Cosmic Background

Composer Chris Warner takes us on a journey back in time to shortly after the Big Bang and the emergence of the Cosmic Microwave Background. Recorded at Abbey Road and Ely Cathedral, featuring soprano Grace Davidson and organist Edmund Aldhouse

Track by Track : 01 Cosmic Background
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.

DISTANCE FROM HOME: 46 Billion Light Years

The image is a map of ancient light from the dawn of the Universe. Although not the most beautiful of the various pictures that have inspired my latest album, Wonders Of The Cosmos, this image speaks to me of profound cosmic myths and mysteries that lie at the far reaches of human understanding. Opaque, primeval light, a red hot haze of particles and mysterious cosmic gas, the evolution of atomic life, the raw ingredients of future stars, galaxies, planets, and ultimately life. Just some of the thoughts and feelings I’ve tried to articulate, musically in this opening piece, a prelude if you like, to the whole album.

A spacetime calendar

Imagine the 13.8 billion year history of the Universe as a 12-month calendar. This map is a snapshot of the primeval light from our Universe as it appeared in the first few weeks of January, not long after the Big Bang. The scientific term for this light is Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, or CMB for short. This CMB is all around us and its discovery in the 40s has allowed scientists to piece together strong evidence in support of the Big Bang theory. Like so many great scientific discoveries it was stumbled upon by accident. A couple of radio astronomers, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman, were bemused by white noise interference being picked up by their radio telescope, and initially thought nesting birds were the culprit. After prolonged scratching of heads and further investigation they concluded that this mysterious interference is in fact a distant electromagnetic ‘echo’ from the dawn of time.


This short NASA video tells the story of a probe that was sent to investigate the Cosmic Background


Ancient light from the cloudy dawn of the Universe

How on earth do you approach composing music to convey such epic themes and ideas as those thrown up by this ancient light, this cosmic background? I started with an analogy between ancient light being diffused by the cloudy dawn of the Universe and light from our sun being diffused by the clouds in our atmosphere. Musically I knew I needed to create a similarly diffuse, mysterious and expansive texture. It occurred to me that here was a perfect opportunity to demonstrate some of the softer, yet still mysterious and atmospheric tone colours the fine organ at Ely Cathedral can produce. From the opening bars of the piece you can hear the organ playing a selection of reed stops. These are collections of pipes whose sound is made by the vibrating of brass reeds. The sound that comes out is stringy and buzzy, and for me it represents the idea of sound waves being diffused, just as the light has been in the CMB.

These reed stops are contained in a part of the organ called the ‘swell’. The swell is a chamber in which large numbers of pipes are positioned, with giant wooden shutters that can be opened and closed by the organist’s foot, and this in turn creates volume changes, or swells. So the organ notes can be heard gently rising and falling in volume alongside the lush cinematic strings, charting dynamic contours that are well suited to our mysterious subject matter. On top of this diffuse texture, other twinkling organ notes, played by a mixture of flute pipes, attempt to break through the hazy, musical atmosphere. 

Nebulous harmony

There are also a relevant story behind the harmony I’ve chosen. For decades the CMB has proved a nebulous, illusive and challenging thing for scientists to detect and measure. With this in mind I used ‘augmented chords’, which in their own way, are also hard to pin down. They’re chords that sound rather unstable, and they’re unusual because they don’t have any obvious ‘centre’ or key. The deep, low bass notes of the organ and strings also belong to these chords, and they never seem to resolve, but tread steadily with great weight and mass under the opaque organ and strings texture.

The two ‘augmented chords’ upon which the whole piece is built. Strange and nebulous, they provide the perfect harmonic backdrop to the mysteries of the Cosmic Background.

Grace Davidson’s sublime and seemingly effortless vocals gently penetrate through this cloudy mass of organ and strings, together with the soaring first violins. It’s like the first light from the dawn of our Universe trying to break through the primeval dust. I’ve set the vocal line to my own form of ‘faux Latin’ that speaks of ‘cosmic light’, and by deliberately keeping the speed of the vocal notes slow and sustained, this ensures that the Lady Chapel’s astonishing acoustic comes to the fore, heightening the sense of immense distances of space and time.

A cosmic dance

Rhythmically the whole piece is underpinned by the feeling of a gentle waltz. I’ve written a series of undulating, dancing phrases in the middle strings and in some organ phrases. These little surges keep propelling the music forward in spite of the unusual harmonies and textures. Dance forms and rhythms have always been important to me as a composer. The idea of created order, another concept that lies at the heart of this music, is one that speaks to me of a cosmic dance, an infinite choreographed sequence of processes in which all matter, including us, take part. This is an idea that I take forward and develop through all the following pieces in the album.