Luke Bedford: Rode with Darkness

Luke Bedford Rode with Darkness
Rode with Darkness

Luke Bedford: Rode with Darkness

Year of composition:
Scored for:
for orchestra
Luke Bedford
3 3 3 3 - 4 3 3 1, timp, perc(3), hp, pno, str(16 14 12 10 8)
BBC Commission for the Hallé
Winner of the BBC Radio 3 Listeners' Award at the 2004 British Composer Awards. At the 2005 International Rostrum of Composers in Vienna it won the best piece by a composer under 30.
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Rode with Darkness

Work introduction

Luke Bedford’s second work for full orchestra (the first being the prize-winning Five Pieces) derives its title from Book 9 of Milton’s Paradise Lost where Satan, cast out from Eden by Gabriel, becomes “bent/On Man’s destruction” and determines to re-enter the garden undetected by Uriel – regent of the sun – and the Cherubim.


…thence full of anguish driven,

The space of seven continued nights he rode

With darkness; thrice the equinoctial line

He circled; four times crossed the car of night

From pole to pole, traversing each colure;

On the eighth returned…


Bedford chose his title after completing the composition, but what is significant here is that Milton’s description of the anguished Satan’s progress finds resonance in the momentum and expression of the new work’s musical journey.

In choosing titles for his pieces, Bedford has (until now) tended to eschew the poetic, preferring instead either the quirky (Broken Neon Arabesque, Man Shoots Strangers from Skyscraper) or the abstract (Five Pieces for Orchestra, Five Abstracts). However, what all these pieces have in common is a clarity of premise and purpose in which the ‘abstract’ logic of the musical process is always at the service of a distinctive, not to say poetic, sensibility.

Rode with Darkness is founded on four twelve-note chords that function as a harmonic skeleton: always present in the background, if not always apparently so. However, at least initially, Bedford does not deploy all twelve notes simultaneously, preferring to reveal only a few notes at a time, in varying instrumentation. The discipline imposed by the four chords yields a musical continuity of great suppleness and spontaneity. A similar sleight of hand can be found in the work’s approach to rhythm: a single tempo holds throughout, but just as the harmonic world is revealed only gradually, so the regular pulsing that will come to dominate the work emerges fitfully.

This gradual exposition of pulse and pitch determines Bedford’s approach to the orchestra, which becomes a giant resonating chamber for chords and melodic fragments made from (ever wilder) arpeggiation of the background harmony. The piece creates its own acoustic. Once a regular pulse is established (by timpani and a variety of percussion), Rode with Darkness proceeds inexorably with increasingly intense climaxes signalling the modulation from one skeleton chord to the next until all resonant orchestral texture is suddenly bled dry at this disturbing work’s conclusion.

© Christopher Austin

World première

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (GB)
Hallé Orchestra
Mark Elder

Press reviews

“There was a genuine warm welcome for the first performance of a BBC commission, Rode with Darkness, by Luke Bedford. The 25-year-old composer’s 12-minute tone-poem takes its title from Paradise Lost, when Satan is determined to re-enter the Garden of Eden and ‘for the space of seven continued nights he rode with darkness’ bent on man’s destruction. Bedford calls the piece ‘a night journey that gradually gets nastier’. It is a big crescendo, orchestrated with outstanding sureness both of sound and structure. 

Although based on four 12-note chords and fragments of melody, it gives the impression of being a continuously evolving melody, until its sinister percussive ending. One is accustomed to young composers today being accomplished technicians, but all too often their works are full of sound and fury signifying very little. Bedford has something to say and he says it dramatically and with real musical sensitivity. The performance gave the impression of being carefully prepared and of being rewarding to play. Elder should repeat this impressive piece soon so that more of its fascination can be explored.” (Michael Kennedy, The Sunday Telegraph)


“With the new year comes the first British orchestral premiere of 2004. Luke Bedford's Rode with Darkness, a BBC commission, is inspired by Satan's attempt to re-enter the garden of Eden but on Thursday, when the piece was first aired, we could as easily have been among Blake's dark satanic mills as Milton's Paradise Lost - from which Bedford drew the title of what is only his second work for full orchestra. In its shadowy landscape of mechanical industrial contours, Bedford's use of insistent rhythms, incandescent colours and an uneasy dynamism suggests that Satan's journey was not so much a return to a verdant garden of Eden as a cloven-hoofed trundle to a great smelting cathedral. 

If this makes it sound like nothing more than a cacophony of hammers, saws and files, Rode with Darkness is far more subtle than that, at least until it gets up its full head of steam. After some violent eruptions of sonority and a climax of beating instrumental rhetoric, the music simply runs out, leaving a trail of tapping, eerily disembodied percussion. It's an extraordinarily accomplished and compact night journey, ten muscular minutes of imaginatively scored sounds that I'd love to have heard again that evening.” (Lynne Walker, The Independent)


“Bedford's 10-minute piece had a clarity of focus and an atmosphere and expressive purpose that grabbed and held the audience. Its troubled non-resolution was as strikingly impressive as its slow gathering of pace and its harmonic and timbral imagination, and the performance was confident and shapely. Bedford's title, taken from Milton's Paradise Lost, was apparently an afterthought, but it is entirely appropriate nonetheless.” (David Fanning, The Telegraph) 


“The premiere of Rode with Darkness, a BBC commission from the 25-year-old Luke Bedford, proved a fine short essay. Beginning as a tutti study in tone-colour-melody built on four chromatic chords, it gathered energy from the pulsation of such percussion as güiro and sandpaper blocks until an ominous throbbing was all the texture.” (The Sunday Times)


“Between the two older works came the first performance of Rode with Darkness  -  a ten-minute orchestra piece by the 25-year-old Luke Bedford. Increasingly violent, increasingly splattered with events, the work is based on just four chords, slowly assembled then splintered into myriad minimalist patterns. At the same time the rhythms twist more and more frenetically against the straitjacket of a regular pulse, hammered out by percussion. Finally, all is exhausted and only the pulse is left, like a death-rattle. 

The piece’s title and inspiration are apparently derived from the outcast Satan’s furious flight round the Earth in Milton’s Paradise Lost . But to Bedford’s generation, I guess, such harrowing music would more readily evoke a bad trip of a more chemical nature.” (Richard Morrison, The Times)

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