David Bedford: Composer whose work encompassed classical music, the avant garde, pop and prog rock

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The Independent Online

The British composer and arranger David Bedford was impossible to pigeonhole.

Connoisseurs of psychedelic music and progressive rock discovered him via the distinctive orchestral settings he created for the maverick singer-songwriters Kevin Ayers and Roy Harper in the late 1960s and early '70s, and his many collaborations with the multi-instrumentalist and composer Mike Oldfield throughout the '70s and '80s. Pop aficionados enjoyed his orchestral arrangements for such disparate acts as a-ha, Billy Bragg, China Crisis, Elvis Costello, Enya, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Madness and Propaganda in the 1980s and '90s.

Unsuspecting tourists visiting the Royal Observatory in Greenwich following the renovation of the room containing the Great Equatorial Telescope in 1993 heard a 10-minute composition of his, subsequently expanded into a slowly shifting one-hour suite and album, Great Equatorial. Horror fans watching episodes of the Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense were spooked by the eerie original music he contributed to the mid-'80s TV series.

Yet these were only some of the most visible examples of a considerable body of work and a wide-ranging career that also encompassed teaching and his campaigning on behalf of creatives for the Performing Rights Society and BASCA, the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.

Born in Hendon, north London, in 1937, he was the scion of a distinguished musical family. His mother, Lesley Duff, sang with the English Opera Group and premiered several of Benjamin Britten's operas, and he displayed many of the polymath qualities of his paternal grandfather, Herbert Bedford, a painter, author and composer.

"There was music around the whole time. We used to play piano duets, and I played the oboe," he recalled. "Both my brothers are musicians, though I'm the only one who decided I wanted to make my own music up."

Bedford's paternal grandmother, Liza Lehmann, died two decades before he was born, but the parlour ballads and children's songs she composed were part of the family history and undoubtedly instilled in him the sense of fun that inspired pieces like An Exciting New Game for Children of All Ages, With 100 Kazoos and the recordings of vaudeville and British music-hall songs he made 1970s with the saxophonist Lol Coxhill for Dandelion, the John Peel label which also issued his quirky Nurses Song with Elephants album.

Precocious and gifted, he began composing at the age of seven and attended Lancing College, the West Sussex public school. He later studied under Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy of Music, and in 1961 was awarded a grant to travel to Venice where he was taught by the Modernist composer Luigi Nono. After marrying and becoming a father for the first time, he took the sensible option of qualifying as a music teacher in 1963. "In those days, if you were writing avant-garde music, it was impossible to earn a living. My pieces were being performed, but the royalties from that are minute."

In 1968, he scored a show called From Marie Antoinette to the Beatles at the Roundhouse in London. This brought him to the attention of Ayers, a former member of Soft Machine in need of an arranger for his 1969 solo debut, Joy of a Toy. Bedford became Ayers' right-hand man, not only arranging but also playing keyboards on his first album and assembling The Whole World, the band featuring Coxhill and Oldfield who backed the whimsical singer on Shooting at the Moon (1970) and Whatevershebringswesing (1971).

Bedford was a pioneer at the interface of classical and rock. In 1970, the Whole World and the London Sinfonietta teamed up for The Garden of Love, a piece inspired by William Blake, at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, but it was Oldfield who found the way forward with Tubular Bells in 1973. Acknowledging the mentoring role Bedford played, Oldfield says: "His support for my music in the early 1970s, before Tubular Bells was successful, gave me the will to carry on making instrumental music, even when my work was rejected by all record companies."

Bedford arranged The Orchestral Tubular Bells performances and live recording, as well as Hergest Ridge, Oldfield's next studio effort. Their association continued through several more albums and Oldfield's soundtrack for Roland Joffé's The Killing Fields (1984). He was choral co-ordinator for Joffé's next project, The Mission (1986).

In the mid-1970s, Bedford also signed to Virgin and made several epic albums that reflected his interests in science fiction, astrology and ancient history, including Star's End, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (narrated by Robert Powell), The Odyssey and the wonderful Instructions for Angels inspired by the poems of Kenneth Patchen. These often featured guest appearances by Oldfield, who bankrolled the 1983 recording and release of the ambitious Star Clusters, Nebulae & Places in Devon, written for brass and choir in 1971.

Bedford provided striking orchestral arrangements for two of Roy Harper's seminal albums, Stormcock (1971) and Valentine (1974), as well as Music Inspired by the Snow Goose (1975), the hit album by Camel. The Song of the White Horse was commissioned by the BBC in 1977 for an Omnibus film about the Ridgeway footpath which leads to the White Horse of Uffington.

Bedford stopped teaching in 1980 but remained passionate about education and was appointed youth music director of the English Sinfonia in 1986. Works like Seascapes (1986) and Frameworks (1989) called for non-professional musicians alongside the orchestra, while Stories from the Dreamtime (1991), Over the Wine-Dark Sea (2005) and Gods, Goddesses and Magical Creatures (2007) involved deaf children and adults with special needs.

The only musician to have featured on both the BBC Proms and The Old Grey Whistle Test, he never rested on his laurels. "There are lots of composers whose styles have changed very minimally over 20 or 30 years, but I've changed quite a lot," he said.

David Vickerman Bedford, composer, arranger and conductor: born London 4 August 1937; married 1958 Maureen Parsonage (divorced; two daughters), 1969 Susan Pilgrim (divorced; two daughters), 1994 Allison Powell (one son, two daughters); died 1 October 2011.

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