Name: Chris Warner
Occupation: Composer, Sound Designer, Orchestrator
Current Release: Wonders of the Cosmos from Audio Network
Recommendation: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy – a beautiful book about friendship and life that everyone should read.
Website/Contact: To read more about Chris and his work, visit www.chriswarnermusic.com
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I always wanted to play the piano before I could speak, so my parents tell me. I was not allowed lessons until I was about eight years old. The fear was that I would lose interest as soon as I started having formal lessons. In the meantime, I used to make up my own pieces, long before I knew what any of the notes were. I was also obsessed with the family hi-fi and spent hours playing all my parents 33 and 45 rpms (an eclectic mix of things like Danny Kaye, The Beatles, Boney M, Vangelis and Wagner). This was always a magical experience for me. I remember my Dad taking great pains to explain the science behind physically storing music in microscopic grooves. To me, it was just magic. So, in the family living room, both my twin, mutually compatible joys of music and technology were nurtured. Today, I'm still driven to discover how things work, but these days I'm not so quick to dismantle things, not like I used to as a 6-year-old, much to my parent's fury.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I have always been drawn to music that has an element of storytelling, be it through song or an imagined narrative. I obsessively listened to musicals and film scores, plus instrumental music that had a strong programmatic element. As I started to learn the piano, I was drawn to those pieces which had loads of inherent drama. Especially with works like Fantasies, Ravel's Ma Mer L'oye, the stormy, dramatic passion of Beethoven's sonatas, and the sonata form in general. I think this naturally led to my fascination with the theatre and saw me get involved with stage productions from an early age. Soon I was writing music for plays using whatever I had to hand. Using bits and pieces of late 90s technology, I learned about electronic music production by being 'hands-on', combining this with a growing interest in traditional music creation and notation. In the late 90s, there weren't so many courses and online resources covering all the aspects of music production, so I would teach myself, listening over and over to recordings, trying to work out how the music was orchestrated, structured, recorded and mixed. Early attempts at writing for plays and student films were definitely all about copying things I had heard and seen. Emulating your heroes is no bad thing when you are a novice. As I became more confident about the technical challenges of writing, I learned to trust more in the story, this was when I started looking for my own voice as a composer, mostly through experimentation. As babies, we learn to do things by a mixture of play and copying, but as a grown-up, I am a great believer in 'play' as a way to discover new ideas and to continually nurture your inner creative voice.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
I always feel incredibly grateful that somehow, I manage to earn a living doing what I love, writing music. It is easy to forget some of the challenges I've encountered, and continue to meet, along the way. For many artists, myself included, I think the greatest moments of challenge arise when you find yourself questioning your own abilities, and when you realise your confidence is in short supply. This has happened to me many times over my career, and I am gradually learning to live with and understand these moments.
Tell us about your studio/workspace, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I live in a rural village in the Cambridgeshire Fens, which ticks all the boxes in terms of being an ideal location for fostering my own creativity and encouraging general wellbeing. We have built our studio spaces in outbuildings (my wife is a composer too). Our original criteria were to simply have enough space and separation from other people to be able to make lots of noise. I do also like everything to be 'good to go', with my battery of instruments readily at hand – piano, percussion, guitars, outboard, mics – so that when an idea strikes, I can be hitting record with minimum rigging or patching. Living in the countryside as we do, studio mood and ambience is less important than if we were in a city-based studio. Most of my creative thinking, sketching and problem-solving occurs when I am out of the studio. I try to have musical seedlings sprouting in my mind before I sit down in front of an array of screens or keyboards.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Given that there does not seem to be any pattern to a typical working week, my schedule has evolved to be pretty fluid. I might be in and out of rehearsals for one or several theatre productions, working out of other studios either on collaborative projects or on sessions, and there are always meet-ups and coffees that need to be had with current and potential collaborators. This variety is generally welcomed, for I would find a fixed schedule or work pattern restrictive and claustrophobic. The best, most productive creative hours, are definitely the first few of the day. Everything gets that much harder once the little hand passes twelve. Maybe it is just because all the other noises and distractions of the day have usually taken hold by then. Exercise is also crucial. Trying to get the ideas out of yourself, moulded, crafted, refined, and so on, leads to a build-up of tension and anxiety. Burning all this energy off with a bike ride through the fen droves is really important.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Creativity is all about engaging with the world, and even the Universe, as is the case in my new album 'Wonders of the Cosmos', embracing the people, places and things in it, and the stories that you find. That is why I love writing for theatre, film, and the media. I find other people's imagination and creativity a continual source of support and inspiration, through books, novels, films, talks and personal reflections. You can find truths in the things that we create that seem to occur over and over again. I find keeping my ears and mind open to the stories of others is the best state of mind to inhabit. I am not a great trend follower, culturally, although I can see this can be a tremendous springboard to creativity.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
'Wonders of the Cosmos' definitely holds a special place for me amongst my works. I'm a keen amateur astronomer, and the night sky is a continual source of inspiration, as are the jaw-dropping images that are sent back to us on Earth from space telescopes such as Hubble. This album took as its starting point some of these celebrated images and features of the Cosmos. As I started writing, I became especially interested in the connectedness of things and how the laws, patterns and processes that seem to govern the Universe can be observed on tiny scales, and on huge cosmic scales, 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. The process of developing and then refining the musical material for this album was all about digging deep into these concepts and looking for ways in which they could be reflected in the musical structures I was creating. It helped that I had the luxury of recording the magnificent organ of Ely Cathedral, and of capturing the acoustic of that fine building. Plus, the sublime vocals of soprano Grace Davidson, recorded in pure reverberant acoustic of the cathedral's Lady Chapel helped to frame my musical ideas within a vast quasi-cosmic space. This was the perfect setting for an album that attempts to portray the wonder and mystery of the Cosmos. It also proved that a finished piece of art is so much more than the sum of its parts.