Celestial Citadel

The Pillars of Creation are the most famous of all the Hubble Space Telescope images. Composer Chris Warner talks about the writing process behind ‘Celestial Citadel’, inspired by these titanic clouds of gas. Part of the ‘Composing The Cosmos’ series, featuring tracks from the album ‘Wonders of the Cosmos’ published by Audio Network, recorded at Ely Cathedral and Abbey Road Studios

Track by Track : 04 Celestial Citadel
from ‘Wonders of The Cosmos’

Recorded at Abbey Road and on location at Ely Cathedral
Featuring Edmund Aldhouse (Organ) & Grace Davidson (Soprano)
Published by Audio Network

In this Composing The Cosmos series I’ll be taking listeners through each track of this epic new album. You can read all about the making of Wonders of the Cosmos in my interview with audio network.

The Pillars of Creation - and the inspiration behind ‘Celestial Citadel’

The Pillars of Creation - and the inspiration behind ‘Celestial Citadel’

DISTANCE FROM HOME: 6500-7000 Light Years

Titanic towers surging through space and time. Giant nebulous furnaces inside which new stars are forged, solar systems formed, and who knows, maybe even organic life will be seeded. These are the ‘Pillars of Creation’, arguably the most famous and lauded of all the Hubble space telescopes images, and rightly so. They are, to my mind, unspeakably profound. Here I have tried to convey something of their scale and meaning through the language of music. This is the fourth piece in our journey through the ‘Wonders of the Cosmos’.

Musical trinities

The ‘Pillars of Creation’ can be found in the Serpens constellation and are part of the Eagle Nebula. The largest of the three pillar is four light years tall, which is just over 23 trillion miles. Not quite knowing how to begin writing music to convey these unfathomable scales, I took refuge in numbers. After all, the Universe does appear to be finely tuned by numbers. My starting point was the number three. There are three pillars in the Pillars of Creation, and the Cosmos seems to love the number three (there are 3 types of galaxy, 3 types of planet, 3 main types of matter, 3 types of particles, 3 quarks in a proton, 3 quarks in a neutron, and so on). Also, by naming this cosmological feature ‘The Pillars of Creation’ the scientists at NASA were alluding to rich symbolism drawn from various religious and philosophical traditions, not least because within these enormous gas clouds, stars are being born. Along these lines, the number 3 has particular significance for some religious traditions. All of this guided me towards writing the music in 3 time, with a tempo and feel that suggests a grand, majestic cosmic waltz. If you’ve read my analyses of the previous three pieces you will already be aware of the significance of dance forms and rhythms across all the works in this album. I’ve composed musical phrases that comprise 3 bars, some of which surge ever upwards in units of 3. This Celestial Citadel is constructed using these symbolic building blocks, or musical trinities.

Two of the main themes from ‘Celestial Citadel’ - each one 3 bars long and in 3/4…

…and the ‘ground bass’ from the same piece is 12 bars, which is of course divisible by 3.

The deep, reverberant bass notes of the organ tread out a repeating pattern (a ‘ground bass’ in musical speak) suggesting a long passage of time, whilst I’ve given the treble organ notes toccata like patterns that evoke the music of J.S. Bach, all of which helps us to locate the music in a ‘heavenly sphere’.

Climbing the summits of deep space

I’ve structured the piece around epic, cinematic climaxes, each one a musical summit, the apex of each pillar. The stratospheric soprano line, performed with breathtaking control and precision by Grace Davidson, carries us upwards to these heights upon a mass of expanding organ, strings and percussion. After the first of these climaxes, the music dissolves into the cavernous ambience of Ely Cathedral, and we are looking out from the first summit across light years of space at the second pillar emerging slowly through the dust ahead of us.

Abbey Road engineers Lewis Jones and Matt Jones erect a 50 foot mast under the tower of Ely Cathedral - the microphones placed at the top will help to capture the cavernous acoustic of this ancient building

Abbey Road engineers Lewis Jones and Matt Jones erect a 50 foot mast under the tower of Ely Cathedral - the microphones placed at the top will help to capture the cavernous acoustic of this ancient building

The slow musical ascent towards the next climactic summit starts once more, first in the subterranean realm of organ and string notes, then rising again through the string orchestra and soprano part, gaining phenomenal power and intensity as thousands of organ pipes join the chorus, hauling us, dancing upwards, towards the final peak.


Take a short, fast ride with NASA, starting from the Earth and before zooming deep into the Eagle Nebula to discover the exact location of the Pillars Of Creation.


Musical DNA

I’ve already described the idea of ‘cosmic dance’ as in important unifying musical feature of this album. The idea of shared patterns and organic structures has also focussed my writing. The idea of tiny and massive scale patterns at work was explored in my analysis of the second piece ‘Whirlpool Galaxy’ (here I compared a vortex of water disappearing down the plughole to the vortex of a spiralling galaxy). In the previous piece, ‘Starcluster’ I shared the idea that cosmological structures (galaxies, star clusters, solar systems) are analogous to cities, apartments and families. Everything about our life on Earth seems to mirror large scale cosmic structures. Take for example this video of Earth at night from NASA:


Viewed from space, the filamentary structure of towns and cities appear like galaxies and clusters of stars. Next look at this James Webb Telescope account of how the cosmic web of galaxies in our visible Universe appears when constructed from large amounts of data. This cosmic web could be mistaken for a view of the Earth at night taken from space, with all its towns and cities illuminated like stars:


These relationships, which seem to exist on one level between you and I as we go about constructing our relatively tiny lives on Earth, and the unfathomably huge level of structures that define the Universe, are a source of endless fascination and wonder to me. As a composer, I see similar patterns, structures, and relationships at work in music across all genres and cultures. Taking these ideas to the next level, I’d like to show you how all the pieces of this album share strands of melodic DNA with each other. For example, in ‘Celestial Citadel’ a very simple ascending musical scale underpins the whole structure:

It appears again in Starcluster (piece number 3):

And makes for some ferocious string writing in Interstellar Wind (piece number 6)

Scales are deceptively simple in nature, but they are the building blocks of melody, chords, harmony, and ultimately of millions of pieces of music, yielding up infinite variations, styles, genres, moods. And so it is with our Universe. From a small selection of chemical elements, mathematically complex yet elegant rules and laws, a Universe of infinite scope continues to evolve all around us. This is one of the most important stories that I hope to tell through ‘Wonders of the Cosmos’.