Chris Warner, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

As a child, I was devoted to the piano and spent much of my time listening to all kinds of music, mostly from my parent’s eclectic music collection (everything from 60s novelty 45rpm records to New Orleans jazz, opera and the music of Vangelis). I also loved acting and the theatre. My eureka moment happened when I joined a local theatre company near where I grew up on the Norfolk Broads. This wonderful, supportive and inclusive group let me write music for their productions (I was, and hopefully still am, a better composer than actor!). From that moment on, I knew my passion was for telling stories through music. The theatre group is still going strong, and they are amongst some of my dearest friends. I owe them so much.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

I combined a love of academic music, especially analysis, with a passion for piano accompaniment during my undergraduate studies at the University of Surrey, home of the world-famous Tonmeister Audio Engineering course. By far the best grounding and training in musicianship I received was as a choral scholar and subsequently Lay Clerk at Guildford Cathedral. I would frequently take the music copies away to study, fascinated by the breadth of styles encompassed by the English choral music tradition. One day you could be singing an exquisite, centuries-old mass by Byrd and the next a modernist set of canticles by Tippett. Under the musical direction and stewardship of the legendary Andrew Millington and then Stephen Farr, these very happy and rich years of choral training provided me with a knowledge and understanding of music that I’m still drawing on as a composer today. Since then I’ve worked with and for many other composers in the classical and media worlds as an arranger, orchestrator and pianist, and my eclectic interests and training help me to approach every new collaboration with a spirit of openness.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

I always feel incredibly grateful that somehow, I manage to earn a living doing what I love, writing music. So it’s easy to forget some of the challenges I’ve encountered, and continue to meet along the way. For many artists, myself included, I think the greatest moments of challenge arise when you find yourself questioning your abilities and when you realise your confidence is in short supply. Many times over my career, this has happened to me, and gradually I’m learning to live with and understand these moments. Not to run away from them but to tackle them head-on.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

Most of my work as a composer involves commissioned pieces, from theatre scores and soundscapes to media briefs and bespoke compositions. Many of these projects are naturally very collaborative too. There is always a moment of joy and excitement when you receive a fresh new script, for example, and your creative mind fizzes alive to all the ways through which the narrative could be heightened through music and sound. The moment of challenge starts and continues to grow as you drill down into the detail of what’s required by the brief and how best to interpret the vision of the particular director or writer you’re collaborating with, often using language that isn’t musical. Learning how to communicate in the language of other art forms in the pursuit of a shared artistic goal is important when you work across different media. Recently, I composed music and created the sound design for a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing for Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory, with brilliant director Elizabeth Freestone. Scoring music for Shakespeare is always something of a challenge. There are, of course, the dramatic songs, which I have got to know and love through the various settings by Quilter, Finzi and Britten, to name a few. I always relish the challenge of making these Elizabethan texts work musically and dramatically in their original context, despite the fact that most modern Shakespeare productions are not set in the 16th Century. In this particular production of Much Ado, we needed to source more songs and music than naturally exist within the text, but the production was staged in an entirely contemporary setting. Much of the music needed to sound like a 2019 Spotify party playlist, but the text had to be 16th-century in style. So, I set about augmenting the famous masque scene with madrigals, set to my own music, in a contemporary style. Think poems by Walter Raleigh performed in the style of the Arctic Monkeys. I also composed a processional wedding song for the fated Hero and Claudio wedding scene, again in a contemporary style but to words by John Wilbye (1574). The pleasure of working on this particular production came from the degree of trust that Elizabeth placed in me to interrogate the requirements of the world of the play, come up with this dramatically truthful solution, and the open, collaborative way in which she worked throughout the rehearsal process.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I’ve had the delight of working with some of the best musicians in the industry, largely through the session work that I undertake as a media composer. My latest album, Wonders of the Cosmos is a case in point. I was thrilled when the distinguished soprano Grace Davidson (The Sixteen, Max Richter), agreed to perform on the album, alongside one of the country’s finest organists, Edmund Aldhouse (Ely Cathedral), and an orchestra of London’s best string players. Time is always tight in the recording studio, there is never any rehearsal, and everything has to be right, if not first time, very soon after. I love the craft and the challenge of preparing scores and parts, all of which must be presented in the best, most economical way possible so that when the red light goes on the players know exactly what’s required. If the results are good, then I can only claim some of the credit, however. For every session with a musician or ensemble is a masterclass in itself. This fact alone helps to put me in my place as a composer. I wrote an album of music for wind octet several years ago, inspired by and written, in part, for a friend and colleague Joy Farrall, principal clarinettist with the Britten Sinfonia and Head of Woodwind at the Purcell School. Like Wonders of the Cosmos, Wondrous Winds was recorded at Abbey Road with all the aforementioned time pressure and no rehearsal. Joy and the rest of the ensemble played faultlessly. But such was the masterclass in ensemble playing that I witnessed during this session, I could have happily gone away and written several follow-up albums.

Of which works are you most proud?

Three recent projects are foremost in my mind. In 2018 BBC Radio 4 presenter and children’s author Zeb Soanes asked me if I would like to compose music for the audiobook of his first Gaspard the Fox adventure. This delightful book, now part of a successful series, allowed me to compose instinctively and characterfully, following the storytelling. Zeb’s stories are simultaneously modern and nostalgic, sophisticated and touching, and I found the music wrote itself, which was a joy. The project also re-ignited my love of performing, and I now enjoy re-creating the music for the first two books in a live context at various book festivals with Zeb narrating and me playing as many instruments as possible. Along similar lines, a recent arranging job saw me having to reduce the cult classic album Banana Blush from a large mixed jazz, classical and contemporary ensemble, down to just four players. Composed by BAFTA award-winning composer Jim Parker, Banana Blush comprises a collection of unique settings to music of John Betjeman’s poetry. Each piece is different in style and instrumentation and infused with pathos, nostalgia and familiar musical idioms. The original album is also beloved by many people. So, the challenge of retaining the original spirit of each piece but with only four players was considerable, and even more so given that one of the players was to be myself, again playing numerous instruments. The premiere of this new arrangement, at the 2019 Thaxted Festival, was a huge success and an exciting moment for me as I look to take on ever more unusual challenges as a composer and arranger. Thirdly, I am immensely proud of the aforementioned album Wonders of the Cosmos (full album release in May). It brings together my love for and fascination with all things cosmological (I am a very enthusiastic member of my local astronomy club), and it comprises some of the most expansive and personal music I have composed to date. As mentioned above, cathedral music is part of my musical DNA, so having the opportunity to record the mighty Harrison & Harrison organ at Ely Cathedral (in my home town) with the Abbey Road mobile unit, and to capture Grace Davidson’s sublime soprano voice in the heavenly acoustic of the Cathedral Lady Chapel, is definitely a standout moment for me.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

I think on a conceptual and dramatic level about much of the music I write, and this approach heavily informs my compositional style. For example, I once wrote a piece for a Victorian steampunk project that was made up entirely of the notes C (for ‘Charles’) and D (for ‘Dickens’) and whose rhythm was based entirely on the phrase ‘What the Dickens’? I composed a setting of Shakespeare’s ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ (from As You Like It) for the contemporary trio Juice Vocal Ensemble. Scored for voices and tuned blown bottles, it’s a metaphor for the rawness of the wind and the alcohol-induced sorrow of a scorned friend (the performers have to drink the contents of the bottles at the piece’s conclusion). Another album of mine called Twisted Tonality’ scored for strings, percussion and electronics, was numerically and mathematically composed, and inspired by a score I wrote for a production of Howard Brenton’s 55 Days at the Lyric Belfast. Brenton’s play focuses on the 55 days leading up to the execution of Charles I, and my score used purely serial techniques to convey a sense of the breakdown of one system of governance and the ascendance of another. In Wonders of the Cosmos one of the pieces, Interstellar Wind, is based on the eerie sonic signature of a sound recorded in deep space by the Voyager 1 satellite. The approach I take to most of my work is one that sees narrative and concept as key ingredients.

How do you work?

I sometimes liken my experience of writing music to that of being a sculptor. The initial idea, theme, concept or sonic building block is, for me, like a naturally formed ingot of stone or block of wood, bursting with potential. The process that follows is one of carefully chiselling away at every aspect to reveal the best possible structure and form for the music that you think you have conceived in your head. The majority of my time is spent in front of a computer screen rather than a sheet of manuscript. But rather than shunning the technology, I embrace it as a powerful, creative tool and source of much-renewed inspiration. I often try to find, interrogate and fully explore one new piece of creative technology in each project I undertake. I’ve just finished work on an exciting new piece of immersive theatre, a collaboration between the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Augmented-Reality start-up Magic Leap. I much prefer creating my own sonic textures and ambiences from scratch rather than relying on pre-existing collections or libraries. I consider this part of the compositional process. For this particular project, I turned to some richly creative sound design tools by electronic artists Sylvain Stoppani and Sandy Small (aka Blinksonic). Like learning to play a new instrument, you have to put in the hours to gain mastery over such creative tools, but it’s important for me that every new work contains this element of play and discovery. Whether it’s spending hours making fine adjustments to a complex mix so that the music can evolve and breath, or crafting a melodic line that does justice to a lyric or is idiomatically well-matched to an instrument, these principles of ‘chiselling’ and ‘refinement’, and of trying to interrogate all aspects of my tools and craft, remain the same.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

Rather than name individual musicians, I’d like to single out percussionists and early music specialists as two groups of players for whom I have special regard. Working with percussionists is always a treat, and I marvel at their encyclopaedic knowledge of the genus, species and families of instruments that seem to number the thousands within the percussion section. I’ve learned so much about the inner workings of music from the minds of great percussionists, and I’m sure my own compositional technique has been enriched as a result. In 2018 I created the orchestral arrangements for the classical crossover album ‘A Portrait of John Doe’ by Floex and Tom Hodge (Mercury KX Records). Following a successful album release, the decision was made to create a live version for orchestra and electronics, which involved having to transcribe the album’s intricate and kaleidoscopic electronic percussion programming for four orchestral percussionists and drum kit. My way of approaching this was to unite Floex, Tom Hodge and myself with the expertise of friend and percussionist Matt Whittington, whose performance experience ranges from contemporary classical recitals to numerous West End shows. Many exhilarating hours were spent foraging in Matt’s Aladdin’s cave of every percussion instrument you could imagine. Following this, I was able to painstakingly assemble a percussion battery incorporating some well-known and also some hitherto unknown, even handmade, instruments. We found an acoustic equivalent for every kind of electronic swoosh, crash, rattle, scrape, shake and hit heard within each of the album’s tracks, and Matt and I talked for hours about how best to notate some of the more unusual effects. There are no books to help with such a task. Going out into the field and spending time listening to and experimenting with the experts, the players, is one of the best investments you can make as a composer in your craft.

Similarly fascinating for me is the world of early music and the passionate, dedicated musicians who specialise in this arena. Another recent project at Royal Shakespeare Company involved me having to score music for a mixed ensemble of contemporary and Renaissance instruments for a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The experience was a revelation for me and presented a unique opportunity to learn about the technical challenges, musical peculiarities and by no means least the delightful idiomatic character of period instruments. I’m planning to write some studies for Renaissance bagpipes in the near future!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

As musicians, we have a precious gift. One that allows us to communicate something of the wonder of the universe and created order through a unique language that seems to have no barriers and requires no translation. A friend of mine, and a first-rate musician, does extraordinary and life-changing work as a music therapist. What greater or more profound example of communication through music is there than this? As musicians and composers, if through our work we can communicate anything, whether an emotion, a deeply-held belief, a story, or even an abstract thought, then I would argue we have succeeded.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

The ideas of exploration, openness and collaboration seem to have been fruitful for me on my journey as a composer and musician, so I cheerfully offer these as suggestions. The need for hard work and dedication can, I think, be taken as read. We all know that this is a fundamental part of the process. The joy of the creative process seems to take place in the place between hard work and doubt, so explore, collaborate and be as open to ideas as you can whilst in this place.

RSC composer Chris Warner releases his new album ‘Wonders of the Cosmos’ on 15th May. Inspired by the magnitude and the majesty of the cosmos, Chris takes us on a journey spanning 46 billion light-years. The album is constructed around 7 awe-inspiring celestial objects and phenomena, ordered of cosmological distance, allowing for the listener to be transported from the far edges of our universe to our very own moon.

Recorded at Ely Cathedral and legendary Abbey Road Studios, ‘Wonders of the Cosmos’ combines the power of the cathedral organ with the splendour of a string orchestra, all in the vast acoustic environment of Ely Cathedral that echos and reverberates for 6 seconds. The album also features British Soprano Grace Davidson, known for her work with The Sixteen, the London Symphony Orchestra, and Tenebrae.

Chris Warner is a composer, sound designer, arranger and orchestrator with a passion for telling stories through music and sound. He is equally at home working in the theatre as he is in the recording studio, from small scale rural touring theatre projects and educational media work to major TV series and large scale theatrical productions. His own particular area of interest as an artist concerns examining where technology and the arts intersect, and especially the integration live coding and other software applications into musical and dramatic works. 

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