Modern Mozart – Mike Oldfield’s latest reminds us of the uplifting power of music

As an 18-year-old college sophomore at a small midwestern college, I had to search far and wide to find the kind of eclectic British progressive music that I craved.  I had been early amongst my peers in appreciating bands like Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  My brother and I had an informal competition to find the best new music, and then we would enjoy introducing each other to our new discovery.  But I was not prepared for what I came across while working for my college FM radio station in 1973.

The album cover displayed an ocean shore with a bow-tie twisted silver tube and the simple words “Mike Oldfield-Tubular Bells.”  I had read about this 20 year-old musical prodigy who had created 40 minutes of instrumentals, and that he had played the 20+ instruments himself.  Today’s technology would have made this practice fairly common with an average laptop and commonly available software.  Released as the initial effort of young entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Records label, Tubular Bells made Oldfield famous and wealthy, but also put great pressure on the young musician to produce a successful follow-up.  It’s millions of copies sold worldwide produced the seed money that launched Branson’s massively successful business empire capped by his recent sale of his Virgin America Airlines to Alaska Air for $4 billion.

For US listeners, Oldfield was plucked out of obscurity when director William Friedkin used the opening piano solo notes as the “Theme from The Exorcist” which earned the composer a Grammy award in 1975.  Oldfield’s subsequent works remained popular in Europe, but never really caught on in the USA. His third album, Ommadawn  was categorized by some as “world music” due to an extended section at the end of part one being dominated by a mesmerizing pace of ensemble African drumming.  Oldfield’s melody-centered long-form instrumentals were considered passe’ when punk rock came on the scene in the 1980s.  Sales were disappointing and even Branson began to lose faith in his prize stallion.  With the exception of the popular hit “Moonlight Shadow” in 1983, the 80s became increasingly more about hit music videos.  The MTV Generation’s short attention span was a daunting audience for the long form rock musicians of the 60s and 70s.  The 1990’s brought two sequels, Tubular Bells II and III, but they appealed mainly to older fans who had embraced his original opus and newer fans didn’t seem inclined to devote the time to “listen” to music like the previous generation.

This past Friday, Oldfield released his 26th album, an attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle.  This new work, Return to Ommadawn, owes it’s musical heritage to many of his works of the 70s and 80s.  But Oldfield is now creating his music with a maturity of a man who has developed an exquisite sense of proper balance. His newest effort displays the confidence and experience of an accomplished musician who knows how to get the music exactly as he imagines it with today’s digital recording and mixing technologies.

The modern serious composer has a daunting challenge. How does the his work get heard in a world of pop, hip-hop, and dance music?  Oldfield’s offerings go straight to the heart, not just the feet and hips.  His creations hearken from a time when people listened to the soft shades and voices that combine like fine food with delicate spices and sauces.  There is no “hit song” or “Love theme from <worthless teen movie>.”  The more one puts the album through it’s paces, the more the listener marvels that one individual has so many shiny polished gems to share.  Return to Ommadawn is rich with the varying aural atmospheres that graced his past compositions but with the maturity of four decades has come a leaner,  pacing. 

I remember discovering new artists and musical works by listening to late night FM stations.  In high school, I would set my stereo system on a timer and fall asleep as the midnight radio personality would play both sides of the Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by the Moody Blues, Tommy by The Who, Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull, or Nursery Cryme by Genesis.  I remember hearing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in a record store and paying three times the face value to a young employee for a pre-released promotional copy off their turntable.  Is there an opportunity for new music to be introduced in a society with the focus and constant distraction of the social media world of today?  Is there any hope that an artist like Oldfield can get a fair hearing?  I believe this is very important to the improvement of modern culture.

The popular music scene has always been dominated by “fast-food” music and today’s “rip and share” piracy has made it very hard for any but the most widely distributed artists to find an audience, let alone make a living.  Oldfield ceased public performances after his sole symphonic composition, Music of the Spheres, was performed in Bilbao, Spain in 2008.  Living in the Bahamas, it seemed his live performance days were over until he received an email that film director Danny Boyle wanted to talk to him.  Boyle was going to produce the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics. Their ensuing conversations resulted in Oldfield performing a medley of his pieces in a tribute to the British National Health system.  Oldfield enjoyed playing a medley from parts of Tubular Bells I and III and the public response was gratifying.  Inspired by the experience to try recording again, he penned a series of songs and enlisted The Struts singer Luke Spiller to provide the vocals. Man on the Rocks was received with modest, but encouraging European success.  Return to Ommadawn is a return to his long form roots and before it was released he was already well along in working on Tubular Bells IV. 

It’s time for a new generation of young music lovers to discover the joy of heart-expanding music that inspires and uplifts.  In the effort to replace the darkness and cynicism of our doubts about the direction of our species, we must first endeavor to purge the mind of hatred and dark passions.  Inspiring music lifts man’s thoughts out of an animalistic nature to something more selfless and limitless.  Music can be used to expand our attempts to bring a more civilized aura of kindness to this universe.  It can effect our thinking in a way that allows each listener to find his own path with the inspiration that an accomplished and creative musician can produce.  Mike Oldfield’s Return to Ommadawn is exhibit A.

If you are reading this post and are curious about this work, please go purchase it.  We waste so much money in silly ways without a thought.  File-sharing discourages creativity and impoverishes the artists who push the boundaries of modern music.  For the cost of a couple of large Starbucks lattes we can help them keep the flow of innovation going!

“Arrival” and it’s deeper questions

I was excited to see this film for several reasons.  I have heard great things about Denis Villeneuve (his films have not, to date, made my “must see” list) and I have long had an interest in “alien visitors.”  In a note of disclosure, I have been active, in the past, in the Mutual UFO Network, and my interest in UFOs goes back to the mid-1960s as a child when I first read Frank Edwards’ “Flying Saucers-Serious Business.”  I have had the privilege of talking to the son of the USAF officer who first reported the crash at Roswell in 1947 (he says his dad let him hold some of the recovered material.  I may have to cover this issue in a future blog post), so I always love me a good “little green men” movie.

This film covers ground of a much more serious and deep thinking level than something as charitable as ET or menacing as “Independence Day.”  While the attempts to communicate and determine the intentions of the visitors in “Arrival” make up much of the film’s narrative, screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s interpretation of Ted Chiang’s short story, “The Story of your LIfe,” there is much more at stake than the usual “are they a threat or here to help” story.  That is the concern of governments and nations, but not of our team of professionals brought in to divine the “threat level” of the twelve ships who have placed themselves around the globe.

Villeneuve allows the viewer to ponder the daunting task before the scientists, mathematicians, etc.  But the focus of the film is chiefly on the contributions of the linguist on the team.  From the film’s first moments, we jump into her life very personally.  As a former teacher, I saw how she was using her work in her classroom to staunch the pain of personal loss that we see in the opening minutes of the film.  At the risk of muddying the narrative, the filmmakers draw us into the story with the feeling that we know more about the main character, played with subtlety and depth by Amy Adams, than anyone else on the planet. 

I’m going to be careful that I don’t tell too much of the story, it’s that good, because film enthusiasts will be talking about this one for a long time to come.  There are refreshing new twists in the world of the “heptopods” (7 legs) that add a unique dynamic to the “arrival” of the visitors.  The interior of the ship is a rough-hewn hollow corridor that provides gravity on all sides.  This sounds like a fun twist…until you look down and feel you should be falling.  Gravity helps us see which was is “up”; but what if ALL ways are “up?”  It’s quite disorienting to the investigation. 

Adams’ character ends up driving much of the progress the team makes in discerning the intentions of the visitors because without language you can’t have a “meeting of the minds.”  It’s the last 30 minutes of the film that make it all begin to come together, although some will walk out confused they way I did exiting “2001” in 1969 and wondering what the last 30 minutes of the light show and orbiting fetus was all about.

Arrival doesn’t hit you over the head with a “message” other than ask you to question some assumptions we make about reality as humans.  Besides challenging “up,” gravity, and “intelligence,” the most important questions to be answered relate to TIME.  Again, I don’t want to throw around spoilers, but we often speak in generalizations about our concepts of time in a post-Einsteinian world, but put those assumptions in the context of a personal journey and you get a story like the one told in “Arrival.”

Go see this film with someone you love to have deep conversations with and give yourself time after the movie to go somewhere quiet where you and your fellow traveler can bounce ideas off each other pressing the assumptions of the movie in different possible directions.  You shouldn’t be looking for a right answer, but you should be contemplating important concepts.  As you discuss time, be sure to include the language Adams’ Dr. Banks decodes, and how the “figures” tell us something of how the visitors perceive time.

The idea of time as humans conceive it has been of great interest to me throughout my life, but particularly since reading recent accounts of Near-Death Experiences by authors like Neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander and Hong Kong businesswoman Anita Moorjani.  Moorjani’s work in particular addresses how time is very different when experienced on a spiritual basis as opposed to the narrative way that humans are comfortable.  Both books are quick reads with big questions.  Take the time to read them soon.  “Arrival” takes advantage of the option of being a narrative, with flashbacks, and a very unusual wrap-up to finish the film. 

Experience it on the big screen…and be ready for deep conversations for days afterwards.  Cheers.

Thoughts on – “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-themLet’s start with the obvious:  This is NOT a Harry Potter film.  Yes, it is about the world of wizardry (Think of it as alums of Hogwarts and other schools of magic) but we are mostly talking about a world of adults with professionals, officials and governing authorities, not students, professors, and institutes of magical learning.

Ms. Rowling has once again shown why her stories generally have a broad audience who enjoy her insatiable appetite for complicated characters and surprising story lines.  Her greatest success is creating persons that we care about.  Unlike the Marvel Universe, these are not one-dimensional cartoon characters but complex personalities with difficult ethical and moral decisions to be made within the strictures of world they inhabit.

I’ll just give a quick sketch of the plot since most of what appeals to the “culture viewpoint analyst” is more in the choices that the players must make throughout the film.  It’s 1926 and a Roaring 20’s version of The Dark Lord is loose in the magical world.  Separate from that story line, a young British wizard, a graduate of Hogwarts, has ventured to New York City to add a few New World magical beasts to his wizard’s suitcase.

We get magicians in a different country within a fashionable 20th century time period.  We also see how the USA might have approached the conflict between the magical world and the “muggles”(“no-majs” in the USA) in Jazz Era New York.  Rowling’s vision has a female African-American president of the Magical Congress of the United States.   The congress is a smaller and more intimate circle of practitioners of magical arts than the bureaucratic ministry portrayed in the UK realm of the Potter series.

Let’s examine the contribution to modern culture of this episode in Rowling’s ongoing world of wizards and magical creatures.  What are the key themes of the students, professors, and even the villains in the world of Hogwarts, Dumbledore, Ron, Hermione, Harry, Snape, et. al.?  If you haven’t seen/read the series (what planet have you been on?) spoilers lie ahead.  Let’s look at what is championed and valued?  Kindness, selfless behavior, teamwork (quiddich), family (Harry’s parents are themes throughout along with “extended family like Sirius Black, Dumbledore, etc)  Harry’s willingness in the final chapter to give his life for Hogwarts and his friends and to take down evil is a repeated theme throughout.  And in the end, his actions that save bad boy Malfoy, his last minute changing perception of Snape, and his decision to “return” after his otherworldly conversation with Dumbledore, after his suicide-destruction of the self-horcrux, are to be emulated and pondered.

And here it is SO important for parents to watch/read the series with their children and examine what is going on with Harry and his cohorts.  What is their motivation?  What is the risk, and why do they accept the risk and move forward with their plans.  The commonality of a shared cultural motif like the Harry Potter series is a great opportunity to dive deeper into the moral and ethical choices in a world when young people are being bombarded with selfishness and lures of material gratification over higher ideals and actions.

In “Fantastic Beasts”, we see the main characters answering a higher calling, an action to seek a proper restitution of good over a belief in the omnipotence of evil.  David Yates, director of the last few Potter movies, takes the time to let his characters reveal their unique abilities and characteristics is ways that show their “powers” as part of what makes them special, not just comic book assets arrayed against dark magic.

With films like Rowling’s magical world, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, and the ongoing super power comic book heroes and villains trend, displaying a public thirst for a world that is superior to the laws of matter, perhaps mankind seeks a more spiritual aspect to reality.  It’s not popular to believe in “God” in the millennial generation.  Popular thought about God today is, unfortunately, tied to concepts of modern organized religion, and modern religion is associated with corruption, greed, power, and secret societies (see The DaVinci Code and it’s sequels and imitators).  At the same time, there has been an attempt to portray the time of Jesus in film (Young Messiah, Risen) to allow new generations to judge the subject of the Gospels by his life and works, and perhaps, to demystify the life of the Messiah.  Perhaps more grist for a future post there…

I’m not equating the two worlds, but I am suggesting that mankind constantly seeks a better motivation for what one achieves during our time on earth.  It’s part of our core reason for existence to expect our efforts to be a legacy for good.  Is the world of Hogwarts, superheroes, and biblical heroes (as portrayed on film today) reflecting a desire to rise to our true nature of good deeds and selflessness?