Monday, 25 January 2010

Luke Bedford - Good Dream She Has

The London premiere of Luke Bedford's Good Dream She Has by BCMG (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group) felt like a historic occasion. Bedford's music is highly individual and distinctive. It felt right that the Wigmore Hall, where he is now Composer in Residence, was filled with many notable British composers and musicians.

Good Dream She Has was premiered in 2008, but this was the first time it's been heard live in London. It lives up to its formidable reputation. From the first bars, you sense you're entering new, uncharted territory. It's scored for only three voices and small ensemble, but feels like a chorale, opening out into infinite space. The voices intersect and expand upon each other, a kind of intricate tracery that made me think of the vaulted ceilings of ancient cathedrals , where stone arches span open space, forming myriad patterns. Rising and falling cadences add to the effect of complex harmonies. They move, swelling and growing as naturally as breathing. It must be wonderful to sing these lines. Bedford's instinct for the way voice works is uncanny.

High voices are paired with sonorous ensemble. There are two Bb clarinets, one of them a bass, the subtle difference extending the oscillating effect, that's so marked in the voices. The text, by Glyn Maxwell. is taken from John Milton and refers to Adam and Eve, one created from the other's rib, so the idea of pairings, between voices and instruments, is deeply embedded. Yet this text and music are neither religious nor conventional. The mysterious wavering cadences feel primordial, like the tides. I thought of Sibelius's Luonnotar, where the universe is created from primeval ocean. "We know, we know no time, we know no time when we were not". The reverberating "o" sounds ebb and flow wonderfully, the balance between voices and their round-like overlap is exquisite. Later the resonant "o" sounds sharpen to "w" and "ee". "What there, what there thous seest, ...with thee it came, with thee..."

These magical cadences are held together by a recurrent pulse, a single chord that acts as a baseline. Percussion would be too obvious. Instead the chord is created several ways, sometimes through harp, guitar, bass and cello, so it varies in texture. Nor does it function as metronome. If you try to beat time, you realize the intervals aren't even and the chord doesn't always fall in line with the cadences. It's wonderfully subtle and elusive, opening out spatially, rather than restrictive. Only at the end are the large tubular bells struck, revealing the chord as a kind of tolling, marking a passage of time (and not any regular passage, at that).

In Bedford's own words : "...the music is dominated by the sound of a repeated G. It acts as a continuous linking device, whilst around it ideas develop, decay or return. With the repeated G acting as pivot point, I could move almost instantaneously ...from a moment of sombre refllection to more active material, but without the change being too abrupt. The repeated G is almost never on the conductor's beat, so there is a constant tension between the ensemble's downbeat and the pulsed G."

In this mysterious, magical piece, syntax and logic are irrelevant. Words pop up as if from the subconcious. "Eve" and "Empress". Sometimes Adam and Eve sing identifiable lines, sometimes they become parts in the ensemble of "Creatures", whose very nature is undefined. Somewhere along the way a "shape within the water" is glimpsed. It fades, but reacts to the viewer and returns, elusively, like the music itself. There's a lovely wavering passage where the instruments "sing" tracery like the voices and then Adam is suddenly heard, saying quite clearly "She disappeared". Conventional notions of word setting are irrelevant, too, for what's being created here is a whole new world of impressionist sound, whose meaning grows from creative intuition.

Superb performance by Claire Booth, Hilary Summers, Christopher Gillett and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Oliver Knussen.

Perhaps much will be made of the fact that the other items on this programme were "early" pieces, but that's misleading, for the relationships are much deeper and musically astute. Birtwistle's The World Is Discovered (1960-1) suggests the creation myth in Bedford's "new world", but also uses - entirely coincidentally - similarly complex cadences. They even share the unusual combination of guitar and harp.

Peter Maxwell Davies's Leopardi Fragments (also 1961) and Alexander Goehr's The Deluge (1957-8) demonstrated why the "Manchester" group were the dynamos of their time. They're both dramatic pieces, contrasting density and spareness for vivid impact. The Deluge also takes up the theme of new worlds being created from primordial chaos, in this case, the Flood. The text is by Sergei Eisenstein, so it evolves like a collage of images in film. Disparate images rush past, borne on the swirling deluge of sound. The phrases in the text and vocal line don't connect grammatically, but the effect is perfectly apposite. Again, the notion that meaning doesn't have to be spelled out, but can be created by combining voice with orchestral sound for impressionistic effect.

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