Outer-Space Minimalism: Understanding Hans Zimmer’s 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 Kubrick’s 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 Kubrick’s 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 repetition.

What is so good, then, about Interstellar’s score? Is it a forced, wrong approach, that works thanks to its surprise element? Or is there a stronger reason behind Zimmer’s and Nolan’s decisions? You have probably realized the answer is the latter, but let’s take a closer look at understanding the music itself before jumping into the score’s dramatic justifications.

First Things First: What’s 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:

Star Wars Cell

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, let’s consider the one above a cell, and the example below a theme or motif:

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 12.23.41 PM

 

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. That’s called theme development! There is a clear question (the first bar) and a clear answer (the second bar).

Now let’s see what’s so different about Interstellar’s approach. Here’s a theme:

Zimmer Cell

And here is the development of that theme:

Zimmer Motif

What? Yep. It’s 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 isn’t 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,” let’s 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 haven’t been deciphered. Human emotions are a huge part of the film and a huge part of Zimmer’s score, but just like Nolan’s 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 Zimmer’s 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 – Interstellar’s 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:

Zimmer Motif

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 Zimmer’s score. While the most sophisticated scores have little to no relation to what you can see – focusing on feelings and emotions, which can’t 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 Eisenstein’s papers on Prokofiev’s scores, but whether that is a positive or negative thought – and I personally think that Eisenstein’s 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.

Eisenstein on Prokofiev

According to director Sergei Eisenstein, Prokofiev’s notes on the paper linearly match what happens on screen

So… does it work?

It does! Does it? What were your thoughts on Interstellar’s score? How would the film have been different if Zimmer had used a more traditional approach? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading, and see you back on Wednesday, when I will be tackling Alexander Desplat’s score for The Imitation Game.

 

 

Diego Delfino
Diego Delfino
Diego Delfino is an Argentine-Italian composer living in the United States, a film sound instructor at SAE Atlanta, and a former student of LSU, SAE, and the School of Music of Buenos Aires (EMBA). You can find out more about him at www.diegodelfino.com, as well as listen to some of his musical compositions.

4 comments to Outer-Space Minimalism: Understanding Hans Zimmer’s Score for Interstellar

  • Skye  says:

    Very informative article, i’m regular reader of your blog.

  • Neil  says:

    Thank you for this. I am a long time fan of minimalism and Philip Glass in particular. I just watched Interstellar and loved the soundtrack. The visual, sound and musical links back to 2001 were striking. Late in life, I am also struggling to learn about music structure and theory, even at a simple level. I found your blog illuminating. Thanks

    • Diego Delfino Diego Delfino  says:

      Thanks so much for such a kind comment, Neil! Your comment alone makes it worthy for me to keep writing. I will be adding a post about the future of the blog soon, so stay put! And thanks so much again for dropping by and taking the time to comment. I hope to keep seeing you around in the near future.

  • Roy Richardson  says:

    This was a fascinating read; thanks for posting it. When I hear the main theme, I hear time, like a clock ticking. Time and space dominate the movie, and Zimmer captures them both so well

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