Paul McCartney Returns to Classical Music with Debut Ballet Ocean's Kingdom

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Update: On Thursday, January 19th at 8 pm, WQXR will re-air the New York City Ballet Orchestra broadcast of Paul McCartney's Ocean's Kingdom. Hear the complete score recording from it's September 2011 opening night, on 105.9 FM and

Before his first-ever ballet score premiere, Sir Paul McCartney gets to the heart of his musical processes in a lively conversation with WQXR's David Garland. Listen to the interview above.

The 69-year-old former Beatle considers the challenges and appeal of writing the orchestral score for Ocean’s Kingdom which opens at New York City Ballet on Thursday night. Choreography for the much-anticipated production is by the company’s ballet master in chief, Peter Martins, and costumes have been designed by his daughter, Stella. WQXR will broadcast the work on 105.9 FM and on Sept. 28 at 8 pm.

McCartney reveals that the 60-minute orchestra piece began with aspirations to be a score for a film documentary about the oceans. The directors approached him with the footage and, according to McCartney, gave him carte blanche to fashion the music.

“I went right back to the studio and got started writing this piece,” he said. “When I next got together with them they said ‘no, that’s not quite what we meant.’ So that project didn’t pan out and I said I better leave this alone.”

Then in 2010, McCartney met Martins at a benefit in New York, and the two began discussing collaborating. “I had been wondering what I was going to do with this other piece, which was quite well formed,” he noted. He accepted the commission knowing that he could return to his film score and refashion it as ballet music.

McCartney expanded the score, developing themes for the characters, and weaving in rhythms that were more dance-friendly. He also started to attend more ballet including Adolphe Adam's Giselle, danced by the Royal Ballet in London.

The piece, McCartney said, has a strong ecological underpinning about “the purity of the oceans potentially being ruined by these terrible earth people.”

The former Beatle, who famously doesn’t know how to read music and thus developed the score with the aid of a computer program, admitted that “it can be very embarrassing to be in front of an orchestra and a conductor will say to me, ‘at letter D here, is that a 3/4 or a 2/4 bar?’ I’d say, ‘could you play it?’ Because I could tell then. I do it by hearing it.” (The British arranger John Wilson is co-credited with the arrangements for Ocean's Kingdom.)

Yet McCartney also contrasted the more intuitive process of rock musicians with that of orchestral players: “Guys out of [bands] have a much better idea of time and tempo than orchestral players,” he said. “And I love your orchestral players.”

The four-movement Ocean’s Kingdom has been recorded by the London Classical Orchestra and will be released on Oct. 4, a week after the first run closes in New York (it returns in January). This is McCartney’s fifth foray into classical music, after the Liverpool Oratorio (1991), Standing Stone (1997), Working Classical (1999) and Ecce Cor Meum (2006). These scores have rarely won favor with critics, yet as McCartney notes, they are just one among many creative outlets in recent years.

“After playing in a stadium before 60,000 people, it’s nice to be able to go into my studio to play on my computer,” he said. “Most people get a job and that’s pretty much what you do. With me, I’m so lucky I’ve got this job and I can say ‘I’m going to do classical today, a concert in Sao Paulo next week, then an experimental piece.’ It keeps it really fresh and that makes me feel like I’m not working, I’m playing.”

Text: Brian Wise / Interview: David Garland / Production: Eileen Delahunty

Classical McCartney: Sampling the Rocker's Classically-inspired Side Through the Years

Ecce Cor Meum (2006)

Liverpool Oratorio

She's Leaving Home (1967)

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Comments [18]

Ovations Now from New Jersey

I am at a loss at what I just heard. Can I say it sounded like an attempt at something special and grand, but it didn't happen. It never got off the ground and there was no development in the score. Same monotonous flat melodic material repeated and sparked with an occasional instrument breaking in. I wonder what the visuals were like. There is no originality. So many truncated themes sound like woven subconscious echoes from a few
contemporary film scores.

Now take this lightly McCartney die hards, but as I listened intently, I had visions of an animated film on this score presented at next years New York Film Festival and entitled "The Dead Mermaid."

And relative to a comment before, Sir Paul was had a nice hair dye and a few nips and tucks.

Everyone have a great New Year and many great years to come.

If you liked the work, that's fine. It's definitely not my musical seascape above or below.

Jan. 19 2012 09:26 PM
AF from Long Island

Opps! Typo in my recent post. Make that 89.9 HD 2 for the other 24/7 classical music station I was talking about as available in HD on the radio in NYC, that is, in addition to WQXR in HD at 93.9 HD 2.

Jan. 19 2012 05:35 PM
AF from Long Island

RE: WQXR in HD on the radio dial at 93.9 HD 2

This article says one can hear this broadcast on 105.9 fm or Does this mean it will not be broadcast on WQXR in HD at 93.9 HD 2??? My guess is that it will be available there!

I don't understand why WQXR doesn't advertise its availability in HD at 93.9 HD 2. The sound is fantastic, better than my reception on 105.9 fm, and I would guess much better than the usual compressed sound online. The hosts never mention this HD option, and I have never seen it advertised in any article online.

This is especially strange in the light of the new 24/7 classical music station in New York, wWFM, which is available (as it was before) online at BUT NOW ALSO IN NYC AT 89.1 HD 2 (the station for wkcr, the Columbia Univ. station). The HD sound on this station is also fantastic and strong enough to reach Long Island. What is more, this station's website says it is NYC's only digital station; I don't know if that means online or HD, but since WQXR also has those same two digital availabilities, I don't see why WQXR does not advertise it's HD availability!

Jan. 19 2012 05:28 PM
Gerry DeChaves from Summit, New Jersey

I wish WQXR would stop broadcasting the interview with Paul McCartney where he seemingly proudly states that he “love[s] music too much" to practice scales on a piano. If one truly “loves” music and wants to be a musician then one should be willing to study and practice to become a true artist. Mr. McCartney should stick to his genre of rock guitars and leave the classic and ballet fields alone. I think it is pseudo-snobbish of the station and other entities to take advantage of the fact that he is a “Sir” and of Beetles fame. Bottom line, no matter how much one wants to color it Mr. McCartney is a Beetle and as a Beetle deserves to be appreciated but in the classical field he is neither a musician nor talented.

Jan. 19 2012 01:16 PM
Rick Newman from Hartville Ohio

The subject seems to be reading vs not... I have very little music reading skills. Yet, I have been playing the drums, & some guitar for well over 40 years. I have found on many instances that the readers tend to have limited, to zero improvisational skills. Now I know that an excellant Musician is most likely to have mastered both. But, this has been my experience.

Oct. 04 2011 10:20 AM
Patti McHugh from Ohio

I am grateful for the positive and consistent messages that Sir Paul has given to relationships. Honest relationships take time and effort to cultivate. His songs allow me to view my relationships as a holiday from jobs that I have poured my life into. I can rejoice by singing along and dancing!! So, here we all are on that 'long and winding road.' So many delicate memories. Thank you so much!!!

Oct. 01 2011 03:58 PM
Ross Allen from Florida

Great discussion. Thanks.

Sep. 29 2011 08:17 AM
Richard Borden from Pennsylvania

This is ABSOLUTELY a jewel of an interview with Sir P. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Sep. 28 2011 08:41 PM

Thank you once again for sharing ! It really is appreciated!

Sep. 28 2011 07:48 PM
Russ from Plainfield, NJ

I somehow doubt that Sir Paul will ever sit in with an orchestra where he will have to sight read. Nor would I expect a trained classical musician to jump right into a jam session. Those that play by ear have a different connection to "the language of music" than those who relate to it via the note and staff. To me, that is the joy of the diversity of music.

Sep. 28 2011 07:17 PM

I was there and it was AWEINSPIRING, got to meet with the beautiful and taleneted Stella McCartney.

Sep. 28 2011 01:39 PM
Chelsea from Chicago, Illinois

I totally agree with Paul that people who play in bands have a better idea of tempo and time than orchestral players. I started out as a classical musician, but have switched to teaching myself electric guitar in the past 10 or so years. I found it really difficult to play blues at first because I was just too stiff ... I kept worrying that I wasn't doing it right. When I finally stopped worrying so much, my playing improved exponentially, and I started having a lot more fun. It really helps to just try to feel the music, and I don't know that you can really do that while playing in an orchestra. Playing as a soloist in a concerto, for example, is a different story, though.

Sep. 28 2011 01:00 PM
Marge from NJ

Back in 1965 when my girlfriends and I would gather around our transistor radios and hang on every word of an interview of the Beatles by one of the WMCA DJs in NY, who would have imagined that now, so many years later, I will be sitting by my radio listening to an interview with my FAVORITE Beatle on Classical WQXR ?! I won't be squealing or swooning as we did back then, but I will certainly be interested to see what he (still) has to say !!

Sep. 28 2011 12:34 PM
Joanne Ratner from Scarsdale,NY

I was fortunate enough to see a closed rehearsal of Ocean's Kingdom. I had tears in my eyes when the first few beautiful notes were played. I was wondering how many composers the NYC Ballet has gotten to work with and aren't we all lucky to be alive to hear McCartney's genius from rock to opera to ballet.Reading or not reading music, I don't care. I care about hearing music.

Sep. 28 2011 11:29 AM
rbergamotto from Oldwick NJ

I love Sir Paul's music and although I was first inspired by the Beatles, I am now a classical pianist. Learning to read is worth the effort at any level. I do believe after everything Sir Paul has written that he has knowledge of notation and theory even if the computer is doing most of the translation. I don't see him sight - reading Ligeti etudes but I don't see Bill Gates completing his degree at Harvard either.

Sep. 26 2011 02:05 PM
Dan Howard from Stamford, CT

I'm just curious why it matters if he can read music or not. Who cares?

Sep. 23 2011 01:49 PM
David Sanua from Brooklyn

Hm . . . no one on the Indian subcontinent reads music either, but they sure can make it; and while jazz musicians can read music, that's less than half of what they do. The ear is a terrific recording instrument. Contrastingly, the unique characteristic of Western classical music is its intensive notation of the composer's intentions. As far as Paul goes -- well, if people compare him to Schubert as a songwriter just to knock him, I think he's doing pretty well. So what if he needs help writing the music down?

Sep. 23 2011 11:22 AM
Judith from NYC

I'm wondering why such a celebrated and prolific musician who has reached the age of 69 and wants to be taken so seriously still likes to claim he can't read music at all. Not buying it, Sir Paul.

Sep. 23 2011 08:52 AM

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