On Mike Oldfield’s ‘Ommadawn’…

September 22nd, 2018

I recently spent just over two weeks in the Lake District on a writing break in an attempt to get my research leave kick-started, the place where I stay is lovely, with great views and no internet or phone signal – I got a lot of work done. However, one thing that became very obvious to me very quickly was the sudden lack of music in my life, this was partly due to the aforementioned lack of connectivity, but also to a new laptop (with no saved recordings) and no CDs – it was all too quiet. Now, I don’t really listen to much music on a day-to-day basis due to being surrounded by it in my working life, however once this was removed I began to yearn for something to fill the silence, and stop the irritating thoughts in my head. With this in mind, I decided to head for the nearest record shop (not an easy task in Cumbria) and buy some CDs (it’s not like I could download something…), but then – what to buy? Classical, contemporary, rock, pop, folk, gangsta rap (is that still a thing…)? In the end, I plumped for something that I had loved as a fourteen-year-old, Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn, but would it sound quite so good over twenty years later?

Well, the answer is no, it could never sound the same way as it did as a teenager, everything was more important then, more heightened, music included, but listening to these two CDs not only gave me a heady dose of nostalgia but got me assessing them in a very different way to in 1994 – and actually, though there was much I disliked, I came away with a new-found respect for the pieces, particularly Ommadawn. Apart from the end. Which is extremely silly.

Mike Oldfield is most well-known for his 1973 album Tubular Bells which was a surprising number one on the nascent Virgin Records label – if you haven’t heard it, it’s a forty-minute instrumental ‘suite’ for multiple instruments (including said bells) nearly all played by the composer. A section of the piece was featured in the infamous film The Exorcist (also from 1973) and Oldfield’s name and career was made. He then went on to create a series of similar albums/suites in the 1970s and early 1980s, all of which were successful, but in a general downward trajectory from Tubular Bells and today it is hard to divorce Oldfield from Tubular Bells (it doesn’t help he’s also released a Tubular Bells II and Tubular Bells III in the intervening years). However, the two albums he released directly after his 1973 hit are amongst some of his most successful and sophisticated music and are arguably his greatest achievements (so much so that Oldfield is about to release an Ommadawn II…well, why not…).

If you haven’t heard any of Oldfield’s music, it’s hard to describe it: it’s a sort of mix between 1970s progressive rock, the folk-rock movement of the late 1960s, a heavy-handed form of minimalism and some filmic, sweeping orchestral music. With guitars. He likes guitars. Of the two albums, it is the latter, Ommadawn which I feel is the strongest and the most striking music Oldfield would ever produce. I can’t say exactly what makes this music appeal to me: on the one hand, it’s quite nice ‘background’ music to fill the void whilst playing solitaire on the computer or driving, but it’s also good music to get lost in, to feel the strange clashes of different styles and moods all juxtaposed in two eighteen-minute movements. In 1994 I used to like doing my homework or playing my Nintendo whilst listening to it, but in 2017 I began to appreciate some of the composition that is actually taking place in the piece and how some musical decisions that Oldfield takes are really very subtle and sophisticated and he probably never get the credit for them he perhaps deserves.

The title of Ommadawn comes from some nonsense words that Oldfield and collaborators were working on during the recording, these were then translated into Irish and then anglicised, what was left formed the indecipherable chanting at the end of the first movement and the title of the piece. It actually works as a title and has that Celtic ‘otherness’ that worked so well for Yeats and Bax amongst others. Oldfield’s music works best when he marries the folky and Celtic elements with a minimalistic form of progressive rock, and he does that in spades in Ommadawn, particularly the first movement which is an imposing eighteen-minute span of uninterrupted variations on a simple theme. In fact, perhaps the most impressive feature of this work is how Oldfield continues to manipulate his theme in subtle ways to create so much material – much of the piece centres around repeated patterns which build and increase in tension before a tonal shift or the outbreak of a frenzied guitar solo moves the material to a new focus. The end of the first movement of Ommadawn is genuinely thrilling, as Oldfield continues to crank up the tension with an agitated electric guitar buzzing over synthesizers, chanting, glockenspiels, acoustic guitars and Irish drums – the sudden dissipation to leave the drums fading out like leaving some tribal ritual behind, is both unexpected and immensely satisfying.

The second movement isn’t quite as successful, though features some beguiling music including a section for Northumbrian pipes and a folk-dance that is somewhere between Herefordshire (where the album was recorded) and the hills of Greece. The same sort of techniques are present and the mood and integrity of Ommadawn is preserved…until…the final four minutes, where Oldfield does his very best to ruin the piece entirely. I’m not sure why there is the inclusion of a song entitled ‘On Horseback’ to finish the work, this faux-naïve, folksy meditation on horse riding is ill-judged at best and ruins all the complex patterns Oldfield has been weaving for the previous 35 minutes. With some of the most banal lyrics you are ever likely to encounter – ‘I like beer, and I like cheese, I like the smell of a westerly breeze, but what I like more than all of these is to be on horseback’ – and sung in a fashion like someone trying to mock Fairport Convention, it is not the highpoint of the work. I try to be charitable when I hear it: quite often intense orchestral suites feature folk-tunes, hymns or popular songs (Sibelius, Mahler, Berg etc) and maybe Ommadawn is no different. However, in reality, I usually turn the CD off.

So, there you go, I bought some music, it passed the time, it wasn’t as good as it was when I was fourteen. But it was interesting nonetheless.


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