This Wednesday, London Sinfonietta presented Luke Bedford: In Portrait – a concert with a format that seemed almost too good to be true. In a short programme combining Luke Bedford’s Wonderful No-Headed Nightingale (2011–12), Renewal (2012–13) and Gérard Grisey’s Périodes (1974), conductor Sian Edwards and the London Sinfonietta beckoned us into a world of shifting soundscapes. The concert not only celebrated the international recognition of Luke Bedford’s work, but also invited the audience to scrutinize his new commission Renewal through a second hearing. It was an opportunity that brought with it exciting possibilities for our engagement with Bedford’s music.

Luke Bedford © Ben Ealovega
Luke Bedford
© Ben Ealovega

Bedford’s fascination with Gérard Grisey’s works was evident in this programme. Renewal clearly responded to the radical experiments with harmonic spectrums and gentle loosening of structural components present in Périodes. Wonderful No-Headed Nightingale, however, held a more distant relationship with Grisey’s work. The composition is a revised version of Bedford’s Wonderful Two-Headed Nightingale for solo violin, solo viola and fifteen players (2011). This work had been inspired by a 19th-century entertainment poster advertising a pair of conjoined singers.

Bedford set about creating a sound world whereby the soloists are bound on a course of symbiosis and constantly denied independence. In the Wonderful No-Headed Nightingale version, the soloists are absorbed into the ensemble. As a result of this, the musical struggle for freedom was a little less marked than it might have been with two performers enacting Bedford’s conflicting material.

Discussing his music in an interview towards the end of the concert, Bedford seemed keen not to classify any of his pieces as “programmatic”. The narrative behind Wonderful No-Headed Nightingale served as a trigger for an abstracted musical piece in which a range of harmonic inflections fought for precedence. Sharpened and flattened pitches frequently interfered with their “in-tune” counterparts. Bedford’s preoccupation with the wealth of hidden notes in between the keys on a piano clearly stems from Grisey’s inclusion of such untempered tuning in his writing. Yet, Bedford’s prominent use of fifth intervals, drones and majestic bow sweeps hinted at indeterminate folk references, and his music was highly evocative of the psychological tensions he envisaged in the lives of these conjoined singers.

Compared to the subtle referential world of Wonderful No-Headed Nightingale, Grisey’s Périodes sought to present the mundane as metaphysical. Composed as part of the cycle Les Espaces Acoustiques (1974–85), Périodes was devised as one of six pieces that progressively augment harmonic and sonic spectrums. The six movements of the cycle employ a range of instrumental groupings increasing in size: solo viola, seven musicians (Périodes), eighteen musicians, 33 musicians, and a large orchestra for two movements. Our perception of this composition was aided by a translation of Grisey’s own programme notes in which he makes observations about his personal musical language and its application in Périodes. He describes this movement for seven musicians as growing from the act of breathing, in a pattern of “inhalation”, “exhalation” and “rest”. With regard to musical structures he remarks “I call them ‘blurred’, as is our heart, our walk; never rigorously periodical but with a margin for fluctuation”.

It was an astute decision to sandwich Périodes in between the performances of Renewal. Bedford’s new composition, like Grisey’s, seemed to emerge naturally from a background atmosphere rather than commence decisively as an event. “Renewal is about creating something new from the rubble of each previous section. The piece is a celebration of renewal and regrowth, written in the full knowledge of its impermanence”, the composer observes. The music moved with impulsive energy, dismantling material as quickly as it had been gathered together. Bedford employed extended techniques, such as the bowing of antique cymbals and intensified string harmonics. In line with this, the work seemed to relish the minutest details of instrumental sound: this encompassed bowing along the bridge in the string parts and allowing notes to bend with decreasing lung pressure in the wind section. Perhaps the most captivating moment was when Bedford stripped his musical materials down to pure noise. As a bass drum delivered an unpredictable series of menacing beats, the brass and wind players produced chugging sounds through their mouthpieces, starting with vigorous energy and gradually deteriorating into sporadic echoes.

The interview prior to the second performance of Renewal ought to have enriched our understanding of this composition, but ultimately failed to do so. While Bedford certainly had interesting professional insights to share, the four musical extracts that he offered us appeared to demonstrate fairly ordinary procedures such as “transformations of pulses” and “constantly shifting tempi”. Nonetheless, the second performance did sound more cohesive to ears conditioned by the first hearing. The programme as a whole was very well received and it was encouraging to see one of London’s major concert venues lend this level of support and attentiveness to an emerging artist.

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