Composer: Mike Oldfield
Arranger: Robin Smith
Director: Matt Hargreave
Mike Oldfield’s iconic Tubular Bells, first realised in May 1973, went on to become the best selling instrumental album of all time. As this new concert performance shows, it remains a mesmeric work. Extraordinary to think that Oldfield began composing it at the age of 17. At 19 he was invited to record it as a studio album by Richard Branson – indeed it was the first record Branson released on his newly formed Virgin Records. The same year as its released, the opening of the title track was used in the film The Exorcist, becoming a top 10 hit single in the US.
On the album Oldfield overdubbed recordings of himself playing most of the piece’s twenty or so instruments. The result was music that took the world by storm – rich, multi-layered, hypnotic and beautiful. It remains hard to categorise. At the time it was seen as an exemplary piece of prog rock, but Robin Smith, Oldfield’s long-term collaborator and arranger, now describes it as ‘highly complex, embracing minimalist, rock and serialisation’ and that in many ways it can be seen as the precursor of new age, chill and ambient.
Smith’s arrangements of Oldfield were a memorable part of the iconic Opening Ceremony to the 2012 London Olympics. Here, in Tubular Bells 50th Anniverary Tour, a film directed by Matt Hargreaves of a dramatic concert performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall, Smith is the musical director, conducting his arrangements from the keyboard on which he also performs.
Smith is strongly influenced by Carl Orff’s concept of ‘Theatrum mundi’ in which music, movement and speech are all inseparable to the performance. Tubular Bells 50th Anniverary Tour is visually stunning, with dazzling performances by Circa, an Australian acrobatic circus company. Tightly choreographed by Yaron Lifschitz, the performers move to the music in creative ways, conveying something both of the piece’s mystery and its joyousness. Behind them on the stage an ever-changing glowing sphere rotates, suggestive of the earth, but only towards the end of the performance taking on the distinctive colours and patterns of our planet as seen from space.
But most importantly of all are the orchestral players and vocalists, ranged on either side of the stage. The cinematography displays as never before their intriguing complex and compelling performances. We first hear Robin Smith’s ‘The Gem’, an eerie, melodic piece with a powerful rhythmic section. This is followed by ‘Summit’, composed by Oldfield and arranged by Smith. Oldfield’s famous ‘Moonlight Shadow’ follows with an expressive Lisa Featherston on vocals. When we finally come to Tubular Bells itself, the audience is clearly thrilled. That simple, memorable tune begins on the piano (Dominic Ferris) and is picked up by the glockenspiel (percussionists Kevin Earley and Sophie Hastings).
Gradually modulations are built in, first with a soprano voice (Sophie Rohleder) and cello (Kuêsi Edman), followed by a rich, ever-changing orchestration which includes acoustic and electric guitars, reed and pipe organs, percussion and mandolin. Suddenly the lyrical shifts into the insistent beats of rock, and then come the haunting sounds of slightly distorted guitars (Jay Stapley and Maxime Raguideau-Obadia). And of course there are the haunting sounds of the tubular bells themselves. Tubular Bells is an endlessly fascinating piece. You would probably need to have been at the concert to get the full effect, but Tubular Bells 50th Anniverary Tour captures much of its magic.
Tubular Bells will be in UK Cinemas for one night only on 22nd September.