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Luke Bedford: Instability

  • for large orchestra
  • 4 3 4 3 - 4 3 3 1 - perc(4), hp, org, str
  • Instrumentation details:
    1st piccolo
    2nd piccolo
    1st flute
    2nd flute
    1st oboe
    2nd oboe
    3rd oboe
    1st clarinet in Bb
    2nd clarinet in Bb
    1st bass clarinet in Bb
    2nd bass clarinet in Bb
    1st bassoon
    2nd bassoon
    1st horn in F
    2nd horn in F
    3rd horn in F
    4th horn in F
    1st trumpet in C
    2nd trumpet in C
    3rd trumpet in C
    1st trombone
    2nd trombone
    bass trombone
    violin I
    violin II
    double bass
  • Composer: Luke Bedford
  • Commission: Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and first performed by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena, on 1st August 2015 at the Royal Albert Hall, London as part of the BBC Proms 2015 season.

Work introduction

“Ideas in this piece are torn apart by a strange energy and reform in new, dynamic relationships. There is a constant tension between growing and collapsing. That which seems durable can vanish in an instant. The piece will include the Albert Hall organ, a detuned orchestra and possibly the first use of a cricket bat in an orchestral piece.” (Luke Bedford)

For listeners familiar with Luke Bedford’s music, the very title of his new orchestral piece seems surprising since one of the strongest characteristics of his work to date has been its obsession with underlying stability. Whether in Rode With Darkness – which is founded on a single pulse and just three chords – or the succession of single state meditations that make up his song cycle Or voit tout en aventure, there is always a palpable sense of (authorial) control coexistent with the fantasy of the music’s surface.

In By the Screen in the Sun at the Hill on the Gold, written for Ensemble Modern in 2008, Bedford created what is perhaps his most obsessive piece to date. The work fetishizes a descending melodic/harmonic idea and tests it to destruction by dissolving pitch and rhythm and even the instrumental colours themselves in a hair raising series of musical convulsions, seemingly willed by the music itself. Another important poetic element in By the Screen is the use of silence and it is silence – or near silence, since the Albert Hall organ plays a subtle and significant role in tonight’s new work – that is just one aspect of the new questioning spirit in Luke Bedford’s music.

Even at its most astringent, a defining characteristic of Bedford’s harmony has been its relation to the simplest modality, embracing common chords and tonally oriented cluster sounds, and in this respect Instability is consistent with this means of expression. What is new here is the way Bedford denatures these sounds through the use of quarter-tones throughout the composition, creating the impression of a music that exists in two harmonic dimensions simultaneously – something familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Such is the disorientation of musical perspective, by the time Bedford starts to develop a diatonic version of the opening chord into a longing melodic phrase on high cellos and low violins, it is the even tempered tune that feels out of kilter with its backdrop.

As a narrative, Instability found its unpredictable course half way through its composition – Bedford had been writing what he now describes as “five discrete and well-behaved movements which in a period of two days transformed into almost the complete work – as single span of music but fractured, creating a much more dynamic form.” Tearing up the movements as they were became a positive act of creative destruction.

The poetic impact of all this will be different for each listener but for Bedford himself, this new, more complex means of musical speech is wholly rooted in a desire for greater expressive frankness: “I wanted to express something closer to the actual world we live in and experience: a world of upheaval, of things spiraling out of control, of moments of rapture and loss, and most of all, of trying to keep hold of our humanity, despite all this.” For listeners familiar with Luke Bedford’s music, amidst all that is new in Instability, it is this direct sensory appeal of a music which reaches for the heart of the matter that comes as no surprise at all.

© Christopher Austin, 2015


The complete perusal score (PDF-preview)

World première

Royal Albert Hall, London (GB)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Juanjo Mena

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