A notable characteristic of the composer David Bedford, who died on 1st October aged 74, was that he had a great sense of humour.
This was particularly irritating to the super-serious self-conscious arty masses, especially at the height of that syndrome in the mid-1960s when music had to be painfully severe to demonstrate the intense sufferings of its creators and their astonishing ability to represent this anguished misery with such acute complexity. The near impossible intricacy of those 1960s scores made performances rare. It also created a mysterious inner world for the composers in which they were well protected from the dangers of anyone understanding what they were doing, and thus raised them comfortably above criticism.
The danger of suggesting that ‘the Emperor had no clothes’ would be a devastating admission of ignorance among the cognoscenti. But David Bedford was able to laugh at all this, even though it occasionally proved a disadvantage – as when Pierre Boulez, a leader among the extraordinarily humourless musical coterie of that time, refused to conduct the 1971 premier of With 100 Kazoos, a piece involving lively audience participation.
I first met Bedford when we were together in the composition classes at Dartington Summer School over several years in the early 60s. He had a rather superior distant manner as he drifted among the rest of us serious-minded student participants, although our mentor at the time, the rightly revered rare real musician Hans Keller, would easily embrace both humour and solemnity with equal understanding, and did in fact produce his own comedy in the form of a piece by an invented composer for which he arranged a Radio 3 broadcast! Bedford rightly disliked the pretentious complexities, and perhaps warmed to the comparative ease with which a later Dartington tutor, Witold Lutosławski, avoided complications and produced highly musical compositions that were performer-friendly.
A few composers still delight in bewildering confusion, and are fortunate to have performers who are both willing and able to be put through the trials. From this 1960s musical chaos there arose, however, another issue of concern that is just as disconcerting. A growing freedom flourished which represented itself in music that bypassed all the hitherto accepted standards relating to harmony, counterpoint, architectural structure, logic and the subtleties of instrumental colour. Musical sounds could be constructed with computer programmes that could be operated by anyone, whether musically literate or not. The music itself could be multifaceted or extremely simple without involving the so-called composer in any severe effort, and be hailed as work of genius by equally ignorant producers and directors. Untaught pop musicians could create film scores and symphonies. Anyone can be a composer, and may even receive high profile awards and vast riches for what they do.
Unfortunately this is not a musical landscape that David Bedford’s sense of humour – or his equally important creative sensitivity – should have brought us into. I still believe that however bizarre the explorations that extrovert artists wishes to pursue, there are still enough perceptive people around able to sense the lack of a firm foundation in much of the music that is thrown at us now.
All we have to do is to help the young to experience what makes great work great. They can then come to it knowing.