Chris Warner, composer for the Royal Shakespeare Company and orchestrator for BBC One's McMafia, is all about helping others tell their stories. Earlier this year, he decided to tell his own story and produced a story-driven album called Wonders of the Cosmos. After listening to the album, I asked Chris about his experiences creating this beautiful sonic adventure.
Nick Dolan: Before we get to your latest album, Wonders of the Cosmos, can you tell us about your background as a musician? Did you study music at University?
Chris Warner: Yes, I studied performance and academic music at the University of Surrey, which is home to the world-famous Tonmeister Audio Engineering course. I now have the pleasure of working and collaborating with some of my contemporaries at Uni in the industry, at studios such as Abbey Road and Air. I saw my years at University as an opportunity to invest time and effort into developing and honing core musical skills. I spent three years exploring the art of piano accompaniment, and through historical and analytical studies, I received a thorough grounding in ideas about the form and function of music. In my second year, I was awarded a choral scholarship at Guildford Cathedral, and this opened up another whole world of awe-inspiring musical repertoire and training. In fact, my years spent being part of a professional Cathedral Choir were as valuable to me as those spent studying at University. There is something uniquely special about coming together with a group of like-minded musicians every day, week in, week out, to collaborate through the ritual act of singing. Although I didn't formally study composition whilst at University, I was always writing music, and with the limited means, I had available, enjoyed exploring the technology that was on the market at the time.
Nick: And how did you get started composing music for media such as theatre and TV?
Chris: A question that's often asked, and it's an understandable one. The answer is harder to pinpoint as we work in an industry where there are little or no job adverts, and the work seems to come through word of mouth and recommendation. This is indeed how I got started. As a student, I was always writing scores and songs for theatre, and some of the friends and collaborators I first worked with, like me, soon entered the industry becoming writers and directors. So, my first few professional jobs in the theatre came through staying in touch with these fellow artists and taking my first steps in the industry alongside them, being grateful for the introductions and invitations that I received to work as a composer in this field. My first steps into the world of music for media came as I started to acquire work as an assistant for other composers, most notably the composer and performer Tom Hodge, who has collaborated with artists such as Max Cooper, and has scored TV Series such as McMafia (BBC1). I also reached out to Production Music companies such as Audio Network as I saw this work as an opportunity to write and produce high-quality music without the demands of ever-tightening deadlines, such as those that exist in the world of scoring for a picture. It would have been very difficult to self-produce an album such as Wonders of the Cosmos without having the support of a company such as Audio Network, and it's one very big reason why I continue to invest time and passion into writing Production Music whenever I can.
Nick: Can you walk us through the creative vision for the concept of this album and how you realised that vision with your orchestration and writing?
Chris: I've been a lover of all things Astronomical and Cosmological for many years. I'm a member of several local Astronomy Clubs, and much of my time outside of work is spent reading about contemplating these fields, although in a very amateur sense! These are areas of interest that are also continuously in the news and form the backdrop to many classic and contemporary films and TV series, so it seemed obvious to explore the idea of creating a Production Music album that was both tailored to this world, and which also allowed me to indulge my amateur passions. The initial stages of the project were just like any other in this medium. I agreed a rough brief with Audio Network, which from the outset included the essential musical ingredients of Organ, soprano and string orchestra. From there I wrote some rough MIDI orchestrated sketches, having spent time finding inspiration for each track amongst some of my favourite Hubble Space Telescope images. The sketching process helped me to explore various types of textures, particular in the string and organ writing. Working with the music team at Audio Network, we all agreed that the more open, spacious and soaring textures suited the subject matter best, and once we had received permission to record at Ely Cathedral, it seemed doubly important to orchestrate the music to make use of the huge acoustic spaces available to us within this ancient building.
Nick: You clearly have a passion for storytelling; was an overarching story that spans across the entire album intentional, or do you see each track as having its own story?
Chris: A nice question! Well a bit of both, I think. Each track definitely has its own story. For example, Consumed By Starlight dramatises the real-life observations that have been made of exoplanet Wasp 12-b, 870 light-years from Earth, which is being eaten alive by its neighbouring sun. The track Interstellar Wind takes as its inspiration an eerie sound picked up by the Voyager 1 satellite as it left our solar system and headed into interstellar space. Celestial Citadel is a musical portrait of the breath-taking 'Pillars of Creation', one of the Hubble Space Telescopes most famous and iconic pictures, showing three massive pillars of stardust billowing through space and time on an inconceivable scale, inside which new stars are being born. Hence the musical language for this piece is both expansive and epic, with a quasi-religious tone. As I was writing the individual tracks of the album, several unifying themes did emerge. Musically, I realised I was using similar building blocks throughout, and I developed this further as a neat way to explore the mysterious truths of our Universe, which also seems to be governed, albeit on a Cosmic scale, by its own unifying laws. I am always fascinated by the way we can see tiny structures, such as the those of a snowflake, and other filamentary patterns in nature replicated on the scale of whole galaxies. In a tiny way, I explored this idea musically through the use of simple musical cells or motifs that appear in small and large-scale iterations.
Nick: You recorded the pipe organ and solo soprano at Ely Cathedral, which has quite a long reverberation time. Had you been to the Cathedral before and how did you use the Cathedral's long reverb in your writing?
Chris: Oh yes, I am a regular attendee to the Cathedral for both services and my own quiet reflection. Having spent many years singing in a Cathedral Choir, these beautiful buildings always feel like home to me. During the season of Advent and Lent, the Cathedral hold special Compline services, which are comprised almost entirely of medieval plainsong in the Lady Chapel. I've been attending these events for many years, and I have become enchanted by the mesmerising acoustic of this particular part of the Cathedral. I've also fallen in love with the mighty Harrison & Harrison organ that takes pride of place in the Cathedral's long musical heritage. Capable of generating the most magisterial, teeth-rattling sounds, but also some exquisitely soft, delicate and mystical textures, this is a truly symphonic instrument. So, the opportunity to write music that was both recorded on this particular Organ, and within the various spaces of the Cathedral, was and still remains a personal and career highlight.
Nick: Did you face any unexpected challenges during your writing, recording, or production?
Chris: The biggest challenge was definitely planning and executing the recording sessions at the Cathedral. Although a place of worship, it's also a very busy tourist attraction and although we had access to the building during the day, we couldn't lay out any cables until after Evensong and the closure of the building. We only had a window of three hours to record across two evenings, so time was tight. But the Abbey Road mobile unit, under the command of top engineer Lewis Jones and assistant Matt Jones, was up for the challenge. I had talked to Lewis beforehand and drawn up several plans of the Cathedral, working out where we could set-up the Control Room and where the best mic'ing positions were likely to be. Lewis had the brilliant idea of getting hold of a large radio mast that could function as a giant microphone stand and be extended up to 100 feet into the tower of the Cathedral to pick up the ambient sound of the Organ. Again, we had to get this in place within 30 minutes, which was a tall order, if you pardon the pun. We had to repeat the same process on the second evening when setting up to record soprano Grace Davidson in the Lady Chapel, requiring even longer cable runs. The radio mast, fitted with four ambient mics, worked a treat. This was up until the moment one of the mics got displaced, we think probably by something, possibly a bat, flying into it. As a result, half-way through the recording session, this single mic channel developed a distinct hum, which I spent many hours de-noising during the post-production process!
Nick: What do you hope listeners will take away from listening to Wonders of the Cosmos?
Chris: Well, at any time I hope that someone listening to this music will be moved to slow down and rest for a moment, and maybe contemplate the scope and scale of the Universe. But at this particular time, whilst we are wrestling with the challenges of a global health emergency, I also hope that these pieces, inspired by real wonders of the Cosmos, offer something that can take our minds off the stresses and strains of the day, even if for a few minutes. Not in a way that is overwhelming, or scary, but with a sense of comfort in the knowledge that we are just a small part of a larger whole that is, somehow, beautifully and wonderfully made. Whether you believe this to be a process curated by a Higher Being, or just the random workings of chance, we can learn so much about ourselves by trying to think outside of ourselves.
Thank you, Chris Warner, for sharing an in-depth look into your creative process! You can listen to Wonders of the Cosmos on Spotify and Apple Music.
Film | Music
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