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Song of the White Horse also featuring Star Clusters, Nebulae & Places in Devon
Nash Ensemble & Queens College Choir conducted by Steuart Bedford, with Mike Ratledge and David Bedford, keyboards, soloist Diana Coulson (Song of the White Horse) / Chorus and Brass of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Star Clusters…) * produced and engineered by Mike Oldfield
Classicprint CPVP011CD * [48:52]
Purchase direct

David Bedford is a composer with a foot in at least two camps. Born in 1937, he studied at the Royal College of Music under Lennox Berkeley, in Venice with Luigi Nono and at the RAI Electronic Music Studio in Milan. A contemporary composer with the reputation to have Radio 3 devote a whole 105 minute programme of late night broadcasting to his works in 1998, he is also a musician whose collaborations with Tubular Bells rock-composer Mike Oldfield span three decades, and who seems to be comfortable on that edge where progressive rock has ambitions to orchestral seriousness. In conjunction with Kevin Ayers of Soft Machine Bedford combined rock with acoustic music (their band was Whole World).

Star's End was perhaps the most acclaimed piece to come out of this period, and is just one of several to reveal Bedford's interest in the celestial lights: other works include A Dream of the Seven Lost Stars (1964-5) , Music for Albion Moonlight (1965), The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula (1969), The Sword of Orion (1970) Some Stars Above Magnitude 2.9 (1971), Twelve Hours of Sunset (1974), Ocean Star a Dreaming Song (1981), Of Stars, Dreams and Cymbals (1982), An Island in the Moon (1985-6). Given that Mike Oldfield has released a concept album based upon Arthur C. Clarke's Songs of Distant Earth, it is perhaps no surprise to discover that Bedford is currently at work on an oratorio based upon the same novel. Which brings us to this current disc, produced and engineered by Mike Oldfield, and Star Clusters, Nebulae & Places in Devon for mixed chorus and brass (1971).

The choir is divided in two. Choir one sings a text comprised of nothing but the names of star clusters and nebulae. Choir two, a text which is simply a list of place names in Devon (and progressive rock fans might like to note that one of them is Yes Tor, the feature which helped inspire the name of the 1978 album by the band Yes.) The only point of connection seems to be that there are many Bronze age remains in Devon, such that (the anonymous programme note, presumably written by the composer, explains), "When the hut-circles of the Bronze Age people were in daily use, roughly three and a half thousand years ago, the Globular Star Cluster in Hercules shone out as they slept." To which I have to add, "so what!" The writer further tells us, "When we look at it though a telescope, we are seeing exactly the same light as shone out over the Bronze Age people, for the cluster is some three and a half thousand light-years away and that is when the light started on its long journey to us." (my italics). Of course, the light that shone out over the Bronze Age people is not exactly the same light we see three and a half thousand years later. The light the Bronze Age people saw began its journey seven thousand years ago…

The whole concept strikes me as pretentious and pointless, and I am afraid the music impresses me little more than the idea behind it. It seems typical of late 60's experimental music, the concept given more value than the ears of the unfortunate listener. The actual names in the text are so fragmented into sung chords as to be unrecognisable, the result being a dissonant choral sound almost certainly inspired by a viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the music therein by Ligeti, while the agitated brass at times seems as if it may even have had an influence upon John Williams in his writing for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The range of bizarre vocal textures Bedford achieves is certainly accomplished, but in the end it all sounds rather too much like the music from some very dark and unsettling horror film, and I would happily never hear it again. The recording is vivid, but there is some occasional peak distortion on the left channel which is not really acceptable in a 1999 studio production.

The Song of the White Horse (1978) is in five sections but plays in one continuous track running 24 minutes. Written for an edition of the BBC series Omnibus, it is a musical evocation of the Ridgeway footpath between Wayland's Smithy (beyond the Bronze Age to a Stone Age burial chamber) and the old chalk hill feature, the White Horse of Uffington. Opening with lugubrious electronic keyboards, soon joined by static woodwind, the atmosphere evoked is not so distant from Bernard Herrmann's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959) film score. After this beginning, much use is made of delay effects, particularly on the trombones, combined with a comical ship's siren effect which proves to be the composer blowing into The Blowing Stone at the bottom of White Horse Hill. Then at 9:27 the song itself begins, first with a solo vocal, soon joined by an uncannily detached and tranquil children's choir. The words, taken from The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton certainly offer more substance than those of Star Clusters… In-fact, there are an awful lot of word to get though in this epic tale of 'the days of (King) Alfred'. Unfortunately the music is insufficient to maintain the interest as the choir wades its way steadily forward, while some of the synthesiser lines seem terribly dated. This central section lasts over ten minutes and does nothing but accelerate, becoming increasingly frenzied with the addition of more instruments. Ravel's Bolero, it is not. The Postlude, sung like the opening, by Diana Coulson, has an otherworldly appeal, but is insufficient to justify what has come before. At half the length this might be quite an interesting piece, but stretched so far it is simply too much of not enough.


Gary S. Dalkin




Gary S. Dalkin

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