If I Had Written the Score to Interstellar

If I was Hans Zimmer, I would be a bit annoyed.

What is arguably the best score Hans Zimmer has ever written, the music for Interstellar, has thrilled me to my core. However, I came to that conclusion by an indirect route.

Like many of you, I saw the movie in all it’s cinematic glory when it was released in 2014. But it was not until 2017 that I fell in love with it, both the movie and the score.

In preparation for an after-dinner talk to a panel of the American Heart Association’s 2017 Science Conference, I was looking for an inspirational way, preferably with great video and sound, to describe the sport of competitive free diving. This past summer I had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s best free divers and free diving instructors in a Colloquium put together by the University of California at San Diego, Center of Excellence in Scientific Diving.

I had pretty much given up on finding something to help me illustrate the beauty, and challenges, of competitive free diving. That changed, however,  when I came across a posting from a group of tactical military divers. In a short 3-minute video the young French diver Arnaud Jerald set his personal free diving (CWT, Constant Weight Dive  discipline) record of 92 meters in a competition in Turkey. He placed third in a field which included world record holders in the same event.

Three things made the diving video great, in my opinion: 1) the subject matter which vividly shows a human activity little known by most people, and understood by even fewer; 2) steady and clear video produced by a new underwater camera, the Diveye, and 3) the accompanying music.

A film score is only successful if it aids the audience in generating an emotional response to a movie scene. In that respect, a great movie hinges not only on good acting and script, but on an almost telepathic connection between the film director/producer and music director/composer.

In the free diving video clip, the accompanying music swelled in concert with the audience’s tension, generated perhaps unconsciously in response to the drama of the moment. And then there was organ music at just the right point. For me a pipe organ truly is the most impressive and grand of any musical instrument.

And just when the cinematic moment was right,  you could hear the heart beats, helping us realize what a strain it must have been on young Jerald’s heart as he reached his deepest depth, far from the surface, and air.

Indeed, when I gave the presentation, the video clip seemed to have the effect on the audience that I was looking for. But afterwards, I was relieved that no one had asked me where that music came from. I had no idea.

I don’t recall what led me to Interstellar as the music source: it may have been a random playing of movie soundtracks on a music streaming service, but once I heard a snippet, I recognized it. “That’s it!” I shouted to no one in particular.

It wasn’t just me; my family, including a nine-year old granddaughter had heard me rehearse my talk many times, and they also immediately recognized the similarity between the free diving video, and part of the Interstellar soundtrack.

The closest musical correlation to the diving video was the “Mountains” track in the movie soundtrack. Strangely, the match was not perfect. In fact the differences were easily notable, a fact I discovered after I bought both the movie and the Hans Zimmer soundtrack. And I must note, I think the music in the diving video is better.

Perhaps the full music was present in the original version of the movie, and perhaps some fancy mixing in the sound room deleted it. If so, too bad. But I must admit, the quiet musical nuances would have been missed during the cacophonous sound of a 4000 foot tall tidal wave sweeping upon a tiny spacecraft. There was lots of shouting and screaming.

As for my opinion that Hans Zimmer might be annoyed, well, I suggest you watch the portion of the full movie where the Mountain track rises to prominence. That is the part where the tidal wave, initially mistaken as mountains, appears on the horizon of the first planet the Horizon space craft landed on outside of our galaxy.

As exciting as the action was, and as wonderfully crafted the dialog and acting, it obscured the finer points of the music. Fortunately, the free diving video, coming as it does with no dialog at all, puts the music in the perspective that I, at least, can completely enjoy.

I find it fitting that in both videos, the incredibly powerful music was used to showcase humans extending themselves to their absolute limits. Of course, one of those stories is fictional, and the other is real.




A Matter of Chance: Music Makes the Video

I was recently asked to give a 30-minute after-dinner talk to the 3CPR Resuscitation Panel of the American Heart Association at their annual scientific meeting in Anaheim, CA. In the audience were scientists, cardiologists, anesthesiologists, anesthetists, emergency physicians, and resuscitation technicians. It was a multimedia event with professionally managed sound and video.

Knowing that the group would be well acquainted with the role of chance in medical procedures, I chose to use a segue from medicine into the topic of extreme adventures in military and civilian diving. The focus of the talk was on how chance can turn adventures into mis-adventures.

I revealed three areas where Navy Biomedical Research is expanding the boundaries of the state of the art in military and civilian diving. One area was in deep saturation diving, another was polar ice diving, and the third was breath hold diving.

As an introduction to polar diving, I wanted to create a video travelogue of my National Science Foundation-sponsored research and teaching trips to the Arctic (Svalbard) and Antarctica (McMurdo Station and vicinity.) These projects were spearheaded by the Smithsonian Institution, and my participation was funded in part by the U.S. Navy.

To begin the preparation of the video, I assembled my most relevant photos, and those taken by various team mates, and imported them into my favorite video editing software, which happens to be Cyberlink Director.

Then I went looking for potential sound tracks for the approximately 5 minute video. Considering the topic, I thought Disney’s Frozen would have familiar themes that might be acceptable. I rejected a number of YouTube videos of music from Frozen; most were too close to the original and included vocal tracks. Finally I came across the “Let It Go Orchestral Suite” composed by the “Twin Composers,” Andrew and Jared DePolo.

It was perfect for my application. I extracted the audio track from the Suite as shown on YouTube, imported it into Director, and lined it up with the nascent video track which included all images and other video segments.

To match the music to the video, I simply cut back on the duration for each of 97 images, keeping the other 5 videos in their native length. By experimentation, I found that 3.21 seconds per image resulted in the last image fading out as the music came to a close and the end credits began to roll.

On the first run through of the new video, I couldn’t find anything to complain about; which for me is rare. So I ran it again and again, eventually creating an mp4 file which would play on a large screen and home audio system. But I couldn’t help notice that the gorgeous score would sweeten at interesting times, and serendipitously change its musical theme just as the video subject matter was changing.

How fortunate, I thought. It was then that I began to realize that “chance” had worked its way into the production effort, in an unexpected way.

First, the music seemed to my ear to be written in 4/4 time, with each measure lasting 3.2 seconds, precisely, and purely by happenstance matching the image change rate. At a resulting 0.8 seconds per beat, or 75 beats per minute, that placed the sensed tempo in the adagietto range, which seemed appropriate for the theme of the music. (Without seeing the score, I’m just guessing about the tempo and timing. But that’s how it felt to me.)

The timing coincidence was rather subtle at first, but as the finale began building at the 3:39 minute mark, the force of the down beat for each measure became more notable, and the coincidence with image changes became more remarkable. There was absolutely nothing I could do to improve it.

In some cases the technical dissection of music can be a distraction from the beauty of the music, but I’ve done it here merely to point out that sometimes you just luck out. In this case it truly was a matter of chance.

In my mind, the DePolo Orchestral Suite makes the video. Hope you enjoy the show.

To learn more about these composers and their music, follow this link. 


The Lifetime Gift of Music Education

Score 5th SymphonyOf all the things I accomplished in secondary school, the one that still brings joy to my heart and tears to my eyes is the music I performed in the Symphonic Wind Ensemble at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas. Under the steady guidance of Mr. Kenneth Geoffroy, our marching band, orchestra and Wind Ensemble director, we tackled music that was complex and passionate. Fifty years later, I still remember every note of the Fourth movement, Allegro non troppo, of the Fifth Symphony by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

That is not to say that I can tell you which instrument was playing which note at any given instant. I do not have a photographic memory, and never saw the full score for Wind Ensemble. But since a wind ensemble by definition did not have string instruments, clarinets carried the major parts that violins played in the full orchestral score. I played the clarinet as first chair, and thus played the majority of the “melody”.

The decision to post this today came unexpectedly when I set up a Shostakovich channel on Pandora, and played it through our stereo system. While attending to other matters in the house I heard music that was very familiar. In fact it was so familiar that I found myself singing in my not so beautiful voice the da da da of the 1st B flat clarinet line for the entire Fourth movement. I knew exactly which notes were coming next. I had memorized it many decades ago, and my brain had recorded it for playback after a half century of neglect.

Mr. Geoffroy often called for us to emote in our playing, and some music was especially emotional, such as the Prelude and Love Death in Richard Wagner’s Opera Tristan und Isolde. If you did not sway in your chair, moving your instrument from side to side, you plainly weren’t feeling the passion of the music.

And today, as I rediscovered the Allegro non troppo of Shostakovich, I found myself consumed by joy, the same joy I felt when sitting in the middle of the ensemble, emoting my heart out just as Shostakovich, and Mr. Geoffroy, intended.


High school prepared me well for the science and writing that defined my career. And for that I thank the sometimes stern, oftentimes nurturing teachers who looked for potential in every student coming under their care. But sometimes it’s the extracurricular activities that enrich our being, which bring joy at unexpected moments even a life-time later.

I would pray that when school boards are tasked with cutting programs, they think long and hard about the intangibles of performance arts. It is true that not every student enrolled in music or performance classes will make a career of it. In fact, I would guess that the number of high school students moving into a music or acting career must be very small indeed. But life is not just about work. It is also about “smelling the roses”. And music from the Masters, as long as it can stir the heart, is a very sweet smelling rose indeed.

Due to the passage of time, it is too late for me to personally thank Mr. Geoffroy; but I would like his family to know that he helped students, not yet adults, accomplish something beyond their wildest expectations. In my mind, that is the mark of a dedicated and impassioned teacher.

In the following video, Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic in the final movement of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. It is in the quiet passages mid-way through that my memories are the strongest. It was there that the clarinets and flutes carried the music with full authority.


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kenneth-geoffrey-fixedFrom the South Bend Alumni Association Hall of Fame Archives

Kenneth Geoffroy was instrumental in creating the South Bend Youth Symphony and the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. As a skilled trombonist, Mr. Geoffroy played with the South Bend Symphony and the Midwest Pops. He also was a member of the music faculty at Indiana University South Bend, president of the Indiana Music Educator’s Association, conductor of the Southhold Symphonic Wind Band, and coordinator of fine arts for the South Bend Community School Corporation from 1967 to 1982. Mr. Geoffroy first proposed the idea of a summer musical festival to be held at St. Patrick’s Park, the foundation for the renowned Firefly Festival. (1981)


A Novel – A Song Just Waiting to Bust Out

SAM_0557One of the most memorable quotes I’ve heard from a child came from his experience listening to classical music. I don’t remember who said it (Google comes up empty-handed), but I’ve never forgotten it.

“A symphony is music with a song waiting to bust out any minute.”

Those words were the child’s response to listening to a symphonic piece. The little listener kept expecting to hear a song, but no sooner did the musicians seem to be closing in on a melody, than the music changed and darted off down another musical path. I suspect that was a little frustrating to the kid; but at least it kept him listening, expectantly.

Being a musician, I can fully appreciate the correctness of his innocent comment.

Classical music is technical; in fact, highly so. Orchestration is a wonderment to those of us who aren’t both talented and trained in the art. The printed lines for a solo instrument, like the clarinet I file0001662840435play, are defined by strict mathematical relationships between frequencies of sound. If the math is not precise, then the sound will not be precise and melodic. That is to say, the sound will not be music, but rather noise.

I consider myself a technical person. As a scientist, I understand the technical rigor and precision which is required for composing and orchestration, but also for scientific and engineering calculations and publications. Indeed, I’ve spent decades writing technical papers, many with a fair amount of mathematical basis. I kept the creative, the musical side, bottled up, because it’s not publishable. Technical publications are, well, technical. They are neither pretty nor tuneful.

But as I mingle vicariously with other technical writers, I find that some of them also have a pent-up desire for creative writing. With a somewhat guilty feeling, they have actually penned very good, non-technical prose. And even a few poems.

Now that I, a scientist, have released my first novel, Middle Waters, hugely imaginative compared to my day-to-day paid technical writing, I feel I have birthed a bastard child.

Oh, but how I love that child.

Now let the song begin…


What Is That Music?

The mark of great music is that you will always remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard it.

In early 1977 I was a young First Lieutenant in the Army, training at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. I had flown up there to attend 3-months of Active Duty for Training. It was winter, but on one weekend when the weather promised to be beautiful, several of us piled into a car and headed South to Washington, DC. None of us had been to DC before, so the trip was one of discovery and high expectations. Smithsonian_Air_and_Space_Museum

For a space and aviation enthusiast like myself, the long-anticipated highlight of the trip was the chance to see the newly opened Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and to see my first Imax movie, which happened to be “To Fly”.

In the dim light of the large sloping theater, we waited for the movie to begin. Meanwhile, music was softly playing.

You know how when you’re at a restaurant or bar and someone is playing, you’re not necessarily aware of the music per se. It’s just part of the ambiance, the background. But as that music began, it started with deep strings, rhythmically, methodically stroking through the music.

Deep bass notes have always thrilled me. I am a player of clarinets, which have no bass properties to speak of, so perhaps it is the novelty of bass that so captures my imagination. And so it had slowly begun to work on me, that anonymous music.

It was clearly classical, most likely some well orchestrated version of what must have originally been chamber music. As I listened ever more attentively, the music built on itself  and added complexity which maintained and then grew my interest. I had never heard it before, and neither had my friends, but I began questioning myself, “What is this music?”

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Excerpt in the key of D

After over four minutes, when you would think the pace and melody would be becoming somewhat worn, the composer threw in some accidentals, which frankly shocked me, as they must have the music’s first listeners. There was a string of four eighth notes, and one of them sounded flat, while its pairing just two notes away was not. What is this, I thought? And then in the next measure it was repeated, so it certainly wasn’t a mistake. It was an intentional musical device, and one that I loved for its novelty.

It was as if the composer had been holding back for that subtle surprise until near the end of the piece. Just as you thought you knew what to expect, something new appeared in the melody.

Strangely, I left that theater thinking as much about that mysterious theatrical prelude as about the movie. And for an aviation enthusiast, that’s saying a lot.

Before long, I began to hear that piece elsewhere, and with increasing frequency. In fact, the music enjoyed a burst of popularity starting in the early 1970s, the same period when I first heard it.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m talking about Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It is now so well known that it has its own web site. The following video featuring Canon in D was compiled by “diemauerdk”.


According to the Internet, Canon in D first became available to the masses through a 1970 recording, reportedly by the French musician Jean-Francois Paillard. Oddly, even though it was written in about 1680, it was not published until 1919. I have no doubt that its rise in popularity was due in no small part to the large audiences exposed in the iMax theater at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The fact that it was the main theme of the 1980 popular movie, Ordinary People, only helped to propel it to mainstream consciousness.

On viewing the piano sheet music it’s easy to spot where the usual C#  F# structure of the key of D is flatted to produce an appealing effect. The four notes of note, if you will, are D Cnatural B C#. To an ear accustomed to hearing C# throughout most of the piece, a Cnatural sounds flat; but in a delightfully unexpected way.

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I consider myself lucky to be one of the first Americans to hear what was to me new music, and to appreciate that it was a very special work indeed. However, I must wonder; three hundred years from now, do you think any works from present day artists will be “discovered”, and enjoy an almost universal popularity?