Saturday 16 May 2020

From the Pillars of Creation to Ely Cathedral: I chat to composer Chris Warner about his Wonders of the Cosmos

Recording The Wonders of the Cosmos in Ely Cathedral
Recording Wonders of the Cosmos in Ely Cathedral
Whilst the name of composer, orchestrator and sound-designer Chris Warner may not be familiar, his work may well be, as this includes orchestrating TV series such as McMafia and the film Common People as well as composing for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Now he has an album out on Audio Network, Wonders of the Cosmos, the musical description of an interstellar voyage across the universe inspired by images from the Hubble telescope, and by the sound of the majestic Ely Cathedral organ. I met up with Chris recently, via Skype, to chat about being inspired by astronomy, writing production music, story-telling in music and more.

Chris describes Wonders of the Cosmos as depicting a journey from the early beginnings of the universe to almost the present day, starting with the cosmic microwave background, going through galaxies, past a planet being eaten by a star right to the edge of our solar system. Chris has a great interest in astronomy, he shares a friend's telescope and is a member of Ely Astronomy Club. As a result of the 30th anniversary of the Hubble telescope, Chris was inspired by images produced from the telescope.

But the project wasn't simply a fantasy idea, but a clear commercial one. Chris works extensively writing production music (what used to be called library music). This is music written by composers without a specific purpose and made available so that it can be used by production teams working in television, film and such. Most TV music is production music; an example that he gives me is the theme tune for Mastermind. Chris writes for Audio Network, a company which gives its artists quite a free-range so that if composers have a creative idea they can pitch to Audio Network and if the company likes it, the composer runs with it. Hence, Chris' suggestion of Wonders of the Cosmos.

The Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, original photo taken by the Hubble telescope in 1995
(Photo NASA, Jeff Hester, Paul Scowen - Arizona State University)

A lot of the time production music simply gets released to the film/television industry (this was via CDs in the old days but it is now all on line), but Audio Network chooses selected projects to be released on disc, so that though Wonders of the Cosmos is production music it is also getting a commercial release, and is now on Spotify and 'Whirlpool Galaxy' has reached number 6 on the Spotify Space-Themed Classical Music playlist.

Chris was also keen to involve the fine Harrison & Harrison organ at Ely Cathedral (Chris lives five miles outside the city), so they recorded the organ in the cathedral (played by the cathedral's director of music Edmund Aldhouse), and also recorded soprano Grace Davidson singing in the Lady Chapel, with strings being added at Abbey Road Studios but using some of the acoustic from Ely. Normally for classical recordings, few microphones are used, but at Ely they used a lot, so that they could capture the acoustic of the cathedral.

Four movements of Wonders of the Cosmos are inspired by a picture from the Hubble telescope,'Whirlpool Galaxy', 'Celestial Citadel', 'Star Cluster', 'Consumed by Starlight', whilst others were inspired by images from elsewhere. The structure of the piece in seven movements (lasting just over 20 minutes) is rather more straightforward than it might be if Chris was writing purely concert music. To be useful as production music, each track has to be relatively straightforward and consistent in its ideas, to stay in the same head-space. Chris admits that this is against your instincts as a composer where he would want to develop material in new directions. But each movement has a strong personality, and they use the acoustic space of Ely to create expansive textures, whilst Chris finds Grace Davidson's voice (singing a wordless in some movements) 'extraordinary'.

The Wonders of the Cosmos: recording the organ at Ely Cathedral
Wonders of the Cosmos: recording the organ at Ely Cathedral
There has been talk of doing the piece live, and this would be perfectly possible as there is no major use of electronics in the score, it works acoustically except for the percussion much of which is programmed, but Chris could easily score this out. And, if producing a live version he would be interested in extending the piece somewhat, moving it more towards concert music. And Ely does have a science festival! Similarly, an album of woodwind pieces which he created as production music (Wondrous Winds on Audio Network) would work live too.

A lot of fine musicians write production music, so that both Evelyn Glennie and Debbie Wiseman write for Audio Network. And Chris points out that at a time when it is difficult for composers to release discs nowadays, such an outlet is good for both the artist and the industry, and he feels that much of the music deserves a wider audience.

Chris studied as a pianist and accompanist, though he was always writing music. Whilst still at school, a local drama group let him write music for productions, and he found that he loved storytelling through music. He did not study composition at university, so whilst he can appreciate the academic rigour of music coming out of universities and conservatoires, he does not connect with it as a composer. Afterward university he became a lay clerk at Guildford Cathedral, and he feels that this is where he really learned, by studying the music that he was singing. It was writing to film and TV directors that got him his first jobs writing music.

Chris Warner
Chris Warner
He works with computers and programming too, enjoying the diversity and does scoring for other people as well as writing his own music. This has led to him doing a lot of sound design in the theatre, and quite often this work can lie somewhere between a musical score and a soundscape, with the necessity to create an atmosphere through evolving soundscapes. He admits that he would love to be involved in writing more concert music and more choral music, but part of the problem is fitting things in. But he wrote a piece for Juice Vocal Ensemble (Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind for three voices and tuned bottles) on their Snow Queens album.

However, he finds working in production music ideal for him. If he thinks of an idea and it is useful for TV, then he can think of his own stories behind the music and run with it. The music needs to be generic but not bland, something of a challenge for a composer. So that, though Wonders of the Cosmos is something of a labour of love, it needs to tick the right boxes as production music too. He feels this is rather going back to the mould of composers working at the time of Handel and Telemann, and that he is fortunate to make a living by composing.

Wonders of the Cosmos: recording at Abbey Road Studios
Wonders of the Cosmos: recording at Abbey Road Studios
Chris Warner - Wonders of the Cosmos - Audio Network ANW3130

  1. Cosmic Background
  2. Whirlpool Galaxy
  3. Star Cluster
  4. Celestial Citadel
  5. Consumed By Starlight
  6. Interstellar Wind
  7. Under A Gibbous Moon

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