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Whirlpool Galaxy

Composer Chris Warner walks us through the composing process behind Whirpool Galaxy, from his latest album Wonders of the Cosmos, recorded at Abbey Road and Ely Cathedral, featuring soprano Grace Davidson and organist Edmund Aldhouse

Track by Track : 02 Whirlpool Galaxy
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.

Image credit: NASA

Image credit: NASA

DISTANCE FROM HOME: 23 Million Light Years

Visually, geometrically and aesthetically alluring, this and other similar images of a real galaxy far, far away (some 23 million light years away in fact) never fails to amaze and entrance us. Grace and splendour, mass and momentum, vortex and maelstrom, it’s a galactic image bursting with cosmic energy.

Primordial Soup and Cosmic Plugholes

This beautiful image of the Whirlpool Galaxy - so called because of its giant spiral arms - is one of many with which the Hubble space telescope has delighted us over recent years. It takes some mental effort to get your head around the scale. You’re looking at something that is unimaginably massive at around 60,000 light years across and containing around 100 billion stars. Its spiral arms elegantly trace a cosmic trail sweeping across space and time, a trail that in one single rotation spans a length of time longer than it took for all species of humans to evolve. But then, coming back down to earth, take another moment to think where you might have seen a structure like this in everyday life. It’s the pattern of water disappearing down a plughole, and twists of cream stirred into soup, and the dramatic cloud born vortices of a tornado. As I gaze at the Whirlpool Galaxy I’m full of wonder for how it is that the exact same patterns and structures appear repeatedly at tiny, Earthly and cosmic scales. Ours is a Universe ordered by elegant, mathematical and organic processes. Like the Cosmic Background of the previous piece, it’s yet another mystery that precedes our existence.

 

A nice short clip from the BBC’s Youtube channel focussing on the ‘Whirlpool Galaxy’, from ‘The Sky At Night’.

 

Canes Venatici

As a composer, my response to this endlessly seductive image has been to create a musical portrait that captures something of the movement, the momentum, the mass, and those magnificent spiral arms. The piece starts with short, repeated, swirling melodic ‘cells’ that are first heard as distant sparkles in the organ.

The musical beat is deliberately ambiguous. In the same way that, when you look at it, the Whirlpool Galaxy has no start or end point in its rotation, I think I was trying to create a sense of music that has itself been spinning long before it started. These swirling organ patterns gradually get passed to and moved around the string orchestra, starting at different times and in different places. This creates an overlapping, phasing effect, a bit like the galactic spiral arms as they cascade behind each other. Grace Davidson’s swooping vocal line is a setting of the words ‘Canes Venatici’, the constellation in which the Whirlpool Galaxy can be observed from earth bound telescopes. Interestingly, the melody that Grace sings is a slowed down version of the swirling organ and string melodies. Throughout all of the pieces in this album, which is itself a journey through the cosmos, I consciously manipulate and re-use musical themes, both within and between pieces, so that all the material relates to each other, simply and elegantly. This is a simple but effective way of alluding to the aforementioned phenomenon of naturally occurring patterns appearing at different scales throughout the Universe.

Much of the musical material in ‘Wonders of the Cosmos’ is inter-connected in a simple but elegant way.

Music of the Spheres

Most of the pieces in this album portray features of the cosmos that are massive beyond our comprehension. The astonishing tone and power of a cathedral organ can both amaze and move us, and through its sheer mass of sound it can help our imaginations catch a glimpse of these astronomically huge scales. This effect is made all the more visceral with the addition of a huge cathedral acoustic, and the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral, with its reverberation of over 6 seconds, is remarkable.

The microphones are set up ready to record in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral

The microphones are set up ready to record in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral

When you’re composing a piece that is inspired by a picture of a galaxy with the mass of 160 billion suns, you’re going to pull out all the stops, and in the final bars you can hear the Ely Cathedral organ giving us everything she’s got.