It has been more than 50 years since Paul McCartney, the mop-haired boy with the puppy-dog eyes, emerged as a part of The Beatles. Today he still reigns as an iconic piece of the pop music world. Since his solo debut in 1970, McCartney has grown to achieve even more pop stardom. Now, he’s trying something completely new. He has most recently dismounted from his comfortable throne in the pop music industry into not one, but two new realms: classical music and the world of dance.
McCartney’s Ocean’s Kingdom is the orchestral score to the ballet he created in accordance with Ballet Master in Chief of the New York City Ballet Peter Martins. It is intended to tell the story of the world beneath the surface of the sea. There is no question that McCartney approached the composition with passion and drive. This passion, however, comes in short bursts like a firework display, extinguishing just as quickly as it appears.
The score itself has a melodious flow, transitioning fluidly from one movement to the next. Maybe it’s McCartney’s sense of ease after playing guitar for so many years, but the string instruments lead movements with a distinct authority over the other instruments. This is apparent even within the first few seconds of the opening movement, “Ocean’s Kingdom.” There, string instruments evoke tension that leaves listeners on their edge of their seats, waiting for a climactic beginning to the piece. The tone of the music changes from the softness of the violins to incorporation of violent percussion, but it is not nearly enough time to wake the piece from its fog.
McCartney certainly knows how to evoke feeling through instruments, which makes it easy to imagine a storyline to accompany the music. This imagery is particularly prevalent in “Hall of Dance,” as he personifies trombones and oboes into a couple lazily swaying across the dance floor. An explosion of percussion quickly interrupts the sway, increasing the tempo and livening the overall energy of the piece.
On a different emotional note, the start of “Imprisonment” evokes feelings of frustration and sorrow through the slow, melancholy echoes of violins. The atmosphere seems to be echoing the mindset of a person lost in an unfamiliar place, once again demonstrating the power of string instruments throughout the movements.
Particularly interesting is that a majority of the action within each piece is either within the first six or seven minutes or the very last. This draws the ear to tune into the beginning of the song, but the central portions of the song that are supposed to hold each piece together make it all too easy to become detached from the music, rather than to becoming completely captivated. It is as if McCartney put forth all of his energy into the first portion of the song, became too exhausted to worry about the middle and regained his energy by the end. True, the album is intended as ballet accompaniment, but a strong piece of orchestral music should be able to stand on its own without the support of a choreographed dance, so this displays a major flaw with McCartney’s work.
There is an obvious difference between composing classical music and pop music: the absence of lyrics. Orchestral music has the ability to evoke the same ardor, but it must use notes and a diversified set of instruments to tell a story rather than words. The movements of Ocean’s Kingdom, particularly “Moonrise” and the title track, sound so similar in the middle that it is difficult to distinguish them.
This monotony is apparent in all of the four pieces, as each contains a solo of string instruments and then progresses to a more upbeat progression of percussion. The lack of creativity in the heart of each makes the movements sound more like the unmemorable background music during a trivial scene in a movie than the driving force of a performance by the New York City Ballet.
Paul McCartney established his talent early in his music career, and he will always have a loyal fan base. This gives him immunity from him ruining his reputation as he explores different areas of the music world. McCartney showed admirable ambition for trying something completely new, but the composition simply scratches the surface of truly sensational Classical music due to its monotony and lack of energy. Unfortunately, Ocean’s Kingdom calls for scuba dive depth but delivers only a snorkel.