Composer Mike Oldfield rose to fame on the success of Tubular Bells, an eerie, album-length conceptual piece employed to stunning effect in the film “The Exorcist”. Born May 15, 1953, in Reading, England, Oldfield began his professional career at the age of fourteen, forming The Sallyangie folk duo with his sister Sally; a year later, the siblings issued their debut LP, Children of the Sun. By the age of 16, he was playing bass with Soft Machine founder Kevin Ayers’ group the Whole World alongside experimental classical arranger David Bedford and avant-garde jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill; within months, Oldfield was tapped to become the band’s lead guitarist prior to recording the 1971 LP Shooting at the Moon.
Tubular Bells, originally dubbed Opus 1, grew out of studio time gifted by Richard Branson, who at the time was running a mail-order record retail service. After its completion, Oldfield shopped the record to a series of labels, only to meet with rejection; frustrated, Branson decided to found his own label, and in 1973 Tubular Bells became the inaugural release of Virgin Records. An atmospheric, intricate composition that fused rock and folk motifs with the structures of minimalist composition, the 49-minute instrumental piece (performed on close to 30 different instruments, virtually all of them played by Oldfield himself) spent months in the number one spot on the U.K. charts, and eventually sold over 16 million copies globally. In addition to almost single-handedly establishing Virgin as one of the most important labels in the record industry, Tubular Bells also created a market for what would later be dubbed new age music, and won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition in 1974.
The follow-up, 1974’s Hergest Ridge (named after Oldfield’s retreat in a remote area of Herefordshire) also proved phenomenally successful, and dislodged Tubular Bells at the top of the British chart. With 1975’s Ommadawn, he explored ambient textures and world music; however, the emergence of punk left Oldfield baffled, and he retreated from sight for three years following the LP’s release. He resurfaced with 1978’s Incantations. Platinum, issued a year later, kept its eye on the clubs, and featured a dance version of the Philip Glass composition “North Star.” With 1980’s QE 2, Oldfield moved completely away from his epic-length pieces and traveled into pop territory, a shift typified by the album’s cover of ABBA’s “Arrival.” He continued in a pop vein for much of the 1980s, as albums like 1983’s Crises, 1984’s Discovery, and 1987’s Islands encroached further and further upon mainstream accessibility. In 1992, Oldfield teamed with producer Trevor Horn for Tubular Bells II, which returned him to the top of the U.K. charts. The Songs of Distant Earth appeared two years later, followed by a third Tubular Bells update in 1998.
Mike Oldfield has always been famed for his unconventional approach to music. Throughout his career he has consistently broken musical boundaries, and with Music of the Spheres (2008) he continues to do so. Taking influences from Holst and Rachmaninov as much as Steve Reich or William Orbit, this piece is classical in nature, but yet is also immediately identifiable as classic Mike Oldfield. Using a full concert orchestra and choir, and with solo parts from Mike himself on guitar, legendary soprano Hayley Westenra and renowned pianist Lang Lang, this is a work with huge emotional and musical scope. The title of the piece is a reference to something that Mike feels strongly: that all music should aim to represent the spriritual, or otherworldly elements of life: something beyond the mundane and everyday. In this he has clearly succeeded. Music of the Spheres is by turns epic, tender, mournful and triumphant. It is the work of a composer who above all can make beautiful and substantial music, regardless of genre or instrumentation.