Classic FM Tubular Bells III Interview

September 27, 1998
David Mellor
Across the Threshold, Classic FM (UK)

My guest on 'Across the Threshold' this afternoon is Mike Oldfield, the man who brought you this:

[finale of TBI with Viv Stanshall]

Tubular Bells! But he also likes this...

[Piano Concerto in G by Ravel]

Ravel. And now, he's bringing you this...

[Top of the Morning]

Tubular Bells 3.... But will he like this...

[Vocalise Opus 34 No. 14 Rachmaninov]

Some Rachmaninov. All this and more in the next two hours on Classic FM.

[Opening of Tubular Bells 1]

Well, Mike, welcome. Yours is an incredible story. There you are, a teenager, playing around with fairly primitive equipment, a tape recorder, you're recording all sorts of different sounds, you spend a year hawking the tape around record companies who treat you with complete indifference, a young man by the name of Branson is launching his own record label, takes up your disc, you re-record it over a period of months, it's released and sells 17 million copies, and you're not yet 20. It is an amazing story, isn't it?

In retrospect it is, yes. I suppose at the time all I had was a tremendous love and ability to make music and I just carried on regardless, and I believed in myself and I was lucky to bump into the fledgeling Virgin Records, and that's what made it all possible.

17 million! I mean, doesn't that stagger you?

Yes and no. On the one hand, I realised that this was something special, what I was composing, recording, and I firmly believed that it was going to be successful. Perhaps what I wasn't prepared for was that it was going to be so successful. I thought that, perhaps, it would get into the top ten and sell a couple of hundred thousand. I didn't realise it was going to hit number one and stay there for fifteen months which is very close to an all time record. At the time I was only 22 when this was happening. To me it was like heading for the top of Tower Bridge and ending up on the moon, it was unbelieveable.

Mike, if we can fast forward a quarter of a century to now. You've just produced Tubular Bells III. Now, what is the difference between TB the original TB and this Tubular Bells III?

The major differences are that Tubular Bells 1 was made in 1973 when the synthesiser didn't exist, electric organs were the only keyboards and pianos, and there was no such thing as sampling and there was no such thing as computers which can automatically make every note perfect plus there's no drums on Tubular Bells 1 and also no vocals...

[Tubular Bells 1 fades to be replaced by The Watchful Eye]

With the new one, it uses all the modern technology that's available, and it also has a dance rhythm. I boiled down the recipe of techno music to four drum sounds and a bass synthesiser.

[Watchful eye fades into 'More Secrets']

It takes no time at all to program a computer to make this noise, and then I put a Tubular Bells type of piano riff on top, plus two syncopated versions either side, and lo and behold, when I played it to people, they started looking as though they were about to dance. I thought, well this isn't difficult, and with this I can bring the Tubular Bells series into the 90's.

Can I pick my favourite before we move on to cross the threshold into classical music, somewhere where I know you have some enthusiasm of your own. Can I play the Inner Child? Let's play that.

[Inner Child intro]

The Inner Child from MO's TBIII. And Mike's brought along three signed copies of his latest album, and if you'd like the chance to win one of these....

You just have to answer a simple question that I'm going to pose.... at the END of the programme (hehe). Mike, I enjoyed that because I'm a sucker for the use of the female voice against an instrumental background singing wordlessly, I mean using the voice as an instrument. I know you know your classical music, and, indeed we'll have one or two of your choices later on in the programme as well as me imposing mine on yours, but do you know Rachmaninov's Vocalise?


Can I play it to you?

Yes please!

Because, I tell you, that employs a very similar effect, a female voice against an orchestral backing, and it's a remarkably sensual sound isn't it? See whether you like this.

[Vocalise Opus 34 No.14 Rachmaninov]

It reaches some very central part of the brain and gives it a lovely aural massage. It's lovely.

Doesn't it?

Yes. Very relaxing.

I'm delighted if that's a new thing for you, that was [?] with the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leopold [?] as long ago as 1964, but you know [?] was an old wizard at getting the best sound out of an orchestra. I'm glad you liked that, that's been a favourite of mine, and as I listened to your piece I thought to myself, you know, this is coming out of a very similar stable, because the thought processes engendered by both of them are not dissimilar, so if that's a new discovery I'm delighted.

Yeah, well I think it's the sound. I don't know if it reminds us of our mothers singing to us when we were babies or something, but it just wouldn't work with a tenor voice, would it, it would, like, grate, and... this lovely soprano, especially one as perfect as that. For me, quite often, they have a little bit too much vibrato added, but that was just the right amount of vibrato it was perfect in every detail. Thank you for playing me that.

Excellent. Now, let's hope there'll be some more discoveries to come in just a moment.

[commercial break]

Mike, I'm emboldened by the success of the Vocalise to enquire whether you know another similar piece, although this a little more up tempo as it were, by another Russian composer, course that first piece was by Rachmaninov, this by the lesser known Rheinhold Gliere, who lived from 1875 to 1956, who wrote music rather not of his time looking back really quite sweet rather soft-centred music, but he wrote a Concerto for Coloratura and orchestra, again employing the wordless soprano voice over two movements. Have you ever come across that in your musical travels?

No. I haven't. No.

Do you mind if I play you the last movement of that then, the allegro, and see if that has a similar effect?

[Concerto for Coloratura Soprano in F Minor Op. 82. Gliere]

Well that's all the glass in the house gone! But that's the second and final movement of Rheinhold Gliere's Concerto for Coloratura Soprano and Orchestra sung by [?] [?] with the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stutgart, conducted by Kurt [?]. Is that up your alley or less so than the Rachmaninov.

To be honest, if you hadn't have played me that I wouldn't have listened, but then I wouldn't have heard the last note which is certainly glass-shattering. For me this type of female voice needs to have a spiritual dimension. Do you know the Pie Jesu in Faure's Requiem?


This is how I like it. I like to see it pure.

[Pie Jesu from Requiem Op. 48 Faure]

You're right, aren't you?


Isn't that wonderful?

So relaxing. Calming. Soothing. Yes.

It's sad you know. I was just thinking while I was listening to that recording, that was the soprano Lucia Pop?? with the Dresden State Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis, and she was a wonderfully bubbly singer with a great personality, you know a lot of musicians do not have the same personality off stage as they have on it. She did, and it was such a tragedy that while only in her 50s she died of a brain tumour not so many years ago, but a lovely voice, don't you think?

Beautiful, yes. I think that's the recording I listen to as well.

Well now, Faure is almost a pop-artist these days, what with that re-working of the Pavan, you know, that introduced the BBC world cup coverage.


Well I've got another piece of Faure for you after the break.

[commercial break]

Mike, erm, you had a fairly unhappy childhood because of your mother's illness so you became, perhaps, a somewhat introverted child. At what point did you really believe that the way it was intended that you should express your emotions, express yourself, and as it were, escape from your misery was through music, and at what point did you think 'I can do this?'

I suppose... You see, I started playing guitar from a really early age, like, 7, 8, 9. By the time I got to 11, 12, I was already a very good guitar player, and although I was introverted socially, I didn't have many friends, but if I went out with a group of friends and took my guitar with me I could play for them and impress them, and, you know, I became known for that, as the the minstrel in the social group. I didn't really used to talk, but I used to play the whole time, and it became my way of communicating.

And you're entirely self taught?

Yes. But you have to imagine the obsession I had with guitar playing. Every evening I would come home from school and practice.

[Serpent Dream]

I would, with the needle, putting the needle on hundreds of times onto little bits of music by people such as Bert Jansch
John Renbourn even Segovia and Julian Bream I would pick out what they played and keep lifting the needle up and working out how it was done. It was a complete obsession and every weeked from coming home Friday night, all day Saturday, all day Sunday, it was just guitar, guitar, guitar for two or three years. So although it's reaped benefits now and I have a wonderful career, I suppose in those days you could describe it as an unhealthy obsession with it. But because of that I've got the technique which I still use now and that I've had since I was 12 years old.

Mike, we played a little Faure, which was very relaxing. Maybe it's time, alas, because I could think of endless sopranos to play to you and I daresay you could think of a few pieces you'd like to play to me. It may be time to move on, but let's stay with Faure. Faure wrote a beautiful little Berceuse for violin and orchestra, and a splendid new recording that's just come out of it with the young violinist [?] [?] with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit a great winning combination on many a disc, and this is Faure's Berceuse. I don't know if it'll be a new one on you...

I've never heard of it.

Right well I enjoyed listening to it this summer. Let's see if I can infect you with the same feelings here...

[Berceuse Faure]

That was Faure's Berceuse. What did you think of that?

It was interesting because when you first put it on I was thinking 'what is this?' and then you showed me the sleeve and explained it was a lullaby and it suddenly made sense then, and I think in a similar way to the soprano or the female voice this kind of solo violin can have this soothing effect, but it's got to be played absolutely perfectly, and that was a very good violin player, but can you imagine that played by a not so good one. It would be really like sour lemons. To be honest, that would not be the music I would listen to. I like big landscapes of orchestral music, the bigger the better. I mean I always love the Sibelius' 5th Symphony last movement.

I'm glad you like that. It's funny isn't it, you see, I had no idea before we started this conversation what your musical tastes were, but you're pushing all the buttons that, you know, I personally would want to push. I've always loved that symphony. If I play you my favourite recording of it, and we'll see whether you like it or not.

All right.

[Symphony No.5 Sibelius]

What about that?

Supposed to be the hammer blows of Thor, apparently, at the end.

I can quite believe it.

Forging out the planet Earth.

What do you think?

Stirring stuff.

Did you like that performance?

Errrrm. I thought, you know, it was very good, but it didn't have the intensity of my favourite recording, the [?] version, but it was a very good one. I noticed that there was a little bit of untidiness in the percussion, the timpani, I heard a few cracks from the brass. There are moments like that. I know it myself from doing live concerts, you know, sometimes you'd do a fabulous rehearsal, and just wish the audience had been there. Come to the concert and although you played everything right it just didn't have that magic touch of...sparkle of a real true performance.

It's not mechanical, is it, it's not a mechanical process. It's something that just takes wing or it doesn't and it doesn't matter how carefully you've prepared it.

I think the best way of describing it is chemistry, you know, the conductor has to have the entire orchestra in the palm of his hand in order to be working and feeling together and they've got to be giving their all but not too much, of course, at the right point. I know in my own small way, I mean, I have twelve musicians in my band and you have to kind of guide them and play yourself. It's an art. It's why a conductor, if they're a good one, they are the most talented people in the world, really.

Absolutely, and worth their passage. I should say, by the way, that I grew up with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, that was a recording of the BSO under Parvo Berglund and for those who worry about the price of CDs, that's just been re-issued at three pounds ninety nine.

Oh well. That's cheap at half the price.

Yes. And Mike will be back after the news for a little few more mutual discoveries, I hope.

[commercial break]

Mike, let's start the second half of the programme by going back to bells. If one's into bells, one could have gone into the 1812 Overture, but I'm going to prefer to go into the end of 'Pictures at an Exhibition', the orchestration by Ravel of Mussorgsky's piece, and the piano piece originally 'The Great Gate of Kiev' which, I think, has some of the effects that you were aiming for. Let's see.

[Pictures at an Exhibition Mussorgsky arr Ravel]

Outrageous isn't it? I love it. It's the music that makes you feel much bigger than you are. You know, invincible...invulnerable..... "Yes you can" "I will" You know... I love heroic music....inspiring stuff.

There's no doubt about it very cleverly done, that was Fritz Reinhold with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I find myself looking back to the old performers and although that was 40 years old, he knew what he was doing...

This was a 40 year old recording?

40 year old recording. 1957.

Well there you go!

Yeah, but I haven't really asked you this fairly basic question, we've been so busy talking about other things: how much does classical music mean to you? And how much of an inspiration is it to you in your work.

Well, in my formative years it was everything to me, but I had a strange mixture of music from very hard rock like Led Zeppelin to Bob Dylan, the Beatles, folk music, Irish music... Classical music always seemed to me to have that integrity and depth of emotion and spirituality that I just didn't ever hear anywhere else, and that's not all classical music, there's a certain small percentage of it which I could relax to and feel, you know, everything is all right with the world, and at one with myself and at one with the universe, God, whatever you want to call it. I could only get that from classical music. And I was also able to focus like a microscope on it, see exactly how it was built up.

[Jewel in the Crown]

I tried to do that a lot in Tubular Bells in my own crude way, which is the way I view my music as, you know, a crude personal version of classical music. I'm basically a guitar player, and I try and make these synchronous things, you know, I even have a melody playing at an ?incredible? speed that only a dog or a bat could hear it, but it's the same melody you know and perhaps there are a few people who subliminally can hear that. And maybe that's why my music has lasted so well and for such a long time, because there are so many different ways and levels of deepness of understanding of it.

OK, now look, we've had a bit of noise and a bit of thrust, I want to play something quiet and French, and then I'm going to give you a chance after we've had a break to pick a piece of your favourite music. But let's just wind down a little with a delicious, I think, performance of the 'Dance of the Sylphes' by Berlioz by my own favourite conductor, Berthold Stokovsky?? Let's see whether you're into this...

[Dance of the Sylphes Berlioz]

Leopold Stokowski conducting the London Sympony Orchestra at the grand old age of 88 when that record was made. But I have to say, you see, that's interesting, you know, playing that. You notice that the harp came out at you.

Yes it did.

It sounded at almost the same volume as the strings. Now, some purists don't like that. This was a system that Decca employed in the late 60s, early 70s, called 'Phase 4' which was 32 channels, and where they miked up the orchestra so that if they needed to bring forward a solo instrument they could, and Stokowski, although he was well on in his 80s, he'd started doing stereo recordings 20 odd years before they were commercially available, he was experimenting with it, and he at the age of 88 thought that music should go in that direction and that the musical experience of a record should not necessarily be the same as in a concert hall, which is not too far different from what you're doing, is it?

I suppose so, yes, but, I know what your saying, but on the other hand an orchestra is designed to perform in a concert hall, to be listened to by two ears- everybody with their own two ears. I think, perhaps, the reason why we do prefer the old recordings is because they were very simple and they had to rely on the internal dynamics of the orchestra to make the thing happen. Now, perhaps, they've got a bit lazy, you know, we can record it on 48 tracks. OK, the harp is a bit quiet, we can bring that out. It's different from telling the orchestra to quieten down and leave space for the harp, you know, it all to be done with much more artistry and technique and direction, and so perhaps a bit of laziness crept in whereby now we can just leave it to the engineer or producer to fix it.

...And he'll sort it out. Yeah, no I think fair point. The Dance of the Sylphes? Something you could play again?

I wouldn't listen to that, although I liked it a lot. For me, it was like a memory or a dream, remembering something in the past from your childhood or some nice memory and it was quite elegant and had images of candlelit ballrooms to me, and I quite liked that. But as I said to you before, for me, I love classical music with these beautiful landscapes, outdoors.

Absolutely. Well look, after the break it's going to be your pick as we used to say at school, your pick this time...

[commercial break]

Mike, I've imposed several of my choices on you, so, you know, you know your way around the classical repertory, what turns you on at the moment? What would you like to listen to that arises out of what we're saying or takes us on a new track?

To be able to make something so quiet, and so beautiful and so delicate like an enormous spider's cobweb or a composition of wonderful lace, that takes some skill. I would choose the slow movement from Ravel's Piano Concerto.

Right. I'm glad you said that, because that's always been a favourite of mine too and amidst the thousands of recordings that have been made a few stand out. You realise that there is something a little bit special, something just happened on that day, and again this is one from 40 years ago with the Italian pianist Arturo Bernedetti Michelangeli? who died actually just last year. Wonderful player, elusive player, not one who, I was discussing him with Joanna Lumley on an earlier programme, not one who would always appear when he said he was going to, didn't like giving concerts, would cancel on the remotest pretext, but when he was ready for it, when he was up for it, when you could finally persuade him to do it, he was brilliant, and I've never heard this concerto better played...

[Piano Concerto in G Ravel]

It seems a shame to talk after that. For me, that's just so subtle. Our lives at this time are so fast, as subtle as an air raid, for God's sake. We just never have the time to sit and watch the subtle colours changing on the water or the way the different shades of green in your garden change in the light, and for me this reminds me of that, which perhaps I used to do a long, long time ago, but life has become too hectic and busy now to notice these tiny things and love the way it changes very subtley, it doesn't suddenly go somewhere else, it's a lovely static thing.

It's fascinating to hear you talk like that, because, you know, when I start these programmes one never has any idea whether there would be a meeting of minds, and I have to say that I've agreed with almost everything you've said about music and I particularly agree with that. I mean, we have lost something in the buzz and hurly-burly of the modern world. You know, in the first programme of this series Vinny Jones talked in the context of Mahlar's...Adagietto from Mahlar's 5th about just sitting in a room and chilling out. That's what you do to this to chill out, you know, you just want to sit in your garden, sit in someone else's garden if you haven't got a garden, but just let this music sort of just run through you.

Exactly, yes. I mean, we've become so impatient. We want to get somewhere immediately and we don't know really where we want to get to, and when we get there we want to go somewhere else, and never have time to sit and enjoy where we are. Which is this kind of music is like a meditation, which I also practice. It's just peace and quiet and just relaxation, basically, I love it.

Can I tell you my absolute favourite piece of Ravel and that is 'The Mother Goose' the ballet 'The Mother Goose'. Do you know that?

I'm not familiar with that.

Ah! Right, so let's play that right after the break.

[commercial break]

Mike, you were saying before the break that, you know, that fastidiousness in Ravel really, sort of, takes one, anyone who can't observe the subtleties of life, you were talking about the colorations on the leaves, or the changing patterns on the water. It is that sensibility that one has enhanced by listening to music like this. My absolute favourite piece of Ravel is the ballet suite 'Mother Goose' and at the end the enchanted garden I think as some of that same atmosphere and I'll be delighted to introduce you to that. You mentioned Sir John Barbirolli apropos the Sibelius 5th Symphony, he's a great hero of mine. Let's hear Sir John in that final section of 'Mother Goose': Le Jardin Féérique

[Ma Mere L'oye Ravel]

Can I take that record away? Do you know what makes that special is it sounds like one entity. I know it was made by the composer, the people who built the instruments, the people who recorded it, the musicians, the conductor, but it sounds like one entity, they're all working together. It's one thing. There could be some superbeing making this piece of music and I think it's a lot...mostly to do with the conductor. This is astonishing.

And wasn't that lovely? Some of that saturated string chords towards the end was just so beautiful, you know...

I can't hear all the individual players which I can in lots of pieces...a single orchestra.

There's just know when there's a great piece of music, there's just certain moments that are just so magical, even if those moments only existed without the rest of it you'd know that some genius was at work, and I think that was very much the thing. Mike, you can write contemporary music, but also love the classics. People can listen to your music and get a lot out of it, and they, like you, can also get a lot out of the classics. It doesn't mean you reject one to have the other, or if you have got the other you can't have what you liked previously. You should float across this landscape, don't you think?

I think there are people who are very blinkered as listeners to music, they only like one kind of music, jazz for example. There are a lot of people, a certain percentage...


...who don't understand my music, you know, it's like they're allergic to it, they hate it. You can see certain critics say, 'oh, Mike Oldfield album BANG'. They hate it, because they don't understand it. Perhaps it crosses too many barriers for people, I mean it's not like R and B, it's not Jazz, it's not soul, It's a bit of everything, everything that I personally like in music that I involve in my composition.

Mike, you've got, I think, an American composer that I have to say I haven't listened to half as much as I should. Identify him, as I think it's time we brought him into this programme.

This is... I just stumbled across this by accident in the record library. I liked the sound of the title; it's called 'The Unanswered Question' by Charles Ives, I'd never heard of Charles Ives. I listened to it and I loved it so much because you have these beautiful chords and there's three in particular which I just adored and I still adore and on every one of my albums there's these three chords and there still is on Tubular Bells 1, 2, 3 and all the other ones, and I've also noticed, and I don't know if I've had anything to do with it, but I've started hearing it on lots of other pieces of music. Several Police tracks have the same sequence, 'Every Breath You Take', their big hit, has this chord sequence. I've also noticed it on the very popular artist 'Enigma' who have done this on modern music, being very very successful, the same thing on that, the same three chords. But right in the middle of it there's this horrible sounding out of tune trumpet, I think it's a trumpet....

It is.

It makes this discordant noise right in the middle of it, and first of all you go OOOOMMMMPPHH, you know, that's the big question that we all ask ourselves: what are we? what are we doing here? what is our purpose in life? I mean, that question is like this trumpet that reaches down into your soul's a perfect way of putting that unanswered question into music and it's so simple and so clever and it's one of my favourite pieces of music.

[The Unanswered Question Charles Ives]

Charles Ives, The Unanswered Question. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Peculiar man, Ives, he lived a long life, 1874-1954, was a very successful insurance man.

Was he?

He was.

I suppose he's a bit like René Magritte [?] isn't he? probably looked the same.

And he wrote music for fun, wasn't treated very seriously, during his lifetime he was treated with, I think Ernie Bevin once called a complete ignoral, a complete ignoral he was treated with, and it was only around about the time of the bicentenneal, American bicentenneal, that suddenly Ives was rediscovered as a strong American voice, and all these recordings started to appear, he having died twenty years before, and his place in the great order of things is still, I think, very much in debate. A lot of his stuff is rather cacophanous where different bands are playing against each other, but that's lovely, and do you know I don't reckon I've listened to that for a couple of decades, so you've done me a favour today.

Pleasure if I could do that. I've often thought with my love for classical music, where can classical music go? because simply limiting it to an orchestra, not developing the instruments. A violin has stayed the same for, I don't know, how long.

It is going to be quite different.

I don't know where it can go, but all I'm doing is making my music in my idea of where it should go or where it should go for me and make it for myself this music that I want to listen to. I want to listen to a whole piece of music that's got some orchestral bits, that's got your solo soprano, that's got some bits like heavy metal, Led Zeppelin screaming away.

[More Secrets]

And then it comes down again to something simple: waves over a...moonlight on the water, a bit of orchestral, and
ends up with something you can disco dance to. It's the way I perceive music. I want to make music for myself, this is the music that I want to, you know, I don't make music for anyone else.

You're just the lucky man that millions are willing to follow your own taste. I wish I could say the same. Well, there you are, Tubular Bells III. Will there be Tubular Bells IV and V? Or I suppose you don't know yet?

Well, I'm sure there probably will be, but also might develop into a virtual reality musical experience. This is something else I'm working at. It'll be something like Tubular World or Tubular Universe where you in virtual reality go into different landscapes, you'll be able to fly in space and your movements control which music you hear, and how you experience it, so everybody's experience of this thing will be different because they'll choose certain options, go down certain avenues. There'll be no two experiences the same. That is an exciting thing. So maybe Tubular Bells IV will be something like that.

Can I end up with something that's brief and very chirpy, that has the imagination in the way it's scored to make a simple tune sound interesting by dint of the manner in which it's been orchestrated which, if I may say so, is the striking thing listening to your albums. The imagination, the flair that goes into the instrumentation and the way in which you combine different instruments including, latterly, electronic ones, and this is just a simple little piece: 'Shepherd's Hey' by Percy Grainger, but nicely dressed up and it hopefully will bring this programme to a bucolic and even rather exciteable end.

[Shepherd's Hey Grainger]

Great fun, yes. Perhaps I get a bit too serious sometimes, that's why I put the Sailor's Hornpipe and Portsmouth on things. It's great to have... music can be fun as well as being deep, spiritual. Thank you for playing me that.

Yeah, that was Frederick Fennell with the Cleveland Symphonic Winds, and that arrangement of Percy Grainger's Shepherd's Hey. So we've come to the end, sadly, and I'm genuinely sad that we've come to the end of this programme, Mike, but I mean, what will you take away from it? I'm going to take away a lot of what you said, really feeling a sort of injection of further inspiration from your response to music, but will you take anything away of any positive note?

I will. I'll certainly take the last thing away, that, you know, in order to have fun. It's important not to take yourself too seriously. You've played me some wonderful pieces of music. I've also re-established my connection and love for classical music and I'll start listening to it again, and perhaps I can bring some more of the past into my present day compositions because of this programme, so thanks a lot.

Jolly good. Well, MO, a pleasure to have you on the programme.

My pleasure. Thank you.

[extreme end of FATC]

And it only remains for me to pop the question, see who's going to win those three signed TB3 albums: When was the first TB album recorded? Send you answer to DM, Classic FM, PO Box 3434, London, NW1 7DW....

Mike Oldfield
Mike Oldfield