Consumed By Starlight

Composer Chris Warner takes us on a musical journey many lights years away to constellation of Auriga. ‘Consumed by Starlight’ is the 5th track from the album ‘Wonders of the Cosmos’, featuring soprano Grace Davidson, Ely Cathedral Organ with Edmund Aldhouse and the Strings section of the ESO, recorded at Abbey Road. Released by Audio Network.

Track by Track : 05 Consumed by Starlight
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.

Artist's concept of the exoplanet WASP-12b, Credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon

Artist's concept of the exoplanet WASP-12b, Credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon

DISTANCE FROM HOME: 1300 Light Years

Many light years away in the constellation of Auriga a planet called ‘Wasp 12b’ orbits its Sun, called ‘Wasp 12’, at a dizzying speed of one orbit per day. Wasp 12b is so close to its stellar nemesis that it’s become distorted into an egg shape as its atmosphere is stripped and devoured at a rate of 189 quadrillion tonnes per year. In astrological terms, we are witnessing a planetary death march, and it’s the subject of the 5th piece in this album.

Existential exoplanet crisis

‘Wonders of the Cosmos’ is an appropriate title for an album whose musical intent is to underscore the beauty and splendour of the observable Universe, especially as brought to us through the lenses of instruments such as the Hubble space telescope. But just as on Earth, where there are frequent reminders of how violent and destructive natural forces can be, sometimes it takes a picture to remind us that the wider Universe also brutal and savage, but on even bigger, super massive scales. We can confidently predict that the planet Wasp 12b, a gas giant not unlike Jupiter, will suffer a protracted and turbulent death. My search for a musical language to underscore this scene led me to focus on the inevitability of the planet’s fate, the march of time, and the tremendous amounts of mass that are being flung about. By keeping these narrative ideas at the forefront of my mind I was able to ensure the music didn’t become too harsh or aggressive, tempting though this would have been, to opt for maximum cinematic bombast, it would nevertheless have been out of keeping with the overall style of the album. When it comes to creating a huge amount of sonic matter, nothing beats a cathedral organ, and the instrument at Ely Cathedral is one of the biggest, and best. With its 80 stops, each one servicing a whole rank of pipes, it can shift massive volumes of air at extremely high pressures. Some of the lowest pitch organ pipes are 32 feet long. They are so long in fact they have to be placed horizontally high up in one of the cathedral galleries, and their diameter is such that a person can crawl inside. When these pipes are called into service, you don’t just hear the notes, you feel them rumbling through the ancient stone floors and walls.

The massive, horizontal bass organ pipes at Ely Cathedral are big enough to crawl into

The massive, horizontal bass organ pipes at Ely Cathedral are big enough to crawl into

All about that bass

All good death marches require a suitably deep and resonant drum to keep time. You might remember reading about the organ’s mysterious, hazy sounding reed stops and the eerie Vox Humana pipes that were used in the first piece, ‘Cosmic Background’, or the sparkling high pitched organ notes in ‘Starcluster’. In ‘Consumed By Starlight’ I use another special effect that again reveals just how symphonic this titanic instrument can be. I asked our brilliant organist Edmund Aldhouse to play a cluster of very low, deep sounding pedal notes with his feet (you may already know that as well having several keyboards, most large organs have several octaves of additional pedal notes that are played with the organist’s feet).

The organist has to play a cluster of deep bass notes on the pedals, using feet.

The resulting clash of sub bass frequencies generates a sound like a kick drum. Except this kick drum sounds on a colossal scale - remember the size of those giant organ pipes - and can be heard reverberating around the huge expanse of Ely Cathedral.

You hear this effect from the very start of the piece, and gradually other instruments (double basses, cellos and a battery of percussion) join forces as the death march builds in scale and mass. Musically speaking, the organ has assumed the role of this mighty and malignant star, Wasp 12, and I wanted to leave us in no doubt of its intent.

There is a moment when all the other instruments give way, and we hear the full enormity of the organ’s pedal reeds. These are large, high volume bass pipes with additional reed tongues, giving them the potential to shake stone, bone and teeth.

This is our Sun, Wasp 12, in all its terrifying force. Amidst the dreadful maelstrom of solar winds, gravity, and planetary flotsam and jetsam, Grace Davidson’s elegant vocal phrases take on the form of strange and beautiful death swoops, each one consumed by the dense organ and strings texture, just like the helpless Wasp 12b.