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CD Feature/ Mike Oldfield: "Music of the Spheres"

img  Tobias

From an objective angle, there were a lot of reasons to finally get excited again about the arrival of a new Mike Oldfield album prior to the release of „Music of the Spheres“. On the other hand, everything seems to be subjective when it comes to this man. Ever since John Peel famously played the entire A-side of „Tubular Bells“ on his show in 1973, announcing it as a „record which will change your life“, Oldfield has split audiences and critics like few other contemporary musicians – and his latest work, this much is certain, is not going to be any different in that regard.

For those who enjoy ridiculing everything Oldfield has written, said or done, „Music of the Spheres“ will simply represent yet another volume in the neverending series of albums he has churned out in a desperate effort of trying to carve out a future for himself, without alienating too many of his fans. Noone who has kept listening to his recent outpot will seriously deny that there have been moments of greatness in his oeuvre even in the 90s, a decade which saw him veering between endless retro-exercises and various more or less inspired concepts. But somehow, if one looks back, not much has really left an impression.

The melodic bliss of „Songs of Distant Earth“, for example, may have survived majestically through years, as have the brooding moods and dark beats of „Tubular Bells 3“ and the epic panorama of „Voyager“'s symphonic closing track „Mont St. Michel“. Other than that, however, Oldfield seemed to have withdrawn to a space where music was more of hobby than a passion and where visual presentation was often more important than sound.

What is special about „Music of the Spheres“, therefore, is not that it returns to the long form of his heyday releases and breaks with the heavy (or almost exclusive) use of electronic equipment and somewhat linear  Fruity Loops-arrangements. Rather, it seems to herald a new chapter, in which Oldfield has come to terms with the fact that a certain cinematic quality is inherent to his style and probably brings out his fluent and fragile melodies best. For the first time in roughly, twenty years, one can listen to one of his works without wondering whether he would have liked to do something different instead.

Which is why it doesn't matter that Oldfield has chosen some easy targets for collaborators, including popular classical composer Karl Jenkins as his conductor and orchestrator, Pianist Lang Lang, Cross-Over sensation Haley Westenra for the plaintive and personal climax of the album's first part, „On my Heart“ and teamed up with classical record company Deutsche Grammophon. And it is even without meaning that „Music of the Spheres“ again opens with a variation on the „Tubular Bells“ theme, this time played by an entire string section.

The reason why all of this is merely remotely of interest is because Oldfield has managed to create a composition which renders all of these issues unimportant. The opening motive is quickly speared by powerfully warm horns and will later return in various disguises, as an accompaniment or a Leitmotif or even tucked away in background instrumentation. The same goes for the record's other themes, which are interwoven into each other, creating the impression that everything is related somehow, even though you can not always tell in which way. Oldfield has purportedly spent a full two years writing „Music of the Spheres“ and you can hear the care which has gone into refining every little detail.

From the suspenseful beginning, the music enters a lush middle section which introduces and varies the upcoming material, reprises the main theme and then flows into the sensous „On My Heart“, in which Westenra's voice is cooled down to the timbre of a moonmaid. The second section starts out triumphantly and in baroque opulence, even bursts out in staccatoed brass impulses, but finishes with yet another allusion to „Tubular Bells“ in a  hymnical finale.

In these closing six minutes, the album comes full circle and even though one could definitely have done without the all too obvious reference to his eternal classic, Oldfield is using it less as a quote but as a means to defy expectations. Instead of passing the melody from one instrument to another, he returns with the horn theme from the opening section, slowly taming the tidal waves he has conjured up, as if the piece had already ended. Then, however, the orchestra swells in shining glory one last time, sounding out the album with a rush of adrenaline.

The media focus has firmly been on the fact that, just like Paul McCartney, Mike Oldfield is now trying to be a classical composer. With the instrumentation of „Music of the Spheres“, that is an understandable notion, but also an incorrect one. When listening to the album on headphones, you will notice that a single glockenspiel is as loud twenty violinists here and that a harp can dominate a grand piano – you almost get the feeling that Oldfield reluctantly allowed others to perform his music but then arranged everything according to his own logic in the studio, ignoring everything the marketing department of his record company might have asked of him.

„It's not about how often you repeat something, but whether it's worth repeating“, Oldfield once claimed. On „Music of the Spheres“, he seems to have found a new creed: „It's not about how often you repeat something, but how you repeat it.“ There is no doubt that this album is neither a sonic revolution in general nor even a revelation on a personal level. But by rediscovering his calling and his true talents, Mike Oldfield has created an opus which I breathlessly listened to from the first to the last note. Speaking completely subjectively, of course.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Mike Oldfield
Homepage: Universal Classics

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