Music for Music: Chris Warner
Chris Warner: Stories within the Stars
©2020 by Dan Ursini
Chris Warner, the British composer of Wonders of The Cosmos, is a person of uncommon choices.
First and foremost is his career, demanding a highly rarefied skillset: writing music for programs on BBC radio and television; for educational media; for such distinguished theatre companies as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in London and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He usually works with world-class British session musicians; a number of them appear on Wonders, his first solo pop effort.
And when the Audio Network label gave Warner the opportunity to do an album of original music, he chose to draw from astronomy, a field that he loves. He was inspired by recent NASA photographs and recordings. Instead of writing for synthesizer, he composed for a titanic century-old organ in the Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England.The cathedral is an architectural landmark which itself took nearly 300 years to complete. Sound reverberates within it for six seconds. The organ, with pipes as long as 32 feet, sounds marvelous there. The Abbey Road remote crew recorded there both the organ parts along with vocals by the superb soprano soloist, Grace Davidson. The remainder of the album was recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios.
In Warner’s work as a composer, music can be created for a specific reason, but it may be used in a range of programs, such as a high-tech TV thriller, a serious film documentary and more. He explains, “Given that the pieces need to work for use in the television and film industry, each one must establish its theme and mood quickly.” Warner does this masterfully with the seven compositions comprising Wonders.
Listening to these pieces consecutively, as if they were movements in a larger composition, reveals a surprising cumulative power within their graceful, airy orchestrations. Each piece of music focuses on a particular celestial object or phenomenon—from the furthest reaches of space/time (The Big Bang) to the closest (our moon). Warner says that, at the outset, his “musical challenge was to achieve clarity through the writing and orchestrating whilst retaining plenty of drama, atmosphere, and impact.” These decisions define “the sonic landscape of the album. Long, soaring phrases, clear and deep pedal notes, widely scored textures, carefully placed impacts with plenty of space to breathe and decay…”
The album’s opening track, “Cosmic Background,” shows what absorbing and elegant music can result from such thoughtful and imaginative construction. Grace Davidson’s vocals advance in long slow glides over harmonies marked by otherworldly ambiguities and by gentle yet restless rhythms. Dreamy and captivating, this creation was inspired by recordings of recently discovered electromagnetic vibrations from the dawn of time known as Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMB).
Next enters “Whirlpool Galaxy.” Its catalyst is the image of the same name identified by the Hubble Space Telescope. Warner remarks, “As I gaze at the Whirlpool Galaxy, with its giant spiral arms, I’m full of wonder that the exact same patterns and structures appear repeatedly at Earthly and cosmic scales. It’s the pattern of water disappearing down a plughole, and twists of cream stirred into soup.”
This realization inspired Warner to make a key decision, to “consciously manipulate and re-use musical themes, both within and between pieces, so that all the material relates to each other.” And the elements of Wonders are indeed exceptionally coherent. Rhythms are usually relaxed, based on the waltz. Vocals are brief, otherworldly melodic passages, sometimes including notes that only a masterful vocalist like Grace Davidson can reach. Strings of the English Session Orchestra, are used to superb effect in clarifying the emotional contours of the compositions. Unusual registers of the organ evoke small whistles and reeds and bells. This graceful music has a marvelous sense of balance and proportion.
Listen to “Star Cluster”:
Or “Celestial Citadel”:
Or “Interstellar Wind”:
The pleasures of these compositions are deepened by the detailed articles and imagery that Warner posts at his website.
Warner concludes, “I always seem to be juggling numerous projects and deadlines, and whilst I am extremely grateful for the work, Wonders of the Cosmos has reminded me that it’s also good to have projects that are not for any particular purpose other than the joy and necessity of exploration.” Wonders of The Cosmos is music for the dancing animation of the mind inspired by the stories within the stars.
Chris Warner at Talking Classical Podcast via YouTube:
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org