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

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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 WQXR.org.

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 WQXR.org 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

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