally reserved for scenes involving
religion in some way. As Nolan explains,

I also made the case very strongly for some feeling of religiosity to
[Interstellar], even though the film isnt religious, but that the organ, the
architectural cathedrals and all those, they represent mankinds attempt to
portray the mystical or the metaphysical, whats beyond us, beyond the realm
of the everyday.

Thus, while the scores use of the organ is not associated with religion, it does
conjure up similar feelings of striving for levels of existence that lie outside of
everyday experience (a narrative theme that Interstellar shares with one of its
obvious influences, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film in which the organ can also
be clearly heard, for example, at the end of the main title cue with Richard
Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra.)

In its structure, however, Zimmers Interstellar is like many of his other scores,
relying on a few thematic ideas that are applied in a non-traditional way. That
is, rather than simply being associated with a certain character or group of
characters, Zimmers themes tend to emphasize the emotions a particular
character or group is feeling at various points in the film. The following film
music analysis explores these broad associations in the films four most
prominent themes.

Murph and Cooper

This theme is generally heard when the focus is on the relationship between
Murph and her father Cooper. Its first appearance is in fact with the studio
logos before the start of the film proper, suggesting the importance of the
themes association to the narrative. (Indeed, Murph and Cooper are the first
two characters to interact in the film.)
Perhaps the most obvious signal of the themes association occurs in the
emotional scene when Cooper, a former NASA pilot, says his goodbyes to the
child Murph before leaving his family to join the interstellar mission to save
humanity. Murph begs Cooper to stay, telling him that even the mysterious
ghost that inhabits her room seems to be saying the very same thing. The
theme is also heard when, after waking from his cryogenic sleep on the
Endurance spacecraft, Cooper hears that Murph refused to make a video
message to send him, and occurs once more when Cooper is told that Murph is
on her way to see him again after learning of his return.

Musically, the themes melody begins with a long note that lies a seventh
above the bass, creating an interval that has a feeling of vastness to it and
thus suggests the great distance that will long separate Cooper from Murph.
(Recall that this same interval was also used in last years blockbuster space-
themed film, Gravity, as a suggestion of the vastness of space.)

More subtly, the theme is supported by a sustained bass note, or pedal point,
that sounds the fifth, or dominant, note of the scale. Since dominant bass notes
create an expectation that they will, at some point, resolve to the first note of
the scale, or tonic, to sustain a dominant pedal at length as this theme does
gives an impression of a prolonged avoidance of resolution. Indeed, given the
enormous length of time that elapses during Coopers absence, this is an
entirely appropriate sentiment.

The theme also implies both the loving and hurtful aspects that comprise
Murph and Coopers relationship through its juxtaposition of major and minor.
While the theme begins in the major mode, suggesting the loving aspects on
which the relationship is built, it is immediately followed by a statement in the
minor mode, implying the grudge Murph holds against Cooper for feeling
abandoned by her father. Hear the theme below from 0:41 to 1:45:
One other place the theme recurs is the scene where Cooper detaches his
shuttle from Endurance to give it the push it needs to escape the black holes
gravitational pull. Though Murphy is neither onscreen nor even mentioned
here, Coopers decision to detach is a crucial one that leads to him making
cross-dimensional connections with Murph that are pivotal to the films
narrative. The Murph and Cooper theme is thus played in grandiose style to
mark the importance of this decision, as heard below (from 3:48 to 4:53):

Love / Action
This might be considered the scores main theme as it embodies the kinds of
emotional ideas that are suggested by the description of Nolans one-page
letter to Zimmer. As a main theme, it is not confined to a single association but
rather has two disparate uses, each of which is reinforced by its orchestration.
It also is divided into two components: a melody based on a repeating two-note
motive (played on the organ), and a repeating harmonic progression with a
bass that rises by two steps then falls by one.

It first enters when Cooper and his two children (Murph and his son Tom) chase
down an automated plane-like drone flying over the farm in order to capture its
solar cells. This is one of the only times in the film that we see the family
united in a common action, and reasonably happy to be so. The love comes
more into focus when Cooper, who is viewing messages from the last twenty-
three years on Earth, is moved by the major events to have occurred in his
family and sobs uncontrollably. We hear the theme with this association of love
again when Cooper makes the cross-dimensional connections with Murph,
which are guided by the love between the two characters. One final
appearance of the theme occurs when Murph is happy to see Cooper again
nearly a century after he left Earth. Common to all these forms of the theme is
the melody composed of two-note figures, heard below from 0:09:

In the above situations, the theme occurs in a lightly orchestrated form, with
the delicate melody played on the organ. At other times, the theme acquires a
bigger effect by omitting the melody and adding a more massive
orchestration, a sound that is associated with scenes of heavy action. The two
instances this occurs are on the first planet the interstellar crew visits, where
they meet gigantic tidal waves, and when Cooper and Brand are re-docking
with Endurance after it is set spinning out of control. Below is this version of the
theme from 2:35:

Though the themes two uses are opposing in meaning, its musical structure
helps to understand why it works in both cases. The theme is set in a minor
mode and is supported by a bass line that progresses from scale degree 6, up
to 7, and up once more to 1. In minor keys, scale degree 6 typically falls down
to 5 since the latter exerts a kind of gravitational pull that attracts 6 towards it.
The pull is especially strong in minor since the distance between 6 and 5 is a
mere half step, or semitone. Listen, for example, to a version of the minor-
mode Frank/Harmonica theme from Ennio Morricones score for Once Upon a
Time in the West, paying particular attention to the way that scale degree 6 in
the bass seems to be pulled down to 5 at 5:04 (start from 4:50):

As with gravity in the physical world, breaking free of a gravitational pull

requires a good deal of energy, and with the bass motion from 6 to 7 (which is
two half steps, or one whole step), there is a sense that a substantial amount of
energy is being exerted, an energy that we could even say continues in the rise
from 7 up to 1 (another whole step).

This sense of struggling to escape some great obstacle is present in both the
love and action forms of the theme. In the former, this occurs emotionally
by demonstrating that love, although challenged, transcends vast expanses of
space and time. In the latter, the obstacle is clearly physical, be it a tidal wave
or a spiralling spacecraft.

Interstellar is a film that tackles such ambitious ideas as space travel,
wormholes, black holes, and Einsteinian time dilation. Given this focus on
scientific wonders, it is no surprise that one of the films musical themes
which I simply call the Wonder themeexpresses a sense of fascination with
ones surroundings. The theme enters at several points in the film: when
Coopers farm machines go haywire and start heading north instead of
maintaining the crops, when Cooper observes what appears to be a message in
dust written by an unknown being, when Cooper and the crew first enter
Endurance, when they reach the distant galaxy through the wormhole, and
when Cooper and Mann explore one of the potentially-habitable planets. Hear
the theme in the cue below:
The most prominent features of this theme are its sustained, shimmering
accompaniment and the continual recurrences of a single melodic pitch. The
accompaniment sustains a major chord along with a dissonance created by the
raised 4 of the scale. As I have noted before, this scale degree (whether in
major or minor) has long been associated with the mysterious or inscrutable,
other examples being Morricones Frank/Harmonica theme, Hedwigs theme
from Harry Potter, and in the classical world, Aquarium from Saint-Sens
Carnival of the Animals. Not only is this raised 4 in the accompaniment of the
Wonder theme, but it is also the single melodic pitch that enters repeatedly.
The scenes in which this theme occurs in Interstellar certainly qualify as
invoking a sense of mystery. It is also worth noting that the themes major-
mode setting is well matched with the positive outlooks of the characters in the
scenes described.

Striving / In Control
Like the love/action theme, another of Interstellars musical themes has a dual
meaning. Hear it below in one of its many forms below:

It is first heard when Cooper manages to direct the flying drone by remote,
clearly demonstrating its association with the good guys in control. This
application of the theme is also heard when Cooper is shown around the NASA
base and it seems that things are under control despite the desperate
situation, and the first portion of Murphs discussion with Prof. Brand on his
death-bed, as she feels confident that she will continue where his work left off.
But more often, the theme is heard in scenes where the protagonists are
striving towards some immediate goal. This goal can be the understanding of a
scientific concept, as when Murph is discussing possible problems of Prof.
Brands physics equation, when Murph is striving to understand the nature of
the ghost in her room that she says felt like a person, or when Cooper is
trying to figure out how to communicate with Murph across the dimensions. But
striving may also take a more physical form, as when Murph is trying to
convince Tom to leave the farm for his own safety, when Cooper is struggling to
overcome the noxious gas flooding his helmet on one of the prospective
planets, when Cooper and Brand are trying to convince Mann not to open the
airlock on Endurance before he has secured an airtight contact, or when
Cooper and Brand are attempting to dock with the out-of-control Endurance.
Despite the differences in the individual scenarios above, they all share the
feeling of striving to achieve a clear and immediate goal.

Notice how the theme is structured so as to suggest a slow ascent, as though

struggling to climb a musical mountain: it begins on the first note of the scale
as a kind of home base, and the next note moves to the second note of the
scale before it stops in its tracks. The next phrase reaches a note higher to
scale degree 3 before it seems to lose confidence and fall back down to 2. The
third phrase actually launches the melody up to scale degree 5, but suffers the
same fate as the previous phrase as it sinks from 3 to 2 at its end. Only with
the fourth phrase does the music reach up to 4 and finally 5 as a concluding
summit to the theme. This sort of progressive back-and-forth between rising
and falling motions is typical of themes used to depict a sense of struggle,
another prominent example being the Force theme from the Star Wars saga.
And like the Force theme, Interstellars Striving/In Control theme is in a minor
key, which intensifies the sense of struggle in the theme through its veil of

Unlike most science-fiction films, Interstellar has at its core an emotional story
of love between a father and his daughter. Appropriately, Hans Zimmer places
the Murph and Cooper theme front and center in the score, and further
emphasizes the relationship with another theme that can signify familial love.
Of course, since the film also includes some riveting action sequences, the
score does make use of an action theme, but in typical Zimmer style, this
theme serves two different functions as it is also the familial love theme.
Similarly, the Striving/In Control theme can signal two different but related
states in the actions of the protagonists. And Zimmer also captures
Interstellars focus on the wonder of the natural world in a separate theme.
Thus, the score provides an effective glue for the film by drawing emotional
links between various events, character motivations, and visual spectacles that
might otherwise seem rather disconnected. In short, Zimmers score helps to
communicate more clearly the emotional crux of the film.