Liner Notes: A Case for Soundtracks: Interstellar -The Toast

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image1mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns for The Butter can be found here.

A movie soundtrack, in order for me to listen to it repeatedly, has to simultaneously resurface the mood generated by its accompaniment with the motion picture, and cause within me an entirely different feeling. A feeling that would be muted, or otherwise wiped out entirely, while watching the movie—visuals and music combined.

Months ago, I first made my case for movie soundtracks as mood music, as albums that could stand up on their own artistic and entertainment value. It was interesting—and shocking, to be honest—to receive such positive feedback on movie soundtracks. As expected, a few people who reached out to me were fellow writers, artists in general, who use soundtracks as a kind of sonic ambience while creating art. Still, there were others who enjoyed the music for enjoyment’s sake—it never occurred to me, I suppose, that people would love movie soundtracks for their listening pleasure, and for no other reason. In writing about soundtracks, in other words, I unwittingly discovered a community of fellow soundtrack lovers who’ve contacted me with recommendations, and I returned the favor with suggestions of my own. A simple thing, really—an article on a website read by people who are anonymous to me. Yet, connection was born. The writing life never ceases to amaze me, I must admit.

Many of the recommendations I received—mainly bulleted lists of favorite soundtracks—all had a common title: the soundtrack to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Before I write anything else about the soundtrack, some thoughts on the movie itself. To date, I’ve seen it twice: once in an old-time movie theater—the old-school type with marquees and smaller viewing rooms that predated the multiplexes by a good twenty years—and the second from the comfort of my father’s living room during a weekend visit home.

In both instances, I enjoyed Interstellar, its bizarre third act notwithstanding…or maybe I enjoyed it because of the third act. The third act tried be too smart, and outsmarted itself. Christopher Nolan—a brilliant filmmaker as far as I’m concerned—has a habit of sabotaging his brilliant films with fatal quantities of brilliance. Still, I applaud the attempt, which is why I’m forgiving of Interstellar. It’s a gorgeous movie with beautiful sets. It has wormholes and snarky robots who become badass when needed, and there’s Anne Hathaway, for whom I have a small thing, and half the movie is set in Space. SPACE! Put any kind of movie in Space and—while I might not spend $12 to see it in a multiplex—I’ll at least make it a point to see it on HBO GO.

Interstellar, then, was one of my highly anticipated movies of 2014. Sitting in the dark theater as the opening scenes began, I felt comfortable—at home, perhaps?—when I recognized the music. Although heard for the first time, the score had the hallmark bass, strings, and electronic sounds of composer Hans Zimmer, who I last loved on the Inception soundtrack. Unlike Inception, which pounded eardrums with heavy bass and blaring brass sections, Interstellar is sweeping, airy, its primary melodies centered around strings and organ backed by an electronic bass line, with little to no drums.

There’s a wonderment around Interstellarthe thrill and danger of space travel, of attempting to extend humanity’s lifespan—which can be heard in the opening track “Dreaming of the Crash,” setting the melodic tone for the entire score. The aforementioned sparseness is present here, with ambient sounds of wind and thunder in the background. You’re immediately thrown into the air, finding yourself mid-flight, as the track works its way up to the bassline. A singular, throbbing note that is so low, my paltry Apple earbuds struggled to pick up the octave; my Beats earbuds were, however, built with bass in mind — I can feel the metal ear pieces vibrating when I have the volume loud enough (i.e., too loud). In comes the organ: slow, deliberate, patient, as if being played in an empty cathedral.

The organ adds a new texture to the track, and throughout the score, as it evokes both faith and fright. The latter is representative of the movie’s primary plot: Earth is dying, and humanity along with it, and there is nothing to be done to save the planet. Moreover, there is the inherent fright in what is required to save humanity: fly a spaceship into a wormhole near Saturn, to then search three new planets in another galaxy for a suitable Earth replacement. These scenarios certainly require a bit of faith, not only in the mission’s low probability of success, but the faith in humanity’s ability to survive beyond the Earth.

“Mountains” is another standout track, this time for the way in which Zimmer builds suspense, doom, and the importance of time. Precious seconds pass and are noted by the banging of a wood block; violins keep the time; the strings and organ swells as time runs out. “Stay” is my favorite track. A reprise of sorts of “Dreaming of the Crash,” “Stay” takes the core melody one step further. Instead of letting the melody run out of breath, so to speak, Zimmer raises the stakes with additional organ notes and the full orchestra crescendoing to an crest which matches the emotional pivot in the movie, as Matthew McConaughey, teary-eyed, speeds off to save humanity while unable to reconcile with his daughter prior to launch.

The scene in the movie is a little cheesy in its predictability, and attempts to ground the story as a father looking to return to his daughter, as opposed to the larger, perhaps more relevant mission of saving every other human remaining on Earth. Still, “Stay”—when removed from the scene—is a gorgeous track on par with Inceptions final piece, “Time.” Both tracks, minimalistic in nature at first, grow in scope and breadth and refuses to let the listener go until the final notes.

In all, the Interstellar soundtrack is a no-brainer for me, and one I should’ve purchased months ago. How I came to listen to and eventually buy the album is, in actuality, one of the many reasons I wanted to start a music column. I wanted to form an environment around discovery, something beyond the “discover” nature of services like Spotify, whose benefits to the artist are debatable, if not outright dubious. I wanted to create a space where literary types—those like me, I guess—could share and talk about music that could inspire us to write; it is wonderful, then, to have more and more people, whether they move within literary spaces or not, wanting to participate in the conversation. As always, feel free to find me on Twitter @mensah4000 and tell me about your favorite soundtracks.

mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.

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