David Bedford: The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula
by John France
During the 1960s David Bedford (1937-2011) produced a considerable array of important compositions including Music for Albion Moonlight (1965), Piece for Mo (1963) and A Dream of the Seven Lost Stars (1964-65). In 1969 he wrote The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula as a commission from Peter Pears. The work was conceived for tenor and string group.
Tentacles was inspired by one of Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories – ‘Transience’ which is from the collection The Other Side of the Sky (1958). Bedford had shown a deep interest in astronomy and science fiction in a number of his compositions including ‘Some Stars above Magnitude 2.9’ for soprano and piano (1971), Star Clusters, Nebulae and Places in Devon for mixed chorus and brass (1971) and The Sword of Orion for instrumental ensemble (1970).
The literary conceit of ‘Transience’ is to give a prophetic overview of the history of humankind. The first part of the story concerns a Neolithic youth discovering the beach. In fact, he is the first person ever to set foot on the sand. The next section presents a young lad from the nineteen-sixties staying at a nearby holiday resort and enjoying ‘traditional’ beach activities: he builds a sandcastle which is subsequently destroyed by the waves. The final scene describes a child exploring the beach for the last time. This is long in the future, shortly before the Dark Nebula makes the world uninhabitable for human beings. His parents hasten him aboard the last spacecraft to leave the planet bound for a new home in a far galaxy. The beach remained, the waves still rolled in, but mankind had come and gone. Brian Dennis in Tempo (Winter 1969-70) suggests that it ‘is an attractive if rather sentimental little story…’
The story’s three sections are replicated in Bedford’s score with each section connected by a short instrumental interlude. Elizabeth Stokoe (British Music Now, ed. Foreman, 1975) pointed out that the composer has identified certain continuities in the story such as ‘the beach, the child, the incoming tide etc.’ and has created musical references to these that are characterised and developed when they recur in each of the story’s three parts.
David Bedford has conceived the vocal line as ‘lyrical’ rather than ‘dramatic’ with considerable use being made of melisma (a group of notes used to present a single syllable). The accompaniment is scored for three violins, two violas, two cellos and double bass: this utilises a variety of musical effects including glissandi and quarter tones. Stokoe (op.cit.) has pointed out that the instrumental interludes are ‘designed to contrast with the character of the vocal sections, in which orchestral sounds complement the shadings of the text, within a prevailing unity of mood.’ The voice and strings are evenly balanced with a careful blending of tone. Eric Warr in The Listener (5 March 1970) praised the ability of Bedford’s ‘instrumental contrivances [to] express fear and illimitable desolation…’
The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula was first performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday 22 September 1969 by Peter Pears with the London Sinfonietta under the composer’s direction. Other works heard at this concert included the first performance of Lutoslawski’s setting of the surrealist poet Jean-Francis Chabrun, Paroles Tissées, Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in Bb K.191 and his Clarinet Concerto in A K.622.
By far the most extensive near-contemporary study appeared in Tempo (op.cit.) by Brian Dennis. After an overview of the work’s concept Dennis suggests that it provided ‘a neat tripartite form of linked but strongly contrasted sections which Bedford characterises in an imaginative string accompaniment.’ He considers that the problem with this work was the coupling of a ‘sustained and lyrical vocal line’ with an ‘experimental accompaniment’. He wonders if Pears ‘rendering of the solo part may have been more ‘expressive’ than the composer had ideally imagined it.’ Dennis stated that Bedford had not pushed the avant-garde project forward as Stockhausen and Berio were doing at this time, but had reverted to a ‘Brittenesque atonality.’ He felt that Pears’ style reinforced this conceit. Dennis was impressed with the ‘admirable’ string writing. He thought that the composer had replaced the ‘noise-oriented crudities found in much of his earlier music, with subtle and sustained harmonic writing’ and wondered if Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Farben’ movement from his Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16 may have been a model for the microtone, the glissandi and the ‘hypnotic use of repetitions.’ Interestingly, Dennis concluded by suggesting that he ‘personally... felt that The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula could have been more successful if the story line had been spoken ‘(with as much variety of dramatic and poetic expression as possible) throughout the entire work-but it was a different, and more difficult problem that Bedford chose to grapple with.’
Musical Opinion (November 1969) simply stated that the work was ‘largely coloured by microtonal glissandi mostly of some gentleness and cosseted anarchy’ (whatever that may imply). It concluded by suggesting that the work lacked ‘resolution’ and was ‘fragile’ and ‘sometimes a little precious.’
Stephen Walsh writing in The Observer (28 September 1969) was not quite so fulsome in his praise. He insisted that Tentacles was ‘dry and contrived’ and considered that ‘it showed few signs of independent musical structure and slipped noiselessly from the memory as soon as it was over.’
The Manchester Guardian (22 June 1970) presented an interview between Peter Pears and Edward Greenfield examining the singer’s recent activities at The Maltings. Greenfield noted that Pears had recently sung Bedford’s Tentacles which was ‘the rise and fall of man on earth in three vivid fragments of space fiction’. The discussion suggests that the singer ‘keeps the most open mind’ on ‘the claims of the avant garde’. Pears was impressed with Bedford’s work but admits to ‘having had it out with him’ over the question of notation and wondered why ‘composers should think that only with their new notational methods can the singer be given freedom of expression?’ He [Pears] imagined that the vocalist was being treated as a machine by certain avant-garde composers. Greenfield concludes by suggesting that Pear’s ‘Bedford performance made very plain, [that] he is one of the handful [of singers] more adept than anyone at turning a craggy vocal line into something seemingly lyrical and lovely.’ Certainly, ‘craggy’ is not an adjective I would have used in describing Bedford’s Tentacles.
Peter Aston, reviewing the score in Music & Letters (Volume 57, October 1976) notes the work’s concern with the ‘transientness of happiness and childhood innocence.’ He considers that it is an ‘evocative piece’ in which Bedford’s music ‘underlines the text’s nature images and sense of impending loss.’ This is achieved by ‘a fair degree of word painting’ in the voice part which ‘…develops and projects the verbal images unselfconsciously so that they remain part of the essentially lyrical melodic patterns.’
Aston has hit the nail on the head with this observation. Bedford, although writing in what would have been considered in 1969 an avant-garde style, has retained a lyrical vocal line for Peter Pears that looks back to Benjamin Britten and even further to Purcell. The coherence of the string part lends considerable magic to the work and the listener is barely conscious that the composer is using ‘advanced’ instrumental: it all seems so perfectly natural.
The broadcast premiere was on BBC Radio 3 on 27 February 1970 with the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Atherton.
The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula was originally released on Decca Headline HEAD3 with Peter Pears as soloist and David Bedford conducting the London Sinfonietta. The duration is just over seventeen minutes. It was recorded during September 1972 at the Maltings, Snape. The LP also included Witold Lutoslawski’s Paroles Tissées, and Lennox Berkeley’s Four Ronsard Sonnets, both conducted by the respective composers.
The Gramophone reviewer (DM) (May 1974) concludes that Peter Pears sings this ‘long restrained narration’ with ‘tact and fatal clarity’ and his declamation is ‘as flawless as ever’. On the negative side he believed that the music ‘doesn’t sound incoherent, but it makes no real cumulative effect.’
Music and Musicians (September 1974), reviewing the record, notes that is ‘a brave act’ to take a short story of science fiction in which the text must be presumed to be of some importance and then set it for voice and illustrate it by stringed orchestra.’ Malcolm Barry deems that Arthur C. Clarke’s story ‘is perfectly clear and does not need musical elaboration or illustration to make it point.’ He thinks that the singing (and indeed the whole piece as music) is superfluous and the ‘background is annoying.’ Barry concludes by noting Bedford’s undoubted skill as a composer but suggests that ‘he does his cause no service by such a weak piece. Bravery is not enough.’
What most impressed me most with the recording of this work was the wonderfully restrained vocal part delivered by Peter Pears. Many people have found that his voice is not to their taste finding it strained or that its ‘reedy timbre was so idiosyncratic that... it came between them and the music…’ (David Cairns, Sunday Times, 1986). Yet in Tentacles Pears manages to present this recitative-like text with an elegance and reserve that is totally satisfying and often poignant. The critic in The Listener (op.cit.) is justified in suggesting that Pears’ delivery is ‘visionary’.
My own opinion is that The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula is a perfectly stated work that is enhanced by Peter Pears’ intensely thoughtful realisation of the story. I cannot agree with the reviewer in Musical Events (November 1969) who declared that Bedford’s work ‘was neat but of no great depth’. The vocal line is integral to the work and what David Bedford has achieved is a near-perfect synthesis of vocal line and accompaniment which are from two discreet musical idioms. From this point of view it is surely a work of genius. The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula stands the test of time and deserves to be in the CD listings.
A recording of The Tentacles of the Dark Nebula is available on YouTube.