The English musician Mike Oldfield spent three weeks in a tent outside his Bedfordshire mansion a few months ago as a protest against "machine" music — the product of recording studios where human intervention seems minimal or non-existent.
It was no accident that Mr Oldfield's action coincided with the British release of his new album, 'Amarok' ("fortunate" in Gaelic). But he has a point and sticks to his guns on the album, a 60-minute Instrumental epic featuring "real" instruments, voices and sound effects, with his wry, often child-like melodies repeated and developed on an orchestral scale through multiple overdubbing.
"What worries me now is that young people coming into the world of music from the age of 10 are going to start off making music with computers," he says. "They're never going to learn how to play a real instrument. Over the next couple of decades there's going to be a lack of musicianship."
His fears were underlined in the United States last week with the admission that Grammy-winning "vocal" duo Milli Vanilli did not sing at all on tne multi-million-selling 1988 album 'Girl You Know It's True', winner of the 1989 Grammy award for best new artist. It is the ultimate absurdity, along with pop bands who don't actually play their instruments.
This is just another aspect of the factory production approach to pop music, perfected in Britain by the Stock-Aitken-Waterman team, which Mike Oldfield abhors. "It's all programmed — much cheaper than having to pay real musicians," he declares. "A few people are making an awful lot of money out of conning the public and that's immoral."
But, by its very nature. I suggest, isn't a large part of pop music a cheap, disposable commodity? "I disagree," Mr Oldfield says. "I want music that lasts and is a positive influence on people's lives, rather than something you listen to for 10 minutes and throw away. Some classic pop songs from groups such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones will be listened to for centuries. There is a life, a spirit to this music that transcends time."
The problem is that disposable music has taken over. "Things will only get worse unless people like me stand up and protest. The fact is there are no musicians on most pop music albums. They exist only on the original sample recordings of, say, snare-drum or bass guitar, which could have happened five years ago. Presumably players were paid fees for the sampling session but it's the only trace of real humanity on the record."
This was driven home a few years ago while he was completing an album of computerised music. "I was programming a track and accidentally left the music computer in the playing mode while I went on three weeks' holiday. When I came back it was still sitting there bouncing around, making music. I wondered how it would have felt if I'd had to sit there for the whole three weeks listening to it... like Chinese torture probably."
In future, taking a cue from Phil Collins — who included the message, "there is no Fairlight (music computer) on this album" — Mike Oldfield will use a printed symbol next to any track on which a computer has been used. "That way people won't be conned; they can make their own choice," he says.
His complex recordings are begun by "laying down a spontaneous skeleton of the whole thing on one instrument. Then I go back and fill in all the detail afterwards. Spontaneity is a much more satisfying way of working, it's a sort of compositional improvisation — I don't sit down with a big score and pen writing it out."
At 37, how does he cope with the musical tastes of his five children? "I'm doing my best. They're subjected to the same sort of influences as other kids. I encourage them to play instruments but I won't force them. I hope by gentle persuasion to show them. For instance I sit down with my daughter by the piano and play to her."
'Amarok', a continuous 60-minute instrumental collage, is also being marketed in a double CD pack with 'Tubular Bells', Oldfield's 1973 solo debut LP which sold 10 million copies and put Richard Branson's Virgin label on the music map.
'Tubular Bells', a mix of folk, rock and classical themes, marked a breakthrough for instrumental recordings. Oldfield's follow-ups included the Celtic and African-influenced 'Ommadawn' in 1975.
'Tubular Bells' extracts were heard on the soundtrack of 'The Exorcist'. Oldfield himself scored Roland Joffe's 'The Killing Fields' in 1984. His hit singles include 'Moonlight Shadow' (sung by Maggie Reilly) and 'Family Man', with instrumental versions of 'In Dulci Jubilo' and the 'Portsmouth' hornpipe, he also recorded 'Tubular Bells' in 1975 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and he has toured extensively (visiting Australia in 1982).
'Amarok's unbroken hour of music on CD is a daunting prospect; even Mahler and Bruckner divided their epic symphonies into several movements. And Oldfield extends the challenge on his cover notes by instructing "cloth-eared nincompoops" to stay away.
This, he insists, is not a display of artistic paranoia. "By now people should know what to expect from my instrumental music and if they are going to approach listening to it with a negative attitude, then don't bother."
A new album, a mixture of songs and instrumentala, is nearing completion in his large home studio with the producer and engineer Tom Newman. Then in January he starts 'Tubular Bells II' — "a sequel in the same way 'Amarok' was a sequel to 'Ommadawn'".
His first love is ethnic music. "Some idiot accused me of jumping on the World Music bandwagon," he says angrily, "but I've been doing this for 15 years. I love the sound of untrained voices — primitive African voices — when people are making music simply for the joy of it.
"It also applies to folk music, especially Irish music, and I adore Aboriginal music. In its own way 'Amarok' is a similar kind of musical celebration — of me doing what comes naturally."
He has been practising on a couple of didgeridoos acquired on his last Australian tour but has not yet mastered circular breathing. Perhaps he will by 1992, when he plans to perform here again during a world tour following the release of 'Tubular Bells II'.
"By the way, I'm a very good boomerang thrower," he adds. "I've got 40 or 50 of them."
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net