The Millennium Bell

Background - Commentary - Recording the Choir

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0000: Peace On Earth
Our journey through 2000 years commences with a modern "carol" inspired by the birth of Christ in year 1. Just as the Christian influence traces a significant path throughout Western history from ancient to modern times, musical elements of Peace On Earth are reprised throughout our journey.

0800: Pacha Mama
All cultures have their creation myths and beliefs on which they build their societies. The Inca culture of Peru was a powerful and successful society until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors who plundered all in search of gold. "Pacha Mama" means "Mother Earth" (literal translation: "our mother in space-time"), and "Saqsaywaman" is the temple-fortress overlooking the city of Cuzco, Peru - a capital of the Inca empire. The city was laid out to resemble a puma from above - one of their deities, and Saqsaywaman forms its head (including stonework resembling serrated teeth). This track begins as did the Incan empire - so quietly, unobtrusively, with the first mythical Quechuas emerging from the cave at Lake Titicaca. From humble beginnings an empire was built, only to rather suddenly come to an end.

1492: Santa Maria
In 1492 Christopher Columbus discovered America, and the name of the flagship of his fleet was the Santa Maria. The girl soprano soloist evokes visions of discovery and the ocean's rolling waves, which is musically competed with a male sea shanty chorus.

1650: Sunlight Shining Through Cloud
With the founding of America came the need for labour to break in the new land. The slave trade grew rapidly, and tens of thousands of natives from the East coast of Africa were ferried to America under terrible conditions deep inside the hulls of sailing ships. John Newton (1725-1807) was the captain of a slave ship called The Duke of Argyle, and eventually became so distraught with the human suffering he witnessed that he became an advocate for the abolition of the slave trade. Drawing on his past, Newton wrote the song "Amazing Grace," and some of these lyrics form the verses of Sunlight Shining Through Cloud - a wonderfully uplifting gospel track about hope for the future and strength during suffering.

1750: The Doge's Palace
Venice was ruled with regal splendour between 697 to 1797 by an elected Chief Magistrate known as the Doge (Duke). This was the period of lavish wigs and elegant clothes. During their 1,000 year rule, some 300 Doges held office, and three are operatically named herein: Francesco Donato, Pieetro Polani, and Enrico Dandolo (1192-1205; perhaps the most powerful of all the doges).

1850: Lake Constance
A very beautiful piece inspired by the Romantic Period poets of the mid-1800s. Performed by a 60-strong string orchestra, two flutes, and Mike Oldfield on classical guitar.

1920: Mastermind
The dark underworld of the Prohibition period in the United States inspires this track, a time when personal freedoms were constrained enabling gangsters to rule the cities.

1940: Broad Sunlit Uplands
The title of this track is lifted from one of Winston Churchill's famous speeches. The ticking clock represents the non-stop planning and organisation undertaken by wartime leaders, and the track closes with a lament for those who were lost in the fight to preserve freedom of thought.

1945-80: Liberation
Excerpts from Anne Frank's diary (read by Oldfield's youngest daughter Greta) signal the liberation of the Western world from the Nazi threat. This liberation extends from then to the present with the advent of mass communication, the rise of the mass media in the free world, and the advent of the digital age.....the years race past with the spin of the radio be frozen in the present moment!

1999 / 2000: Amber Light
A hymn to the new millennium, with vocal soloist singing of the first sunrise of the next one thousand years and a massive gospel choir singing "beautiful dawn" in a South African dialect.

2000: The Millennium Bell
The finale of the opus. What better way to greet the new millennium than by dancing? In the 1990s the dance capital of the world has been the Spanish island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean, and legendary DJ Pippi lends his influence here. As we dance in the New Year, we reflect on our past as earlier musical themes are reprised over the dance beat. Then we turn to face the future as the Millennium Bell strikes at midnight to herald the dawn of a new millennium. For a brief moment the world pauses... then continues to celebrate through the night with renewed enthusiasm until the amber light of dawn. We dance into the future with Oldfield's trademark lead guitar soloing ecstatically over the procession, until Amber Light is reprised to a climax.

Expanded from the original sleeve notes by
Philip Bendall (New Zealand, January 2000)


The Emotional Coherence of The Millennium Bell

by Rob Miles

Narratorially, the first part of the album tackles the discovery of America, placing either side the Inkan civilisation and the resultant slave trade. Peace on Earth, whilst almost anachronistic given the timeline, is musically entwined with this section (It also, incredibly enough, deals with the birth of Mike - listen closely to the chord sequence in the background after the first verse). The Peace On Earth background becomes the Pacha Mama background in a fairly seamless way. So, we start from Silence (like Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas), and build up a sound tapestry of Peace, and then into the birth of the Inkas. Gentle cloud-forests at first...

...then building into a more relentless, powerful force. This reaches a peak, before suddenly being reduced, in time for the booming arrival (with slowed down watery motif) of Santa Maria. The bombastic European heroism is celebrated to some extent by the chorus, but soon this is replaced by the jangling chains of the slaves in Sunlight Shining Through Cloud.

I feel that the voice here is the voice of the slaves, not of John Newton at all. The voice is bitter and discordant, but with hope for freedom expressed in the additional lyrics. So, instead of the wretch being saved from the darkness of his sins, the wretch is the captive heart, sailing into deeper darkness. The 'Amazing Grace' lyric could almost be seen as sarcastic in this context. The clapping at the end, representing ultimate freedom (whenever that may come) is, perhaps, a dream - the gospel chorus like a collective hope for the future.

This final uplift paves the way for The Doge's Palace, but the continuity in the music (the Ommadawn drum riff links Pacha Mama with Sunlight Shining Through Cloud) takes a break, and returns with this wonderful jollified jaunt with the nobs, who lived in splendour in a world that lay at their feet for them to kick. I'm not sure I'd class this as an upbeat track emotionally at all. Musically, yes, but otherwise, no. Not in the timeline that Mike is exploring.

Musically, Lake Constance is ideally placed between the darkening view of Mastermind and the chandeliers of The Doge's Palace. Not only is the break between tracks very smooth, but the emotional uplift provided by the Romantic era, with all its popular (if ultimately hijacked) revolutions and reforms. Yet, to me, just as the Byronic hero is doomed to be, so this track has a melancholy feel to it. Joy in beauty, but in contrast to the suffering of the heart.

Mastermind is like a link between this sublime beauty and the horrors of Broad Sunlit Uplands. In fact, it is the demonstration of another kind of power that has enslaved the common people - the power of the bully and the fear of the law. Prohibition was the ultimate expression of civic power over personal conscience, but it was by no means the only one. This makes heroes of murderers...

Broad Sunlit Uplands is an ironic name for the darkest track on the album. Yet it is ever thus: the dark before dawn. Aeroplanes drone, sirens wail and there is no hope given at all here.

Out of this darkness comes the light of Anne Frank, giving birth to a new age of freedom. Her life was like a sacrifice when interpreted this way (Maybe this is why there is a musical link with Peace on Earth?).

Consider just how important it is to have a voice. Without a voice, you are left open to abuse, persecution and degradation. The provision of a voice is the most important political right of any one person, group, race or gender.

Consider the way the voiceless have been portrayed from the darker years. The most striking image in my mind is Millais' Ophelia - one of many Shakespearean 'heroines' who has no voice until the world has forced itself upon her with its violence. Desdemona is another such character. The link? 'Willow'. One drowns by it, the other sings it before her death. The willow tree, or, more precisely, the 'weeping willow' has been an important artistic icon in Britain for many centuries. It is the symbol for great sorrow, as exemplified by the way the branches hang like tears, usually over a pond or river or stream.

In Liberation, between extracts of Anne Frank, this word is repeated by the female vocalist. The voice of Anne Frank, like the voices of the voiceless of ages past, was unheard during her lifetime. It was trapped in a book in an attic in an occupied country in a world of madness. She died before her voice ever took wing, but, thanks to her father, her voice took on the song of its owner after the war, bringing a sense of the great sorrow, but also bringing light into what was one of the darkest times ever known on this planet.

Mike has captured all of this in this piece of music, finishing as he does with the montage of voices from the age of mass communication, where no-one's voice need be suppressed, and all, save those who live under repressive regimes, can speak for themselves. That is why, I believe, it is called Liberation. A very, very well thought out piece of music.

By the end of this track, we are given a montage of symbolic sounds of freedom, but then 'zero....and holding' signals that the end of the narrative has come, and the last two tracks are left to finish off with hope for the future. The repetition of 'zero' before the Millennium Bell sounds suggests that the whole of Amber Light and the first half of The Millennium Bell occurs in zero time - this is NOW, the present. The moment that signals the end of the millennium.

Which leads on to what comes afterwards. For a time, we continue as before, but then, above the clouds we find the Amber Light: the realisation of the hope expressed.

There are dozens of ways of interpreting this album, but you have to think about it. The Millennium Bell is a very coherent album, drawn together perfectly by the title track.

Recording The Choir

by Roy Rashbrook of The London Handel Choir

On Friday 17 September 1999, I had a lifelong dream fulfilled in that I not only got to meet Mike Oldfield, but also got to sing on an album, both within a choir and as a soloist.

Mike's current engineer, Ben Darlow, is the son of Denys Darlow, very well known amongst classical musicians as a professor of music at the Royal College of Music in London, and as director of music at Saint George's Church, Hanover Square. For several years I had sung first tenor in the professional choir that sing there every Sunday. However, recently I had been promoted to the choir at Saint Paul's Cathedral, London, and had to leave at fairly short notice. I offered to "fix" i.e. arrange the booking of temporary replacements (deputies) until such time as Denys could find a permanent replacement.

So when Ben approached his dad to see if he could get a choir together for a recording session at about a week's notice, Denys immediately thought of me - not knowing that I was an Oldfield nut. I booked the session singers from my list of friends and colleagues - 6 sopranos, 3 male altos, 2 mezzo sopranos, 5 tenors (including me) and 4 basses.

On Friday, we travelled to Mike's house in Buckinghamshire, where we were met by Robin Smith, who had done all the choral arrangements and was to conduct the choir. Scores were handed out and we assembled in a medium sized room with a high, vaulted ceiling from which was suspended a large, horizontal coach wheel and a model aeroplane. Mike came in from the back door with a cup of coffee, did a huge double take when he saw us, said "hi" in a rather embarrassed way and went through to the control room. He was wearing khakis and a t-shirt and his hair displayed what one of my colleagues called "the JFL" - the just fucked look.

Time was very short. We were allocated 3 and a half hours time, and we finished in three, but in that time we were basically working throughout. When we weren't, then Mike was doing stuff either to the current track or to the next one. As far as I could tell, previous tracks had been recorded onto digital tape and our stuff was being recorded onto hard disc. The reels on the Sony recorder were labelled "Millenium Bell - dump tracks" or something like that. On a shelf opposite the recorder were about half a dozen reels labelled "Millenium Bell". Next to the Sony was another multitrack machine with enticing labels stuck on it like "Carrie" etc, which apparently was used for The Tubular Bells III premiere.

We went straight into recording the first of our tracks, Peace On Earth - a carol, the tune to which had been previously recorded by Ben's younger sister Camilla. It's a very simple, unpretentious melody in three time with one or two nice melodic and harmonic twists.

Then we went on to record Pacha Mama. A simple chord sequence starts up, over which is suspended a vaguely familiar tubular bells motif. Then both choir and backing vocals start up with the unison chanting of various mantras. This then builds into block chords of "stabbed" texts, with the original tune in the background - quite effective.

Next Santa Maria. This was quite similar to David Bedford's The Rio Grande (from The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and Boxed) with a similar meter and melodic line. Mike was very specific in his requirements of how we should sing this - with "flat" vowels and consonants as smooth as possible. An opening verse leads to repeated chants of Santa Maria.

Liberation: Amarok revisited! Ethnic chorus - as Robin Smith suggested "somewhere between Mexico City and Millwall" singing another real corker of a melody to African drums. As Steven Keeley (one of the tenors - who I had booked because of his singing ability and the fact that we both went through university together listening to Mike Oldfield every second we could) said - "I keep expecting Maggie Thatcher to come crashing through a plate glass window". I mentioned this to Mike later - he agreed and admitted that he had nicked some of the rhythm track from Amarok. A brilliant, brilliant track.

Amber Light. Can't say much about this one. We only heard the very end - with what sounded like Pepsi singing "With the sunlight shining through cloud", under which we sang harmony.

The Doge's Palace. My big moment. The Doges were the ruling family in Venice - hence the Doge's palace that you can visit there. Having said that, the beginning of this track sounds like a load of fiddles playing an Irish jig! Soon after, though, an oboe cuts in with a fairly punchy melody over a thumping bass - and it begins to sound a bit like Rondo Veneziano. However, then a solo tenor (ME) sings the names of two of the doges "Giovanni Delfino" and "Francesca Donato" joined by the rest of the choir in the next two.

After that we sang a few extra bits - to be stuck into the final chord (BIG and in A major) and at various other places through the album.

What impressed me most, though, was how nice Mike was to everyone, not minding at all if people wanted to look in while he mucked about in the control room. He was on excellent humour with the choir. On one occasion he tried several times to sing to us from the control room over our headphones what he wanted us to do. He couldn't quite get the notes out and ended up degenerating into garbled spluttering and quacking noises down our headphones. We all laughed and he poked his head 'round the door, smiling sheepishly, saying "It's been a long day".

He was also very concerned that everyone had a good time, and made sure there was enough ventilation in the rather hot recording room.

The control room itself was simply a vast mixing desk and two large computers, and a couple of master control keyboards. The Sony digital tape machine was out in the hallway. Oh yes, and guitars - on stands, lying on the floor, but mostly hanging from the walls - a good thirty or so of them.

Mike allowed me to take a few photos. I also met Robin Smith who basically turns what Mike says or sings into useable vocabulary - i.e. notes on paper - for session musicians (really nice chap) and Jeremy Parker (also really nice chap). We also met and played with CD - Compact Dog - the extremely well behaved studio mutt.

How did I feel about being asked to fix the session and sing? How do you think? Actually I was initially asked simply to fix a choir for a recording session for Ben Darlow, who - as I already knew of course - had recently worked with Mike Oldfield. I dared not hope that this was actually going to be for Mike Oldfield, so I just got on with it. Then I was told by Ben's dad, Denys Darlow, that they were looking for an italianate tenor to sing a small solo, and that Denys had recommended me. Then I found out it was for Mike Oldfield, but that most of the direction would be by Robin Smith. It was only when Mike walked into the room that I allowed myself to believe that my impossible childhood dream had actually more than come true.

Philip Bendall, Rob Miles, Roy Rashbrook, Paul Harris of The Mike Oldfield Information Service.

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