“Oceanic Verses”

Not clear what this is about, but perhaps the music will illuminate . . . quasi-mythical tableau of an ancient and perhaps imaginary Italy . . . plangent opening, string harmonics, tubular bells, rubato, declamatory vocal line, but this singing from Helga Davis is atrocious, she may be a good singer but she’s all wrong for this kind of music . . . Prologue dispensed, here is Scene 1, triple-meter feel-good style ‘world’ music, the film is that of the sun on the horizon . . . now there’s an aria for “Man,” a bass-baritone, with text from Dante . . . derivative, now here’s the Middle Eastern/Renaissance flavor . . . this is not going well, it’s doing everything you would expect and what it is leading one to expect is the obvious, the clichéd . . . tonal, has very strong tonal centers and resonance, but it’s stating the obvious as if it were something profound . . . percussion line under the stentorian singing is very glam-metal, but without the wit . . . this vocal writing is frankly infantile, it has no art and the taste of the cover of a bodice-ripper . . . Scene 2, the music doesn’t differentiate what is supposed to be happening, and the movie seems to have disappeared, but since it had almost no content I hadn’t noticed . . . very weird, slightly harsh and pointless ululation solo now . . . Prestini is trying to capture the quality of traditional Italian folk songs, which stretch tunings and are full of ululation, but she either lacks understanding of what the material is or the technique to adapt it in any way that makes organic, musical sense within her piece . . . this scene of women in the fields presents itself as the central focus, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be that . . . now voice and marimba, exceedingly obvious and treacly . . the film is now the eye on a face . . . this is wrong in so many ways, one on top of the other . . . waves on a beach and Italianized, folked-up Délibes . . . the movie actually dumber and more amateurish than the music . . . the music has nice, simple and lyrical in the strings, but at this point it’s hard to care . . . now a waltz, and a bearded dude is playing the squeezebox and singing Italian, badly, oh il mio papa! Sorry, I forgot that’s there’s a didgeridoo in the orchestra . . . this is like Eros Ramazzatti singing music from The Lion King as orchestrated by Enya, when it could use a healthy does of Paolo Conte . . . Fundamentally, this is sentimental in a completely immature way, and the musical choices come out of that, and it’s also completely self-serious . . . hold on, squeeze-box fu! This appears to be the conclusion, at least I hope it is, and the dramatic importance of the music has noting to do with anything that has gone on. Actually, it doesn’t seem to know how to end, so maybe it never will . . . I don’t know what the future holds for Oceanic Verses, but I think it needs to be rethought from scratch.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

8 thoughts on ““Oceanic Verses””

  1. Thank God someone can verify in print what I was experiencing there in the hall. Oceanic Verses was utterly revolting. And how on earth is it supposed to be an opera? It seemed more like some bizarre stillborn cantata.

  2. I concur with both of the comments above and am glad to hear that I wasn’t alone. This was a very amateur piece of work — not something that was worth the time and effor that the musicians and singers put in to it…not to mention my time sitting through it.

  3. This is neither a review nor criticism, but gratuitous angry rantings! To me the piece had moments of exquisite, suggestive beauty. Of course it is not a complete opera but it does convey a direction of work, with force and conviction. The composer is thinking outside the box , while clearly whoever wrote the above post is married to a specific idea of what an opera and Italian music should sound like, how pathetic!

    1. You liked it, good for you. However, if you had bothered to read pretty much anything else I’ve published here, like this, you would have tried to work up a little stronger insult. I’m married to a set of values and morals, and Oceanic Verses offended them. I can say with pretty much objective assurance that the composer is absolutely not ‘thinking outside the box;’ a libretto that is a treacly and politically correct lecture and music that would fit perfectly into television ads for airlines and safely ‘exotic’ vacation destinations for the white, Western bourgeoisie is pandering, and pandering is, given the day, the worst offense of anyone who claims to be an artist.

      Of course, some people prefer Eros Ramazotti, while I prefer Paolo Conte. Whatever that may mean, Eros’ box is tiny, Paolo’s is expansive. Glad you dug the music, but if you have the courage of your own convictions about ‘what an opera and Italian music should sound like,’ I expect you’ll be going to see La porta della legge. Or maybe not.

  4. When you write (improperly written, btw) of Oceanic Verses: “a libretto that is a treacly and politically correct lecture and music that would fit perfectly into television ads for airlines and safely ‘exotic’ vacation destinations for the white, Western bourgeoisie is pandering, and pandering is, given the day, the worst offense of anyone who claims to be an artist.” How could that be anything but a gratuitous and angry rant? In addition to completely disagreeing with you, I have serious questions about the depth of your understanding of the work after just ONE listening.
    Get a life.

    1. ‘improperly?’ Do tell. But many thanks for the constructive criticism, ‘get a life.’

      Oceanic Verses was terrible on multiple levels. Saying so, and saying why, is not gratuitous in any way. And as a critic, even one without a life, I’m entitled to my anger, especially when the work in question dictates a Manichean aesthetic and social message that makes anyone who doesn’t like it a bad guy. You are exhibit #1 for it’s manipulative quality. SInce the work is about how legendarily awesome women are, it can be clothed in dull, shallow music, bad vocal writing, an incomprehensible structure and endless emotionally sincere and musically false climaxes. One must applaud and the terrible music and aesthetic must be ignored, or else one is ‘angry’ and ‘ranting.’ The piece is pure propaganda, again you are demonstrating that.

      Works like this are immoral; the only value they seem to hold is self-adoration and it is they that are gratuitous, pandering with their insincere charms while they pick our emotional wallet. Puccini is like that too, as is Strauss and Michael Daugherty. Perhaps you just don’t hear enough music, perhaps the dotted rhythms in drums and strings that have been programmed via commercial culture to signify uplift and safe exoticism have never reached you in, literally, airline ads and before that The Lion King. They have reached me, I have heard them, they do not surprise and delight. So perhaps since I have that aural experience, I might actually be able to understand that music when heard in this context. Like it or not, I have 100% faith in what my ears and experience and knowledge tell me, your are free to trust that or not, and if you don’t that’s fine with me. But by your (non-gratuitous, non-angry) rant, you I’m sure have equally serious questions about the depth of understanding of the people who leapt to their feet to applaud after just ONE listening. Because it works both ways; if I cannot know or understand enough about a work to hate it after one listening, than no one can know enough to love it after one listening. But of course you disagree with my opinion, so you probably feel completely entitled to love it after one listening. Funny how it works out that way. I would also add, gratuitously I’m sure, that you probably can’t trust my praise of your most recent release and performances.

      ‘Get a life?’ I didn’t know people still said that outside of the Jerry Springer show.

  5. The “bearded dude” who was “playing the squeezebox and singing Italian, badly” is actually 100% Italian and was flown over for the performance. I think he might know his language pretty well. Maybe this is embarrassing for you or maybe you will say something cleaver in response.

    1. Fantastic, hope he was paid well. You are reinforcing how truly terrible this piece of music was: the music is a poor imitation and pastiche of The Lion King and various folk styles, all of which are better and more interesting in the original. The schematic structure means that the musical ideas, which are weak, go on too long or are never given time to possibly develop into something more interesting, and the transitions are amateurish. If that was all, the piece would just be dull and forgettable. But it hides behind it’s message — itself both anodyne and unobjectionable — setting itself up defensively so that if you don’t like it, you’re a bad person. That is a cowardly cop-out, and is aesthetically immoral. Thanks for reinforcing my view.

      And as for the bearded dude, in the context of the piece he was given music that made NO SENSE whatsoever, had no reason other than to put a meaningless stamp of ethnic authenticity, and yeah, Italian is a highly intelligible language even when sung in high Romantic style, which I’m sure you know because of course you’re a big opera fan and know your bel canto and Verdi, and his articulation was unintelligible. But, Authenticity!

      When a cat looks at a king, the courtiers reflexively turn Falstaffian, huffing and puffing. That’s embarrassing, and I’m embarrassed for all of your defensiveness and faux-trage. This cat looks at kings, and if the kings really deserve to wear their crowns, then they had better live with it and learn from it.

      By the way, it’s not clever, it’s called snark, and you’re not good at it. You can’t even find the active site.

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