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Luke Bedford is a young British composer who has quietly made a significant name among the composers of his generation with a series of award winning scores that are now being performed internationally.
Luke was born in 1978 and studied composition at the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music with Edwin Roxburgh and Simon Bainbridge.
Bedford was the first ever composer in residence at the Wigmore Hall in London. Prizes include the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Artists Award in 2007, the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung Composer’s Prize in music 2012, and several British Composer Awards.
The song cycle Or Voit Tout En Aventure was premièred by the London Sinfonietta with Claire Booth (soprano) and Oliver Knussen in 2006. Tom Service wrote ‘one of the most outstanding pieces by any composer I’ve ever experienced – music of brooding expressive intensity and charged with that indefinable quality that makes a piece sound as if it was written out of sheer necessity.’ It has since received many further performances, including a tour across Europe by Ensemble Modern, with whom he also travelled to Johannesburg for a residency in 2008.
Bedford’s first opera Seven Angels was premièred in 2011 by the Opera Group and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. His second highly acclaimed opera, Through His Teeth (libretto: David Harrower) was premièred at the Royal Opera House in 2014. Both have received further productions in Germany and the USA.
A new orchestral score Instability commissioned by the BBC Proms was premièred in August 2015 by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Juanjo Mena. A concerto for the Arcis Saxophone Quartet and Deutsche Symphonie Orchester was premièred at the Berlin Philharmonie in October 2017.
A portrait CD of his music was produced by Col Legno in 2012, and a studio recording of Through His Teeth was released on the bastille musique label in autumn 2017.
Luke Bedford was born in 1978 and studied composition at the Royal College of Music with Edwin Roxburgh and Simon Bainbridge, following a Foundation Scholarship. He then gained a subsequent scholarship to study for a Masters degree at the Royal Academy of Music, again with Simon Bainbridge, with funds provided by the RVW Trust, the Countess of Munster Musical Trust, and the 2000 Mendelssohn Scholarship.
In 2001, the London Sinfonietta premièred Five Abstracts - a chamber work for 14 players. A BBC commission followed - Rode with Darkness, a work for large orchestra, which was premièred by the Hallé Orchestra under Mark Elder in January 2004. The work received its German première in January 2005 from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by George Benjamin. In February 2006, Slow Music and Man Shoots Strangers From Skyscraper – both for an ensemble of 8 players – were performed by the Philharmonia as part of their "Music of Today" series.
Later that year, the song cycle Or Voit Tout En Aventure was premièred by the London Sinfonietta with Claire Booth (soprano) and Oliver Knussen. The six movements of the work are settings of three texts written in medieval French and Italian, which are linked in thematic ways by the music. With critics claiming that it "stole the show" at the first performance and how startled they were at the maturity of the music, it has since received many further performances, including a tour across Europe by Ensemble Modern with Anu Komsi and George Benjamin.
The orchestral work Outblaze the Sky was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra as part of their "Sound Adventures" series and premièred at the Barbican in April 2007 with Daniel Harding. The title is inspired by the composer’s own reading - a re-working of a phrase in D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel, which he read whilst composing this work. Bedford was particularly inspired by the "dreamlike and highly charged" poem near the start of the novel, which seemed in certain ways to have parallels with the music that he was writing.
Commissioned by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Wreathe was premièred in December 2007, conducted by Thierry Fischer. Creating a work fifty-percent longer than anything he had previously written, Bedford was keen not to "pre-plan the actual shape of the piece, but to discover it from the material [he] was working with." Extra weight was given to the lowest orchestral register through the use of a contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet. These darker characteristics dominate much of the music, although their introduction is gradual, appearing "after the predominance of middle and upper registers at the opening of the piece."
Bedford’s commission from the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Good Dream She Has, received its première in April 2008. The piece is scored for an ensemble of 15 players and three solo singers, the text being a re-writing of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Oliver Knussen conducted the first performance at the CBSO centre.
Continuing the Milton theme – as part of their celebrations of Milton’s 400th anniversary – the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin recently premièred Bedford’s latest composition On Time, the text taken and adapted from the poem of the same name. Kai-Uwe Jirka led the Berlin Singakademie and Kammersymphonie Berlin in the composer’s first European world première on 5th July 2008.
His accolades include "The best piece by a composer under 30" at the 2005 International Rostrum for Composers in Vienna, the BBC Radio 3 "Listeners’ Prize" at the 2004 British Composer Awards and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s "Composition Prize for composers under 29" in 2000.
Or Voit Tout En Aventure was nominated for the Large-Scale Composition Award at the 2007 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, and Bedford was recently the recipient of a prestigious Paul Hamlyn Artists’ Award. Wreathe won the British Composer Award in the orchestral category in 2008.
As part of the Ensemble Modern’s Into … project, Bedford spent a month in Johannesburg in 2008, resulting in the composition of By the Screen in the Sun at the Hill on the Gold, which was premièred in Berlin and Frankfurt in March 2009. Più Mosso was premièred by the CBSO Youth Orchestra conducted by Thomas Søndergård in November 2009.
In 2010, the Hallé Orchestra gave the world première of his work, At Three and Two, as part of their Mahler in Manchester series.
Bedford’s first opera – Seven Angels, based on Milton’s Paradise Lost – was premièred in 2011 by the Opera Group and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.
Bedford was the first ever composer in residence at the Wigmore Hall in London, which has earned him several commissions, including the string quartet Nine Little Boxes, All Carefully Packed (2011).
In Feburary 2012 Wonderful Two-Headed Nightingale was given its world première by the Scottish Ensemble. Bedford was awarded the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung Composer’s Prize in music in the same year, and the world premières of Wonderful No-Headed Nightingale and Three Intermezzi took place.
On 28 October 2013, the Arditti String Quartet performed the world première of Wonderful Four-Headed Nightingale for string quartet at Wien Modern.
In 2014, his highly acclaimed opera Through His Teeth (libretto: David Harrower) was premièred at the Royal Opera House.
Luke Bedford received a composer’s award from the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation in June 2012. As part of the foundation’s commitment to young composers, a portrait CD will be released by col legno. Markus Böggemann took this opportunity to look closer at some of Bedford’s works.
What are a composer’s tools? If we take the question literally, the answer is still "pencil and paper," although obviously we now have the computer, which is playing the role the piano had in the 19th century. However, looking at the question in a broader, metaphorical way as one addressing the individual peculiarities of musical thinking and the ways of realising it, it becomes clear that every composer would carry his own, customised toolkit with him.
Focus and enlargement
In Luke Bedford’s case, the kit’s many items would include a burning lens and a magnifying glass, since his compositional approach consists of the particular interconnection between focus and enlargement. On the one hand, his music features concentration on detail and a marked interest in distinct gestures, whereas it attains its specific sonority by enlarging and multiplying those gestures and transferring them to the instrumental and vocal forces. By engrossing himself in a particular detail, Bedford can unfold large-scale textures and combine opposing dynamics – an idiosyncratic trait which permeates his music.
That is immediately apparent with his 2008 ensemble piece By the Screen in the Sun at the Hill on the Gold; a simple arpeggio figure dominates the music’s entire contour and progression – the figure’s multifarious, multilayered rhythmical variants generate colour fields, now shimmering, now shaded, before the figure ultimately loses its already labile physiognomy, turning into noise and finally vanishing.
The piece was the result of a musical reflex from a four-week stay in Johannesburg, where Bedford took part in the "into …" Project hosted by the Siemens Arts Program and the Ensemble Modern. Its title evokes an unusual location (a deserted drive-in cinema above Johannesburg, on a slag heap 50 metres high) and the impressions it made, perhaps giving rise to parallels between exploiting musical material to exhaustion and the ravages left from ruthless mining.
Apart from such more or less specific associations, Bedford’s music is also fascinating in terms of how he deliberately reduces his stock of materials; he opens up the potentials of the fundamental gestures and motifs to their core, and he does not shy away from probing down into their very bones.
Further regarding the material forming the basis of his compositional process, a scrap from the store of handed down tradition may well become an element in the work. Thus the orchestral emphasis in Outblaze the Sky (2006), scored for large forces, is an outgrowth from the potent admixture of a quasi-Mahlerian sonic scenario, its calculated blur extending over several parameters at once. The instrumental colour, harmonic scheme and the temporal structure meld into a complex unity, the elemental difference between the horizontal and the vertical, line and chord vanishing in music dominated by Klangfarbe, approached with an intensity devoid of subject.
The events in this work and some of Bedford’s other pieces are directly derived from the instrumental forces; they are like a laboratory in which he tries out new sonic possibilities while, at the same time, providing stimulus and layout for the dramaturgy of his compositional processes.
Just as characteristic – if not more so – as the correlation of formal and sonic dimensions, however, is that the processes thus designed in Bedford’s music are not agonal or cataclysmic; the paradigm of his formal thinking is not the finality of the drama, but the principal incompleteness of the self-transcendent developments, as in the way that pieces like Chiaroscuro and Outblaze the Sky do not actually close; they stop. They make no pretence to any tonality; instead, they stage sonic events which seem to exist beyond their own limits.
This formal thinking results in a play of options of nonlinear, multidirectional processes. Thus the structure of Man Shoots Strangers from Skyscraper (2002) draws on Luis Bunuel’s film Le phantom de la liberté, which investigates precisely those options. Just as the film seems to aimlessly follow various characters (instead of subordinating them to a linear plot), Bedford’s music seeks a directional change motivated by the slightest impulse, making the form seem like a space encompassing options, like an almost unintentionally perambulated series of tangents, variably arrayed.
Behind such an idea of formally discrete association – and the notion of superordinated processes in which the music participates rather than dominates – we find the omnipresent utopia of a musique informelle – yet, on the other hand, Bedford finds stimuli of a formal and dramaturgical nature – as he himself admits – in comedy shows, with their juggling of several plotlines. In both cases, the objective is the same: the greatest possible design flexibility while simultaneously maintaining maximum contextual interrelation of the design thus shaped.
This is an endeavour which arose long before the 20th century, of course; in a certain sense, the question of how to achieve that objective already determines the high-carat, ars subtilior Hall of Mirrors in the 14th century, on which Bedford based his song cycle Or voit tout en aventure (2005–2006). Divested of their original musical context, they function in Bedford’s composition as linguistically foreign and yet, from the thematic viewpoint, curiously familiar messages from the past, gathered together in music at once remote and incisively intense.
By contrast, adaptation of specific ars subtilior techniques is of lesser importance, even if, as in the third piece, Nos faysoms contre nature, the simultaneity of competing rhythmic subdivisions does allow a glimpse of thinking in terms of temporal proportion. Instead, trans-parametrical thinking predominates once more; note how, in the cycle’s first pieces, the fully-orchestrated pitches of the song melody subsequently add up to form accompanying chords, thus interlocking sound and line.
Finally, sonic capacities also define the newest piece on the new CD, Wonderful Two-Headed Nightingale (2011), a double concerto for violin, viola and small orchestra; although the instrumentation is modelled on Mozart’s KV 364 Sinfonia concertante, the piece otherwise goes very much its own way. The solo instruments’ open strings generate the basis for the work’s harmonic scheme, essentially founded on added pairs of fifths (some of them using quarter-tones later on as the music progresses). But above all, the work’s instrumental characterisation also yields up a dramaturgical one, lending new finesses to the concept of concertising.
In line with its title and its allusion to the Siamese twins who, in 19th-century England, appeared as a singing curiosity attraction, the two solo instruments begin as a closely attached couple, their musical passages almost always parallel. Their vain attempts to disunite or unify result in veritable, highly energetic musical theatre, wherein the dramatist and – not least – comedian in Bedford’s persona come to the fore; as with his other works, the manifold tonal shading and the brilliant Klangfarbe on the surface and the cool illumination they radiate ensure its immediacy and its captivating power.
Read the full review.
Excerpts from Colin Clarke’s review for Tempo:
Wonderful Two-headed Nightingale: […] The hyper-gestural opening, the minimalist-influenced shards of accompaniment that underpin yearning, quasi-Romantic solo lines all speak of a major imagination at work. […] This live performance is simply remarkable in its intensity.
By the Screen in the Sun at the Hill on the Gold: […] Bedford takes the simple device of arpeggio and saturates his texture with it. The irregularity of the repetitions make the work’s form of hypnosis (for it does have one, in its repetitions of cells) rather removed from that of the mainstream minimalists; the work’s surface is glistening and huge, moving to manic passages in which the pitch rises to the extreme top end in a series of explosions. This top-class recording (Alte Oper, Frankfurt) was made the day after the world première.
Chiaroscuro: […] Juxtaposing [piano, violin, violoncello] shows the true range of Bedford’s expressive vocabulary.
Or voit tout en aventure: […] Perhaps most impressive is the almost Mahlerian processional of the fourth movement, "Je Chante Ung Chant" (I sing a song). This superbly produced disc confirms that Luke Bedford is a major voice.
Colin Clarke, Tempo, Volume 67, Issue 265, July 2013, pp 112-112
The one vocal work included is particularly appealing.Or Voit Tout en Aventure – meaning something like "everything is out of control" – sets ancient texts about music that lament the loss of tunefulness and consonance. Bedford’s setting are very direct and well disciplined but his luminously dissonant harmony offers a persuasive case for allowing music to evolve, to be modern and even – to a degree – challenging.
A similar simplicity – sometimes raw, as with the open strings of Wonderful Two-Headed Nightingale – is to be found throughout but always (in admirably polished and persuasive performances) with a distinctive blend of energy and eloquence.
(Arnold Whittall, Gramophone December 2012).
Bedford's piece for the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Or Voit Tout en Aventure, which premiered last year, and which I heard at the Aldeburgh festival in June, is one of the most outstanding pieces by any young composer I've ever experienced – music of brooding expressive intensity and charged with that indefinable quality that makes a piece sound as if it was written out of sheer necessity.
(Tom Service, The Guardian 2007).