Read the full interview with Audio Network about the making of ‘Wonders of the Cosmos’
Released in January 2019, ‘Wonders of the Cosmos’ is my newest, and most exciting album with Audio Network to date. Audio Network interviewed me about the writing and producing process behind the whole project for their Inspiration blog. You can read the whole transcript here!
What were your initial thoughts before starting the production on Wonders of the Cosmos?
There were some important concepts that I needed to get in place before I could get down to the writing process. I knew my forces were going to be big: an immense cathedral organ, a large string orchestra, solo soprano, cinematic percussion and sound design. A unique and thrilling aspect of this project was that the organ and soprano were to be recorded on location at Ely Cathedral. The musical landscape for this album was to be drawn over a huge, expansive canvas. For a start, technically speaking, with a reverberation time in the region of 6 seconds, and an organ whose pipework is dispersed over multiple locations, it was always going to be a challenge making these recordings. My musical challenge was to achieve clarity through the writing and orchestrating whilst retaining plenty of drama, atmosphere and impact. The decisions I made at this stage in the production process informed the eventual sonic landscape of the album. Long, soaring phrases, clear and deep pedal notes, widely scored textures, carefully placed impacts with plenty of space to breathe and decay, these elements went together to form my main compositional palette. Once I’d established key these concepts, it really was time to start getting excited!
You’ve also recorded at Ely Cathedral. What was the experience like for you?
With Ely as my local town, I’m a regular visitor to its cathedral, and I don’t think I’m being overly biased in saying that it’s one of the Country’s finest. Having the opportunity to record here, to work with an organist of the calibre of Edmund Aldhouse, and internationally renowned soprano Grace Davidson, and to hear my music reverberate around this magnificent building, was a profound and humbling experience.
Musically speaking, it also felt like coming home. In my youth I spent six very happy years singing as a Choral Scholar and then a Lay Clerk at Guildford Cathedral. These years spanned my passage from student to professional musician and were so formative to my understanding and development as a performer and composer that much of who I am as a musician I owe to the abundant musical experiences of that time. It’s been many years since I last sang professionally in a cathedral choir, but the experience has left me with a close affinity to and love of the choral music tradition, and the ancient buildings in which this inestimable tradition has evolved over the centuries. Very rarely do you get a chance as a composer to work in a space that becomes an integral part of the music itself. Ely Cathedral’s phenomenal acoustic and its mighty Harrison & Harrison organ constitute the essential fabric of this album.
We were lucky to have the expertise of the Abbey Road mobile unit, under the direction of engineer Lewis Jones and assistant Matt Jones. Bringing with them a truckload of mics, over 200 metres of cabling, and a 50 foot radio mast, this made the job of capturing Edmund’s organ performance, Grace’s heavenly vocals and the massive cathedral acoustic much easier. But we could only put in place most of the cabling and start recording after Evensong, once the Cathedral had closed to the public. So it was all hands to the pumps, or cables, once the bell had chimed 7:00pm.
Most of the pieces that I’ve composed portray features of the Cosmos that are so massive they are almost 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 experience of recording Grace Davidson, one of the World’s finest sopranos, in this extraordinary and evocative space was one that I won’t forget for years to come.
Can you pick a track from Wonders of the Cosmos that was most difficult for you to put together and tell us the story behind it?
Interstellar Wind was a particularly challenging piece to write and produce. I had decided to use as inspiration an amazing, and eerie sound recorded by the probe Voyager 1 as it left our Solar System.
I have an organic composing process, whereby I like the music to grow from small seeds, teasing out delicate shoots of new ideas until the whole piece, its structure, tempo, harmonic and melodic content begins to take on an identifiable form, but is always related back to a common origin. Despite my determination to use this strange and alien ‘chirrup’ sound, it proved thoroughly stubborn when the time came for it to germinate! I even tried synthesising my own version of the sound.
When the ideas eventually started to propagate, it took me a long time to carefully construct the musical layers in such a way that the piece held together as a coherent whole. The end result is worth it though, and I think you can definitely hear the sonic fingerprint of this other-worldly sound permeating the track, which is especially spine tingling when you consider it was recorded 9.3 billion miles away from Earth. Actually, the post-production process for this track was not without its trials either. As I’ve described above, Abbey Road engineers Lewis and Matt erected a giant 50-foot radio mast under the Cathedral tower and near the organ, on which were mounted four microphones. At some point during the recording process something caused one of the mics to fall out of its clip. Our best guess is that a bat disturbed it – we saw many bats on the wing throughout these late-night sessions. This also had the effect of causing some unwanted noise on the mic channel, so I spent some considerable time cleaning up the audio. I guess Interstellar Wind is one of those pieces that reminds me we can’t always expect the writing process to be exciting, or glamorous. It can often be a testing experience, requiring considerable patience and perseverance.
What do you want people to take away from Wonders of the Cosmos? What was your main goal when putting together the album?
I think my main goal has always been to take us, the listeners, on an epic journey from the relative familiarity of our nearest celestial neighbors to the almost near obscurity of the outer edge of the observable Universe. I’ve tried to share some personal, musical responses to a series of incredible, thought provoking images and features of the Cosmos.
So much of our understanding of the Universe, how it works, and how it might have evolved, is the result of a complex web of scientific data generated from images, observations, measurements, maths and empirical research in the fields of physics and chemistry. I’m not attempting to contribute to our scientific understanding of the Universe, instead I hope to put forward an honest, artistic response to its endless mysteries. I chose images and features of the Cosmos that are personal to me, and in putting together this album I hope to inspire others to go out and discover their own special places. My own discoveries over the years include a beautiful spiral galaxy, the inspiration behind the second track, ‘Whirlpool Galaxy’, a star cluster called Omega Centauri, the subject of track 3, ‘Starcluster’, and the awesome ‘Pillars Of Creation’, one of the most famous of all deep space images taken by the Hubble telescope, and my inspiration for the track ‘Celestial Citadel’. It’s never been easier to get involved in star gazing and astronomy, and I’d love to think that the music on this album might enthuse others to engage with the beauty, awe and wonder of Space, either through the simple pleasure of listening or the medium of film and documentary making.
As a storyteller – what was the most important story that you wanted to tell through Wonders of Cosmos?
The story that emerged for me as I was composing the album was one concerning the inter-connectedness of things. In my track by track analyses, in which I go into some detail about the writing process behind each piece, I talk about my fascination for the patterns and processes that can be observed happening at both tiny scales, and on huge cosmic scales. For example, the laws of physics that seem to govern the form, spin and momentum of the beautiful ‘Whirlpool Galaxy’ are the same laws that cause a similar vortex to take shape as water disappears down a plughole. The luminous, pointillistic canvas of the Earth, as it appears lit up by towns and cities and viewed from space, resembles in its organic structure a cluster of stars several million light years across. When simulated by super computers, the filamentary structure of dark matter that scientists believe has given form to the Universe, looks remarkably similar to the neural networks found in our own brains. For me, the story of the Universe is the story of ourselves. On a human level, we know that when we forget our own inter-connectedness and chose to overlook the unspoken laws that regulate and govern these relationships, parts of our lives and our World become unstable. When I contemplate the images and ideas that have inspired this album, I have the strangely reassuring thought that we can learn a lot about ourselves by observing phenomena that are millions of light years away. By remembering that we are all part of the same finely tuned Universe, maybe we can learn to work better with Nature, and our own natures, rather than against them. That is a story that I think is worth telling, and music is one of the best storytellers.