Music of the spheres: Interstellar soundtrack

Warning: this contains some thoughts on the Interstellar soundtrack and the second part discusses major plot points throughout the movie.  I can’t stress this enough – read up to the warning and come back when you’ve seen it!  

Movie soundtracks as modern symphonies

As a suite of music designed to evoke a range of emotions and rhythms, original movie soundtracks may be the closest thing we have to a symphony.  I know there are new classical compositions all the time, but I’m not sure they’re as well broadcast to such a wide range of people.  Classical music is often seen as inaccessible, elitist and irrelevant, and I suppose given the complexity of sounds, the skill needed to read sheet music and play an instrument, it’s understandable why that view prevails.

It might have always been like this; I find it hard to imagine the circumstances where Handel’s Coronoation Anthems made it to the slums of London.  But almost everyone can hum the James Bond themes, or the Star Wars Imperial March, even if they don’t recognise Carl Jenkins or Phillip Glass.

A good soundtrack is an integral part of the film, like the set design, photography, acting and the story itself.  A great movie soundtrack is one that can bring you back instantly to that moment you watched the film for the first time, where you feel the same empathy in that scene.  I defy you to listen to Michael Giaccino’s “Married Life” from Up without tearing up.  Or even something more fierce – I remember listening to “The Battle” from Gladiator whilst marching along a busy street and having to fight the urge to whirl my umbrella like a sword.

I have a fair few movie tracks in my playlists, John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars: Phantom Menace would be a good example.  There are others in my playlists where I’ve not even seen the film, but the came to the track via the composer’s other works, say John Barry or Alexandre Desplat.  Earlier this year I even bought the soundtrack for “Grand Budapest Hotel” before I’d seen the movie – the music in the trailer was that good.

Learning to appreciate the organ 

Over the years this has led me to explore classical music a bit more, using the ability to “walk through” Spotify to find new music, including ancient music I didn’t know.  I’d been getting into organ music this last year or so, partly via other composers like Bach and Mozart, but Neil Hannon’s organ oratorio “To Our Fathers In Distress” really sealed it.

The organ from Temple Church


I’ve been a big fan of the Divine Comedy for years, perhaps because of the stories within the songs, but also the complex melodies and use of classical instruments in pop songs.  Coming from a similar background, there’s a kind of spiritual journey in his songs that match my own, so  Hannon’s simple story about a typical Sunday growing up in a church family brought back a lot of memories.  Presented with a selection of organ favourites it made me seek out more organ compositions.

It’s a fascinating instrument for a number of reasons, not least the way that it synthesises brass, strings and voice, acting as an analog ancestor of the Moog, Roland, or even Garageband.  There’s a huge range, with big bass pipes designed to operate below human hearing and vibrate the listeners in their seats all the way to gentle flutes and choral voices.  And the sheer baroque beauty of the ornately arranged great organs, the most complicated human device for a good 600 or so years, until the invention of the telephone exchange.  When you’re there listening you can sometimes here the mechanisms that drive the sound, the air wooshing through; it’s a huge living, breathing creature with a unique history and personality.


All of this had me primed for Interstellar (which I reviewed here), in which the organ plays a significant role.  The track notes for the soundtrack CD have been posted online, and they describe a fascinating back story, with as much meaning and creativity as you might expect from Nolan and Zimmer.  Trying to move away from the sharp brass and strings that had almost become a cliche, Nolan suggested the Organ, which rekindled some childhood memories for Zimmer.  He created the music on a synthesised organ (i.e. samples from real great organs), then realised it needed a bit more weight.  So they fitted out Temple Church in London with recording equipment, squeezed in an orchestra and a choir, and had the virtuoso organist Roger Sayer play the organ parts.

Roger Sayer, organist from Temple Church. This guy is the Jimi Hendrix of the organ.


I’m now going to talk about the soundtrack to Interstellar, and refer to the scenes in detail.  You’ve been warned!

I’m still listening to this regularly, and have found it an excellent accompaniment to a 10k run.  The urgency of several of the tracks really drives you, especially Coward – challenging to you keep breathing and pushing through *just* when you need that energy at about 55 minutes.  Other more peaceful tracks allow you time to recover and enjoy the passing scenery, listening to your own breath and footsteps.

I’m not musical, but I will do my best to describe the lietmotifs and phrases as I’ve experienced them.  I think there are two main 5 note lietmotifs: Love and Fear, I suppose.  Both of these appear in the opening track “Dreaming about the crash”.

Love is “F Bb A G A”, Fear is a minor (?) version of this, becoming “F Bb Ab G Ab”.  Sometimes these are played with one transitioning into another, as in “Stay”,where Cooper has to leave Murph wihout being able to say goodbye properly.  Then the opposite in “Detach”, where Cooper’s fear and depair suddenly changes to hope and love, and subsequently a brand new, glorious phrase which isn’t anywhere else.

  • “Cornfield Chase” brings the third lietmotif, one I’d call motivation.  It seems to be A E A E B E B E C E C E D E D E.  I think the organ plays this, support by the strings, and then the piano variation, perhaps representing the drone flying aimlessly.  As it’s hacked it’s taken over by the organ variations, ending abruptly as it lands.  This motivation theme comes back later.
  • “Dust” brings slightly different feeling, this arid dry earth, arid and ready to give up.  I can’t recall the scene exactly, but the organs and reverb piano come in in the second half the track, and these also come back in later tracks.
  • “Day One” continues to merge these themes together but it’s “Stay” that really pulls out all the stops, starting with the simple Love, and then becoming the crushing Fear for both father and daughter as they separate, unreconciled.  All the while, waves crash and wind blows in the background, whilst a single note seems to indicate the ranger, waiting for take off.
  • “Message from Home” is stark and lonely, a simple slow piano phrase that doesn’t , ending on an unfinished “Love”, or is it “Fear” – we don’t know, as the note lingers and fades out.
  • “The Wormhole” lacks any melodies, but evokes a clock ticking as they approach the point of no return.  The organ rises to a crescendo and the echoes fade away into “Mountains”, which again has the ticking clock as they try to work out what’s happened and get back into orbit.  As the realisation of danger hits them, the pace picks up and a warning blast comes from the organ.  The drums rumble as the wave rises, and the choir shouts out what seems to be a warning to leave.  It’s an incredible track, possibly inspired by Prokofiev’s “Midnight” from the Cinderella suite – the urgency of the ticking clock?
  • “Afraid of time” seems to evoke time passing whilst they discuss their purpose.  The lonely piano from “Message from Home” comes back here.
  • “A place among the stars” and “Running out” are full of fear and doubt, but don’t stand up to listening on their own as some of the others do.
  • “I’m going home” – I can’t remember the scene exactly but I think it’s when they find Mann.   The limbo bit reminded me of Phillip Glass’ “Living Waters” from The Truman Show, a sense of limbo and uncertainty, but turning to relief. This comes back in “Detach”, but in a much more spectacular way.
  • “Coward” is a magnificent piece.  Straight away the mood is more sinister, accompanied by the pulsating brass and ticking clock.  But the Motivation theme comes back here quietly after about 2.5 minutes, and shortly after new version which seems to elaborate on love and fear.  This elaborated track actually reminds me of Tubular Bells, and I wonder if that’s intentional, with Mann as the Demon trying to take over Endurance/Regan, who in turn is spinning into self-destruction, only to be saved by Cooper/Karras throwing himself into the abyss to save her.  Interesting that Ellen Burstyn was chosen to play old Murph, when she played Regan’s mother in The Exorcist.  Or am I reading too much?At times it goes quiet again, with the lonely piano, then rises and rises, shifting gear and then suddenly ending.  I can’t remember without seeing the film again whether the track ends with Mann’s disastrous opening of the airlock, or if it continues until they recover control over Endurance.
  • “Detach” is equally brilliant, rising from a continuous discordant organ, bringing the fear theme back as heightened as it ever has been, but right at the peak it suddenly becomes Love once again, pauses for a moment in limbo, returning with the relief from “I’m going home”, but this time with an enormous joy, before fading away.  Some riffs here reminiscent of Vierne’s Symphony No 1.
  • “S.T.A.Y.” brings back Motivation, but sounding more like binary, ending in the dryness of “Dust”.
  • “Where we’re going” comes back to “Dreaming about the Crash”, but with wind and waves, with an organ crescendo ending the film and turning it into Motivation.

As for the sound levels, I disagree with the moans, it’s supposed to be like that.  At the times when the sound rises and becomes overwhelming and you think you need to turn it down, it’s just there for a second to take you with Cooper, through the singularity.

Hold your course. 


A journey into the past

I’ve long been fascinated by old maps as they show how things have changed, but also what was important for people to record at the time.  An old map gives you an overhead view of the local area, a broad perspective on what was going on in the local community.  You straight away can see where people lived, worked, played and where later communities and towns developed from inidividual settlements.  So I love the wide access to maps we have today, not just from Google, but other sites that have published old maps online like Vision of BritainNational Library of Scotland, Old Maps or Motco‘s maps of London.

One thing that I would love to see is a browsable map that allows you to slide a scale, move through time and see how things have changed, perhaps even year by year.  I don’t think this can be automated so it would need to be manually curated, like OpenStreetMap.  This way you can fill in between the gaps, so that if we know the date a particular estate or building was laid down between two editions of the Ordnance Survey, we can add that section.  Or going further back, to add information from the Domesday Book, or Anglo-Saxon records.  It would allow local historians to upload their knowledge for a wider audience.

All roads lead to Ilkley

Last week, there was a discussion on one of the Bradford local history Facebook groups about Roman roads.  This led me to look for a detailed map that could be viewed as a layer over modern imagery, but the closest I found was these excellent maps by Keith Briggs. These are based on an amazing catalogue by Ivan Margary called Roman Roads in Britain (it does what it says on the tin) which I was able to borrow from the Institute of Archeology Library.  The librarian, Katie, knew the book well, and I was thinking that this was some kind of librarian wizardry, but in one of those moments of serendipity it turns out she’s doing her PhD on Roman Britain.

Following the descriptions of some of the roads, I traced a few on Google Maps, first from Bradford to Elslack via Keighley (721), from Elslack to Ilkley (72a), and from Keighley to Ilkley (720a).  Sometimes the descriptions were on the scant side, and often the route has been obscured by later farming, centuries of floods or modern housing.  A few times I inferred a path based on marks on the ground or treelines between two known pathways.  Not particularly scientific, but feels right, and you can view the map here.  Might be a good way for people to follow these pathways and look for clues.


I have since found two additional resources, a recent book and accompanying online maps by Mike Bishop entitled “The Secret History of the Roman Roads of Britain“, and a website,, which is billed as an “Archaeological Atlas of Antiquity” and seems to have an OpenStreetMap approach.

What I’ve learned

I don’t intend to fill out the rest of the map, especially now I’ve found the website.  Besides which, it was time consuming, often speculative and I have to take Margary’s book back at the end of the week!

One thing that struck me is that I got a vivid sense of an ancient Britain, stripped of the current settlements and probably very raw and wild.  I wondered why they would take an more arduous route over the moors to rather than a slight detour along the valley floor.  The road from Bradford to Keighley is particularly striking in that regard.  I suppose some of this was due to “following orders”, routes being made out of military necessity rather than evolving from local use.  With the colonial strategy being to link the main encampments, there might have not been sufficient flexibility in the command structure for an extensive surveying process.

We might also wonder why some routes are lost, especially when portions of them seem efficient and straight.  The example of Elslack fort offers some clue: sometimes forts would become abandoned, and if the military were the only ones using the road from, the isolated segments would become disused whilst others proved useful to the locals.  Additionally, roads that evolved between later settlements would become the dominant route.  Another factor in the abandonment of roads is depopulation after the Roman Empire, and devastation wrought by the Norman Invasion, during which many Saxon settlements in the North were wiped out.

1000km virtual run

Last year, a friend completed the goal of running 1000km in the year, and so in the year I turn 40, I decided that was a worthwhile challenge.  Obviously it’s not all in one go, but I managed 660km last year, and 790km the year before that, so I know if I can get consistent and avoid injury it’s easily doable.New Picture (1)

On the face of it, 1000km is just under 20km a week, which equates to two 5km runs and a longer 10km at the weekend, perhaps.  Although I know with holidays and illness and just too many things going on that doesn’t always pan out.  So I’ve set a more realistic target which takes into account some of the anticipated interruptions, starting with 70km for January, with a couple of peaks in the summer months.

Follow the yellow brick roadRun1

I thought it might be interesting to create a virtual route to track my progress.  John O Groat’s to Land’s End is around 1400km by car or 1900km walking so that’s out.  The M25 is only 188km, so I’m left with either an abitrary location or a fairly meandering stroll.  I’ve managed to pick a route that goes past every place I’ve lived in so that may prompt some thoughts on the way.

So after a busy couple of weeks, I set off on my first run of the year, a steady 5km which takes me on a familiar path down Grays Inn Road, then through the Fleet Valley, over Blackfriars Bridge and through Southwark.  Once I pass the Prince William, where Thrales Rapper host their annual dance bash, I’m in uncharted territory.

Blackfriars Road is an odd collection of housing and possibly abandoned office blocks, new and not so new, and less traffic than one might expect for such a wide thoroughfare. The road ends at an old mile marker obelisk, now plonked in the middle of a concrete roundabout with a few locals sitting around the base.  I can’t see what they’re drinking but they have an archetypal staffy in tow.


I take a slight left towards Elephant & Castle, with it’s optimistic 60’s office blocks and shopping centre being flanked by newer constructions.  The notorious Heygate Estate, filming location for much of 2011’s “Attack the Block” is disappearing, and I carry on down Newington Butts (tee hee) where a sign proclaims my first destination: Brighton.



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