Woodland Woodwind & Wondrous Winds

Composer Chris Warner talks about the inspiration and writing process behind two of his successful woodwind albums, published by Audio Network.

Composer and orchestrator Chris Warner couples his passion for storytelling with his knowledge of music - bringing you a collection of spritely and whimsical orchestral themes.
— Audio Network press release

Woodland Woodwind is the second album of original Woodwind music I’ve written in collaboration with leading production music publishers Audio Network. Following on from the successful first album Wondrous Winds scored for Wind Octet and Percussion, Woodland Woodwind uses several different scorings: Wind Septet (2xFlute, 2xClarinet, Oboe, 2xBassoon) and Wind Quintet (Flute, Oboe, 2xClarinet, Bass Clarinet).

A lively collection of woodwind themes with the occasional mischievous moments. A combination of clever arranging, light percussion and playful melodies make this seemingly innocent album full of feel-good surprises
— Audio Network Press Release for 'Wondrous Winds'

Wondrous Winds

I thought I’d also take this opportunity to tell the tale of how the first album, Wondrous Winds came about. Prior to this project, having composed and arranged extensively for orchestral and chamber strings, I had for some time been keen to explore the art of arranging for woodwind. It was whilst recording the strings at Abbey Road for my previous Audio Network album Twisted Tonality, I dropped in on a late evening wind session. The wind players of the English Session Orchestra blew me away (pun intended), not only with their astonishing reading skills (I seem to remember the parts were more black than white) but also with the range of drama, tone and versatility they commanded from their instruments. In the world of TV and Film music, the ubiquitous sound of session strings, especially in their spicc, pizz. and staccato articulations, can sometimes seem to rule supreme, so I felt the time was right to mount a counter attack with columns of vibrating air. Thus the Wondrous Winds album concept was born.

After a period of exploring various scoring and orchestration techniques for winds, I started sketching out 7 tracks. Of course, I also had to maximise the television, film and advertising ‘usage’ potential of each one, and the album as a whole.

Broadly speaking the pieces that make up Wondrous Winds have been influenced by a mix of American composers and idioms. There is a fleeting nod to composers such as Copland and Adams in tracks such as Riding Out West and No Frets and there’s a cheeky ragtime pastiche in Lightly Soiled Rag.

English Session Orchestra commander-in chief and Oboe Maestro Dom Kelly with sidekick Katie Bennington clutching their ‘Lightly Soiled Rag’….

English Session Orchestra commander-in chief and Oboe Maestro Dom Kelly with sidekick Katie Bennington clutching their ‘Lightly Soiled Rag’….

The ragtime theme of Lightly Soiled Rag travels through the woodwind texture like a contagious musical chuckle

In Lightly Soiled Rag I had fun playing around with a musical device called a ‘hocket’ where a melody is shared, or heard to jump about, between different instruments or voices. It was a technique used in medieval music, and here I use it for comic effect and also to create lots of textural interest. It sounds a bit like a contagious musical chuckle travelling from one instrument to another.

No Frets

No Frets sees my fascination with irregular metres and phrases combined with a playful use of counterpoint and imitation. You can have great fun with woodwind ensemble textures, and the clear, precise manner in which imitative effects speak reminds me of writing for voices. Rhythmically this track is underpinned by a laid back, blues influenced vibe with a repeating pattern of alternating time signatures in the form: 2/4 (x4bars) - 3/4 - 3/8 (x2bars).

The No Frets main theme as it appears in the upper wind parts

This was the best way to notate it, but in reality it grooves along happily, for the most part in 2:

Polyrhythmic Ninja

In Time Standing Still I’ve emulated a compositional technique employed by Henry Purcell in his Fantasia Upon One Note (1680). In this sublime piece of English baroque music you hear the same note (C) being played throughout the entire duration of the piece. My 21st Century remake has the note F being passed around the ensemble so that it’s always being played by one of the 8 players. Whilst in Purcell’s Fantasia it’s the same instrument (often the poor viola player in modern performances) who has to endure 2’:33” of middle C. I also used this piece to demonstrate the wonderful textures and sonic qualities you can create with wind instruments playing over long, sustained phrases:

You can hear some beautifully controlled, shaped and shaded dynamic curves at the start of this track. It takes immense skills and training to achieve this quality of tone.

The opening of Time Standing Still - a slow motion ‘relay race’ as the pitch F is handed from player to player

As I mentioned above, it was upon hearing playing of this calibre from the wind players of the English Session Orchestra that inspired me to write the album in the first place. Despite the initial inspiration for Time Standing Still being a piece composed over 400 years ago by the British composer Purcell, the American influence soon makes itself heard. As the track develops the illusion of quickening time is created through a process of ‘diminution’ (halving the note lengths), and the metre subtly changes from a regular 4 in a bar to 7 in a bar as the piece becomes increasingly more minimalist. The effect is a bit like time breaking down, whilst all the time the note F remains ever present.

No expense was spared in sourcing percussion instruments for this Album!

No expense was spared in sourcing percussion instruments for this Album!

These rhythmic intricacies sound effortless in the hands of these great players. They also earned me the nickname ‘Polyrhythmic Ninja’ which I guess is an indication of the concentration required to execute them in performance! Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the ticking effect in Time Standing Still comes from a recording of an original children’s Iron Man alarm clock, provided by one of the album’s two percussionists Matt Whittington, with whom I also had the pleasure of working on another previous Audio Network album Twisted Tonality.

Wind In My Sails

Wind instruments have long been associated with nautical themes and scenes. It’s a fact that pipes and whistles were not only used for communication and issuing orders on board sailing vessels - and we all know that piccolos have no problem in making themselves be heard - they were also much easier to carry, transport and maintain than stringed instruments, for example. From shanties to hornpipes, there is a long tradition of composers using these forces to paint musical pictures of open seas. Works such as Malcolm Arnold’s Three Shanties for wind quintet are staples of the wind music repertoire, and in one of the more bizarre annual UK traditions, thousands of people can be seen bobbing up and down to the Hornpipe from Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs at The Last Night of the Proms.

In A Stern Hornpipe I’ve broken a few rules as hornpipes should really be in 4 time, but this one just seemed to work really well in 3. This particular hornpipe is pretty heavy and, well, stern (ahem) but according to my sources there are both fast and slow forms of this traditional nautical dance. Which one gets played depends on how good the dancing is, apparently.

Although not based on any particular dance form, Wind In My Sails is all about movement. It’s a playful and graceful piece in which I’ve used light articulation and expansive textures to evoke feelings of space, exhilaration and adventure. As in Time Standing Still there are some more beautifully sustained passages, particularly in the middle section. Again, I’ve been slightly mischievous with the metre, alternating 5/8 and 3/4 time signatures throughout. It’s a trick that really helps to sustain momentum, plus it creates a distinct air of precariousness, as well you might experience at sea and under sail!

Rounding off the Wondrous Winds album is a little piece of whimsical vaudeville. Stylistically, it’s probably best described as a fusion of various European folk dances and English music hall idioms. As for the title, well there are two types of ‘Whirligig’, one is a toy spinning top, the other is a species of water beetle that enjoys twirling about on the surface of ponds and lakes.

The Wondrous Woodwind department of the English Session Orchestra in Abbey Road Studio 3, with (back row) Andrew Sunnucks (Audio Network founder) and Julian Gallant (conductor)

Dream Team

Haydn Bendall, chief engineer at Abbey Road Studios for ten years and awarded the Audio Pro Industry Excellence Award for Best Studio Engineer in 2009

Haydn Bendall, chief engineer at Abbey Road Studios for ten years and awarded the Audio Pro Industry Excellence Award for Best Studio Engineer in 2009

I was very grateful to have the unflappable Julian Gallant on board to conduct the session. Although only an octet, some of the writing was such that having an extra pair of ears and a baton in the room was no bad thing. All the tracks were recorded in studio 3 at Abbey Road and after completed all the edits I was delighted to be able to hand over the tracks to industry legend Haydn Bendall for mixing. Workgin from his studio at Strongroom Haydn crafted a beautiful sounding mix, entirely appropriate for the sonic character and musical style of the album. It was a joy working with him as we talked and listened through the various stages of mixing, not to mention educational.

Far from getting woodwind out of my system, both these albums have left me with an enduring love of this endlessly versatile and idiomatic family of instruments, not to mention huge respect for their devoted players. I very much hope that fate presents me with fresh opportunities to compose for wind ensembles in the years ahead.

Wondrous Winds and Woodland Woodwind are both published by Audio Network and available to purchase via the Audio Network website.