David Bedford at 80 - Queen Elizabeth Hall
12th June 2018 (with Neil Jellis)
After progressive rock my next area of interest is architecture and on 9th June I attended a London Society lecture by Urban Design academic Dr Jane Clossick, ‘The Plan for London and the Concrete Better World’ at London Metropolitan University. Highlighting her talk with pertinent case studies to explore themes of civic, economic, social and architectural change, she began with Abercrombie’s Plan for London (1943-44) which represented a shift from cities simply growing around people to the modernist notion that man was able to plan the city using the view from above, with pedestrians and vehicles spatially separated and distinct zones for industry, commerce and housing, with the housing soaring above the smog of the city. Her enthusiasm for this unique phase in the history of the capital’s architecture and how it has left its indelible print on the urban grain of the city was not a straightforward paean to concrete because she was dismissive of some social housing schemes, citing the deliberate design of spaces which had not historically featured in neighbourhoods and how these became the focal points for antisocial behaviour; what she did admire was the idea of the Southbank which facilitated access to high culture for all social strata. I’ve previously written about the mistaken idea that progressive rock was elitist, personally believing that efforts to bridge high culture with popular culture coincided with a flourishing of civic architecture in concrete and that a wave of expansion of higher education institutions, often featuring iconic buildings in concrete, created a particular zeitgeist that allowed progressive rock to develop.
David Bedford, who died from lung cancer aged 74 in October 2011, would have been 80 in August 2018. Bedford was one of the foremost proponents of providing universal access to high culture whether through his most recognised work orchestrating Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, his time as arranger and keyboard player for Kevin Ayres’ The Whole World, with his approach to composition utilising charts with pictures rather than staves and notes, or advocating unusual instrumentation, employing balloons and kazoos. A few days after Dr Clossick’s lecture I found myself surrounded by the former-imprinted concrete of the Southbank to hear the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Michael Seal performing pieces for David Bedford at 80 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The main attraction was Orchestral Tubular Bells, marking a return to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Bedford and Oldfield’s music; Bedford played keyboards for an ensemble created to promote Tubular Bells in the Hall a month after it had been released in 1973, alongside Oldfield and a cast of musicians associated with Virgin Records including John Greaves and Fred Frith of Henry Cow and Steve Hillage from Gong.
In my opinion, Bedford’s scoring and arrangement for Camel’s Music Inspired by The Snow Goose (1975) is the best example of seamless blending of rock group and orchestra, but it was The Song of the White Horse, a piece originally commissioned for BBC TV’s Omnibus and aired in 1978 which most made me appreciate his music. The programme showed Bedford in the process of writing, rehearsing and recording the score as well as performing it, interspersed with footage of him riding his motorcycle along the route of the Ridgeway to the White Horse at Uffington, his inspiration for the commission. He utilised a small ensemble with brass and strings, borrowed Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge to help out on keyboards, and used the hand-picked female Queen’s College choir from his place of work and employed another avant garde innovation, using helium to increase the pitch of Diana Coulson’s vocals by around two octaves (speed of sound in air = 331 m/s; speed of sound in helium = 972 m/s) as the piece reached a climax of the libretto, GK Chesterton’s poem The Ballad of the White Horse celebrating King Alfred's victory over the Danes at the Battle of Englefield in 870.
Other pieces on the programme were Alleluia timpanis, Symphony No.1, and a guest composition, the world premiere of A Little Bit of Everything by Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner. Alleluia timpanis was commissioned for the King’s Lynn Festival in 1976 and incorporates the medieval Alleluia psallat theme, a joyous, uplifting refrain that interrupts, and contrasts with an ominous four-note descending line that is varied, developed and inverted throughout the piece, which forms the finale of Instructions for Angels. It was a rather good introduction to the evening.
Interviewed just before A Little Bit of Everything was premiered, Scanner explained that the composition wasn’t a cover version or arrangement of Bedford’s music, but used phrases from the works, much like Bedford himself had borrowed from other texts such as the Worcester Fragments in Alleluia timpanis, and presenting a form of time travel, highlighting the exploratory nature of Bedford’s compositions and combining the orchestra with live electronics played by Scanner himself, closing with synthesizers in a nod to Bedford’s use of the instrument in the mid 70s. The stage was mostly cleared for this piece, leaving only a small chamber orchestra with Scanner towards the edge of the platform on the left. In good Bedford tradition, the music brought the best out of the players, sounding fairly challenging though ultimately very satisfying. The one drawback was that from my seat, the electronics were a little under-mixed.
The BBC Concert Orchestra is not the biggest, with around 60 members on stage, but I found that being able to discern its organisation was helpful in discriminating how the piece had been scored, how the overall composition fitted together, and even how Bedford had so successfully blended Camel’s melodic progressive rock with the London Symphony Orchestra which I now see has his stamp all over it. Orchestral Tubular Bells was everything that I’d hoped for. I hadn’t heard the album since around the time of its release, but had to agree with the notion that if you hadn’t heard the original, the music could well have been a classical composition. One of the very few weak spots on the original, as much for the stomping rhythm as the vocals, is the ‘Piltdown Man’ section on side two, a nod to the perceived belief it was necessary to have singing on the album, which is covered much better by an orchestra. Another of the highlights was the guest appearance of Steve Hillage on guitar. After a cautious start he provided a surprisingly clean-toned blues-heavy solo, before switching on the distortion and giving us a tantalising glimpse of his trademark glissando guitar at the end of his appearance. He left the stage to rousing applause while the orchestra ploughed into the Sailor’s Hornpipe section, and they too were given an ovation that may have taken some of them by surprise.
The possibilities afforded to composers since the birth of electronic instruments together with a willingness to explore different fields ensured that formal music progressed. The appropriation of classical music forms by rock musicians from the late 60s onwards marked the birth of progressive rock. David Bedford was equally at home in both camps, at the forefront of a movement ensuring that all forms of music could be appreciated by everyone and anyone.
This review has been extracted from the lost blog ‘David Bedford at 80’ which was originally posted on 18th June 2018