The Organ of Interstellar and the Temple Church in London

Interstellar is one of my favorite movies of all time and the soundtrack to the movie, which is composed by Hans Zimmer, is simply jaw dropping. The strong organ presence in the soundtrack also really draw me to the music because I first learned to play the organ as a young child before later moving on to play piano and keyboards. So what's the story behind the Interstellar Organ? What organ was used and why did Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan (the director) end up choosing the organ as such a central instrument? Like everyone else today I did a bit of searching on the internet. Turns out the decision to use a pipe organ as a central instrument in the score was first brought up by Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer quickly jumped on the idea and the rest was history.

So why was specifically was the 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ in the Temple Church in London chosen? I couldn't find the answer to why that specific organ was chosen but I suspect it was for the amazing acoustics in the Temple church along with the relative notoriety of the Harrison & Harrison organ in the church. Keyboard Magazine published an interview that was done with Hans Zimmer and Hans had this to say about recording the organ in the Temple church for the movie soundtrack:

"Abbey Road Mobile set up a remote studio in one of the side rooms of the church. It wasn’t just the organ; we had the orchestra in there as well. So we had an enormous amount of microphones placed all throughout that church. But I think the main mics really were a few Neumanns, about 20 feet away. More were about 40 feet away from the main pipes."

"It was great being able to really use the space. Because an organ doesn’t exist outside its acoustic space, so you have to find the right space. The great thing about Temple Church is, it’s in the center of London but it’s completely isolated. There are just the law courts all around it, and it’s basically a pedestrian zone, so there’s no traffic noise."

The reason an organ in general was chosen was because of the scientific significance of the instrument (after all Interstellar was all about the science). A quote from an article in title "Why Interstellar's Organ Needs to Be So Loud" in the Atlantic I think says it all:

"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)."

I could go on and on about the details of how the soundtrack was made, but this short video does a great job of explaining it:

But this article isn't just meant to be about the background behind the Interstellar soundtrack. No, I wanted to share with you what it was like to actually experience being inside the Temple Church in London and hearing first-hand what the acoustics are like in this small but impressive and quite old church. In the past year I have had two business trips to London. When I went to London last year I only had about 3 or 4 hours of free time in London and I didn't make it to see the Temple Church. Turns out this was a good thing, because when I went back to London this summer we ended up spending about half a day at the Temple Church and its surrounding grounds (which are quite extensive and beautiful). Below are several pictures I took of the exterior of the Temple Church, the Temple Church grounds, the organ of Interstellar itself and the surrounding interior of the church:

Now its time for the real content. I want to share with you a short piece of audio I took with the built-in mic on my iPhone. While we were visiting the Temple Church there was a small acapella men's group practicing. Honestly, the visit to the Temple Church would not have been complete without this amazing audio demostration. Granted it would have been even better to have heard the organ being played, but then again maybe not. You expect room filling sound with an organ but the way this small group of human voices filled the volume of the church was simply amazing. I chose to use this short clip as my video for one reason...the singers stop to correct a mistake. Honestly, if they had not have stopped you could have easily assumed I simply subbed over a silent video with CD quality singing. So plug in some headphones, close your eyes and imagine you are standing in the middle of the Temple Church listening to this small group of singers.

Its one thing to watch the Interstellar movie or listen to the soundtrack, but its quite another to witness first hand the acoustics of the Temple Church. After being there in person I no longer have to question why this organ and this church were chosen to be part of the soundtrack for the movie. If you ever go to London, take some time to stop by this beautiful church and see and listen for yourself!

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