Mike Oldfield’s instrumental rock epic launched Virgin Records and featured in “The Exorcist.” And now it’s back on stage – with a ballet. MARK JENKINS reports from London’s Royal Festival Hall and speaks to Robin A. Smith, who put the show together.
“Tubular Bells” is coming up to 50 years old. It was composed in 1971/72 and released in 1973 as the first album on Richard Branson’s Virgin Records label, and now fans have a chance to see a new production, live on stage in London accompanied by a spectacular dance and gymnastic troupe.
Oldfield himself isn’t performing, but the show has been put together by keyboardist and arranger Robin A. Smith, who worked with him on “Tubular Bells II” and other productions.
I was able to ask Robin some questions.
“My involvement with Mike started with a live album premiere of ‘Tubular Bells II’ at Edinburgh Castle, which would be broadcast around the world. I was brought in at the recommendation of his sister Sally who I had worked with as arranger and producer. On ‘Tubular Bells II’ we worked towards a blend of musical performance by musicians plus enhanced audio, seamlessly combined live.”
Robin’s own musical background is quite varied.
“I started playing the piano when I was five and started composing when I was six, and throughout my life and career I’ve had a fascination with arrangements. I used to love rearranging folk songs in various styles, taking the melodies and then re-harmonising them. I loved how Benjamin Britten would take a traditional folk song and just rearrange the harmonies. It fascinated me, and I’ve used this throughout my career. I combined my classical training with being able to play jazz, blues, rock, and basically any style. Of course that’s a fundamental requirement for being an arranger, that you can lay your hands easily on any style and rearrange it or augment it to whatever end is required.”
So could “Tubular Bells” then be regarded as a classical piece subject to being re-arranged?
”What constitutes a true classical piece? I think in this day and age that doesn’t really have much relevance. Classical forms have been changing since the Renaissance and ‘Tubular Bells’ fits in with part of that evolution. Because it has so many different sections, it’s unique, that’s why it’s almost a balletic form, in the sense of one scene moving without pause to another scene, another drama moving to another emotion, that’s the beauty of the piece in my eyes. Of course what one recognises is this amazing creative energy that was put into the composition of the work.”
The dramatic energy of “Tubular Bells” is certainly reflected by the ten-strong gymnastic troupe The Circa Ensemble, who start the piece with contemporary dance moves but progress rapidly to aerial hoop and other spectacular stunts. But has working with the dance troupe meant re-arranging the music for their benefit?
“Because of my long-term relationship with Mike, which included ‘Tubular Bells II’ then ‘TB3,’ ‘The Millennium Bell,’ the ‘Voyager’ album and various other projects, I have a continuing respect for Mike’s amazing creative ability. So with the concept of this new version the one thing I was very clear about was that I would not change any notes, that the original composition would be in its truest form, indeed that the guitar parts which which are so set as an influence and presence from Mike himself, not to mention the piano part, would have not a note changed. In fact the basic sound hasn’t been changed, all I’ve done is enhance the overall effect by bringing modern technology and a more cinematic scope to give it a depth and hopefully a heightened emotion, which will be perfect for a theatrical show with musicians playing live, and ten acrobats. For me it was very important to make the overall finished product something new, something very beautiful and something very relatable to today’s music for both television and cinema.”
To be fair, Robin has made minor enhancements that won’t pass over the head of TB fans. There’s an atmospheric opening chord before the piano introduction, a couple of passages get slight repeats (probably to allow the dancers to move away from some of their more spectacular and precarious gymnastic positions), and the instrumentation (including two keyboards, two guitars, bass guitar, two percussionists and female vocal) is added to with a cello, which works really well in a couple of passages. So there’s no flute and whistle player – these parts, notably on the closing “Sailor’s Hornpipe,” are taken by the keyboards.
While Robin plays an M-Audio controller and Yamaha digital piano into a Mac running Logic. Dominic Ferris takes the grand piano parts and also uses a Yamaha workstation for organ, vibes. and similar sounds. And there’s a little more percussion than in the original, but no improvisation – “everything is very strict, but because the parts are so beautiful it is completely open to interpretation and emotional performance” – though the two guitarists do have a great time with the interchanging fluid, ambient solos on the closing passage “Peace.”
Later on, for those who can’t make it to the show, there will be a video and DVD some time before it sets off around the world.
“We are indeed making a full-length documentary of the making of the concert and that will include a DVD and recording of the performance. The plan is to take this beautiful piece of music around the world – obviously the 50th anniversary coming up is a great bonus, but one of the main reasons is to keep the love of this fantastic work alive for future generations.
“I was lucky enough to be the arranger and conductor for the ‘Elvis Presley with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’ albums, and I witnessed first-hand how just by re-imagining those original records that they played to completely new audiences around the world. ‘Tubular Bells’ as a composition is one of the most important of the 20th century in my estimation, and should be heralded as such for generations to come.”
TUBULAR BELLS CONTINUES AT THE ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL LONDON THIS WEEK AND TICKETS ARE AVAILABLE.