With Tubular Bells still a perennial memory, it is easy to forget that the one time young prodigy, Mike Oldfield, is now a forty-something on whom time has left its mark. It is precisely the themes of time and history which the multi-talented artist has chosen to deal with in his latest work to date, "The Millennium Bell", a true retrospective of humanity's foibles and misfortunes.
This album appears to me to be a complete contrast to its predecessor, "Guitars", which was more intimate. Is "The Millennium Bell" intentionally universal?
No, not really. When I begin a project, I simply identify a principal theme. With "Guitars", it was a question of composing a musical work based on the guitar: for "The Millennium Bell", the aim was a musical evocation of different historical periods. A directing theme helps greatly at the inception of a new album. The starting point can be a book, for example as with "Songs of Distant Earth". I don't impose any limitations on myself, but it is important to focus one's mind on a particular point of reference.
How did the idea for this musical voyage through time come about?
The starting point was the desire to synchronise a musical work with the ticking of a clock. That's what I did with the 1998 "Tubular Bells III" concert which took place in Horseguards Parade in London. The ending coincided with the chimes of Big Ben. I wanted to use the same idea to bring in the Millennium New Year, because "The Millennium Bell" was composed first and foremost to be played live.
What technical and human resources were used for the show on 31 December 1999?
It was basically a rock concert of course, with a group made up of ten musicians, guitarists, keyboard players, singers, etc. On top of that we added a classical ensemble, the Orchestra of St Petersburg, which was given the job of playing all the orchestral parts which featured on the album. Then, after midnight, we played a piece intended to accompany a very special light show which not only took place on stage but was projected all over Berlin. I wanted it to be as spectacular as any other light shows on a huge scale like, say, the one at Houston by Jean-Michel Jarre.
You composed all the music on the new album, which wasn't solely devoted to guitar. Is it still nevertheless your favourite instrument?
Yes. It remains the easiest instrument for me. When I compose on keyboards I have to concentrate on the technique, while the guitar comes naturally to me. I have played it since childhood. I also play a bit of percussion. In the studio, I use a lot of computer programming.
Having shown a marked preference for traditional instruments so far, don't you find computer music too sterile?
No. The programming frustrated me for a long time, but now I know how to apply it more knowledgeably. Playing with the mouse is rather difficult, because you have to do everything with a single finger. But it's possible to do things more quickly when you have mastered the technology. Even so, technology has got to know when to fade into the background to allow creativity a free rein. In any case, I have to use computers because I can't do everything myself. Nobody can.
On the "Millennium Bell", the tunes are melancholy and you talk about the trials humanity has come through. Is this not quite a pessimistic approach to the new millennium?
I have already been told that! I don't agree: there is a magnificent chorus in "Peace on Earth"; "Pacha Mama" refers to the Inca period. The third song is · OK, it is quite melancholy. (Laughs) I think it's about 50/50. What do you want me to do? Compose a puerile tune which doesn't mean anything? The two thousand years which have just gone were terrible: millions of deaths by extermination, epidemics, a lot of suffering. My album is more realistic than pessimistic.
And are you yourself optimistic about the future of humanity?
(Long pause for thought) I think it's probably necessary to wait till the end of the third millennium to pronounce on that one ·
With "The Millennium Bell" on one level you return to world music. Who would you advise to listen to this album?
Who? (Another long pause for thought) I don't know. When I compose, I am not thinking about a type of target audience. I make music solely for my own pleasure. If it sounds good and if people like it, so much the better. If not, I have at least had a good time composing it and that's the main thing.
But you know your audience all the same?
Yes, I have fans of all ages, and it depends as well on the country they come from. In Spain, my audience is quite a young one. When we played in London, there were children and grandparents. In any case, my music does not seem to attract any one particular type of person. It isn't tied to a particular time either, because people are discovering the old albums all the time.
This disk seems to me to be aimed at future generations: it seems to me to be at one and the same time a testament to the past and a hymn to the future. Do you see it like that?
Yes, exactly. It's my modest contribution. Let's take a leap into the next millennium and put the last 2000 years behind us. These are, to some extent, my wishes for the future.
Do you think that music is a sociological representation of the state of society at any given time?
I think it is rather the opposite. Sometimes it's true that music represents a particular period: for example protest songs like Bob Dylan's during the Vietnam war. But often musicians go the other way and produce crazy music when the establishment is conservative. As a general rule, I think that music is independent of the period in which it is written. Whether it looks to the future or returns to the origins of primitive society, whether it gazes at the stars or focuses on microscopic events, it is not anchored to the present. It conjures up fantasy worlds and provides relief from the present.
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net