INTERSTELLAR – drowning in sound
I watched INTERSTELLAR last night. The soundtrack was (as you would expect from a Christopher Nolan film) electrifying.
Music was composed by Nolan’s composer of choice Hans Zimmer.
As I watched I realised that the predominant instruments were strings and what sounded like the biggest church organ in the world!. I wasn’t far wrong it seems.
“Over the course of the film, the core five-note melody (the soundtrack is released on November 17th, but for a taste listen to Trailer #3) is expressed in different ways. The score is an ensemble effort combining 34 strings, 24 woodwinds, four pianos, and 60 choir singers, all of which get their time to sound off. But the starring, and most meaningful voice, is the 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ, currently housed at the 12th-century Temple Church in London and played in the movie by its director of music, Roger Sayer”(i)
What also became apparent is that on many occasions the audio track was so loud that at times when actors were speaking you could not hear clearly what they were saying. As I watched, my sound editor’s head said to myself “this must be deliberate, Nolan must WANT US to be straining to hear what they’re saying, to make the scene tense, threatening or downright overwhelming. I certainly thought at times that the cinema sound system was going to blow. I was being affected physiologically, my heart-rate was increasing. At other times however, quieter times, The main dialogue was relatively low in level – almost hard to hear what people were saying. This huge dynamic range (only available in cinemas) made me wonder how it will sound on DVD/streaming etc. You cant really watch a Nolan film anywhere other than the cinema it seems to me.
Afterwards some research into the sound led me to an article on this very subject, which confirms much of what I thought and far more.
Here’s more from the article:-
Hans Zimmer’s score drowns out dialogue and has already broken an Imax theater, but there’s thematic significance in all that noise
“As Zimmer recently told the Film Music Society, the organ was chosen for its significance to science: From the 17th century to the time of the telephone exchange, the pipe organ was known as the most complex man-made device ever invented. Its physical appearance reminded him of space ship afterburners. And the airiness of the sound slipping through pipes replicates the experience of suited astronauts, where every breath is precious (a usual preoccupation with sci-fi movies that is taken very literally in Zimmer’s music, which also features the exhalations of his human choir).
Zimmer’s score—which alternates between a 19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century Minimalism—of course has an element of spirituality to it. But the organ does more than just recall churches. From the movie’s earliest moments, it performs some very necessary narrative legwork for the overburdened screenplay. When it kicks in as Cooper chases down an Indian surveillance drone, a light touch on the organ keys, paired with rousing strings, creates a whirling, ethereal sound that channels Cooper’s interior life. The giddy tone it sets demonstrates that Cooper is a risk-taker and adventurer, which solves the screenplay’s early problem of establishing emotional motive for Cooper to leave his children.
As organs are wont to do, this one resonates. And there are moments when the decibels at which it does can only be described as an action-movie crutch. The organ gets a noticeably more heavy-handed touch as the plot becomes ever-more preposterous. It blasts when the elder Professor Brand, played by Michael Caine, hands over the keys to the spaceship—and his life’s work—to a farmer (Cooper) who presumably hasn’t piloted anything except a plow in a while. It booms when Ann Hathaway’s younger Dr. Brand shakes hands with “Them,” heavily foreshadowing events to come. Some of these moments necessitate the extra spiritualistic oomph, but it’s often the case that when the plot turns implausible, Nolan and Zimmer ramp up the organ.”(i)