In addition to progressive rock, I harbour an interest in architecture and last Saturday I signed up to 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 of the 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 blogged 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 prog to develop. I found myself surrounded by the former-imprinted concrete of the Southbank again last week, to hear the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Michael Seal performing pieces for David Bedford at 80 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Bedford died from lung cancer aged 74, in October 2011; he would have been 80 this August.
Bedford was one of the foremost proponents of providing universal access to high culture, whether through his best known work, orchestrating Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and his time as arranger and keyboard player for Kevin Ayres’ The Whole World or with his approach to composition; charts using pictures, rather than staves and notes and advocacy for unusual instrumentation, employing balloons, kazoos and even suggesting at one time that cans of dog biscuits were just as good as maracas.
One of the pieces last Tuesday was Orchestral Tubular Bells, marking a return to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for Bedford with 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.
My interest in the work of Bedford was first sparked by Oldfield’s 1974 sophomore release Hergest Ridge when I bought it in 1975. It remains my favourite Oldfield album, largely because it seems to have been influenced by the style of Romantic composers, its development and execution aided by supplementary musicians playing instruments associated with classical orchestras. Around this time I’d have also picked up the sleeve of Star’s End (1974) and later Instructions for Angels (1977) while browsing in record stores, though I never bought either record. In my opinion, developed over the last 45 years, 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 even employed another avant garde innovation, helium gas 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.
The White Horse dates from around the Bronze Age, created by carving trenches into the hillside which were filled with crushed chalk. Part of a wider ancient landscape which includes the Blowing Stone, a perforated sarsen stone used in Bedford’s composition, the horse can be seen from miles away, as though leaping across the head of a dramatic, dry valley. One of my friends from university may have bought the Instructions for Angels LP in lieu of The Song of the White Horse, because the latter wasn’t available until 1983. It wasn’t until much later that I started to collect Bedford’s music; first a 1977 live recording of The Odyssey on CD which is a relatively formal rock piece, then Star Clusters, Nebulae & Places in Devon/The Song of the White Horse (1983) located at a second-hand vinyl fair in Brighton, and then The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1975), first on CD and subsequently on vinyl from a Brighton flea market.
Seduced by the promise of a performance of The Orchestral Tubular Bells though quite happy to experience any of Bedford’s music I’d not heard, I signed up to the concert well over a year ago; it was only later that I learned that we’d also be treated to 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.
Programme notes written by Bedford’s daughter Tammy explain why Scanner’s work was included that evening; any celebration of his work had to include an acknowledgement of his support for fellow composers throughout his life, so commissioning someone whose compositional style was different from her father’s but who would be inspired by Bedford’s work, fitted in neatly with the idea of his 80th anniversary. Tammy Bedford had known Scanner since 2002 and was aware of his works created in response to other musicians, but also that he respected her father’s work, so he was invited to write a piece for the concert. Interviewed just before the composition was premiered, Scanner explained that A Little Bit of Everything 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.
When I first took my seat and saw the musicians appear I was a little surprised that a conventional orchestra was being used for a celebration of David Bedford; it was less surprising to see multi-instrumentalist, composer, instrument designer and Stick Men guitarist Markus Reuter, whose compositions share some traits with Bedford’s, sitting in the row behind. For those who like their avant-garde, there had been a performance of Bedford’s Balloon Music 1 in the foyer using members of the public before the concert proper but Symphony No. 1 (1984) conforms to a more traditional compositional style than the works associated with his atonal avant-garde output and rock (specifically crossover prog), employing a strongly melodic, tonal approach. Sitting in the third row was the first time I’d been close enough to an orchestra to relate to the instrumentation with a clear view of the ensemble slightly raised above the floor of the auditorium. 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 (an unnamed) orchestra which I now see has his stamp all over it.
Orchestras have changed very little in composition during the course of the 20th century, having expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, the size and make-up dictated by the writing of prominent composers of the time who were in turn largely influenced by the possibilities of the instruments available to them. The clarinet was not invented until around the turn of the 18th century, so it doesn’t appear in accurate renditions of Baroque music and valves for brass instruments were not invented until the early 19th century, at which point there was a rapid growth in both the number and the prominence of trumpets and horns, coinciding with the Romantic period. As the number of woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments increased, the size of each string section also increased in order to balance the output of the different sections of the orchestra.
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 comment from Neil Jellis, who had organised the tickets for the evening, that if you hadn’t heard the original, the music could well have been a classical composition. It’s possible that Bedford’s arrangement, while true to the recording, was the spur to Oldfield’s remastering of the classic album in 2009 in an attempt to bring out buried layers; the orchestral version does this so well. 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. There’s a brilliant YouTube clip of Hillage with the London Philharmonic playing Orchestral Tubular Bells at the Royal Albert Hall in 1974, causing consternation or confusion (or both) for one of the double bassists. Invited to play the music again, he had swapped his Stratocaster for a Steinberg GL2T, lost the woolly hat and wore his hair at a more conventional length. 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.