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Simon Bainbridge

British composer born 30 August 1952 in London; died 2 April 2021.

The first trait one notices in Simon Bainbridge’s music is the allure of the sound. The second - and only because it is not immediately evident - is its unlimited power. Moving from one work to another, one begins to realize that this power operates on two levels: rhythmically - even when the music is slow and highly elastic - as well as spiritually. This effervescent combination was born of the composer’s constant search for the new. It would be hard to guess that Quintette pour Clarinette and For Miles had been written by the same person if one did not already know - and even harder to guess that the two pieces had been written within 18 months of each other. For Bainbridge, “style” was what happened when one gave up on accepting new challenges.

It is tempting to look back to his early experiences as explanation for Bainbridge’s adventurous spirit. Born in London in 1952, his father was an Australian painter, and his mother hailed from the United States. When he was about thirteen, Bainbridge enrolled in the Central Tutorial School for Young Musicians (back then he played clarinet), where he met Oliver Knussen, who would become a lifelong friend. London in Bainbridge’s youth was the scene of some of the city’s great orchestral performances, and the composer was lucky enough to hear Boulez rehearsing La Mer in 1965, and Colin Davis preparing Le Sacre du Printemps. During that same period of just a couple of years, one could hear performances of Stockhausen’s Gruppen or the major works of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, as well as emerging ensembles and composers such as the London Sinfonietta and Harrison Birtwistle, the Pierrot Players, or Peter Maxwell Davies. The young Bainbridge drank it all in.

Like many others in this gifted generation of British musicians, Bainbridge studied with John Lambert at the Royal College of Music from 1969 to 1972. He debuted as a composer while still in school, with a performance of his Spirogyra (which would later become part of Three Pieces for Chamber Ensembles) at the Aldeburgh festival in 1971. The following year, his String Quartet premiered in London, performed by the Yale Quartet, whose violist was none other than Walter Trampler. Trampler commissioned Bainbridge’s first work for orchestra, Viola Concerto (1976). Bainbridge at this time began developing a connection with the United States, spending the summers of 1973 and 1974 at Tanglewood, where Gunther Schuller headed the composition classes. He returned to the United States in 1978-79 on a bicentennial fellowship, then made his way back to London, inspired by the lively culture of new music in Manhattan.

Notably, Bainbridge embraced the “process music” of Steve Reich, although his interest in self-reproducing forms was already evident in Spirogyra, as was the freshness and the vigour of his writing for soloists and instrumental ensembles. His taste for the sound, texture, and freedom of jazz can also be traced back to these early years. And even in the works most closely connected to his time in New York, and thus to Reich – such as Music for Mel and Nora for oboe and piano (1979) – spinning arpeggios seem to scatter in all directions. Characteristically, he distances himself from stable patterns and familiar harmonies, and his reworking of Music for Mel and Nora into Concertante in Moto Perpetuo for oboe and nine musicians (1983) develops the harmonic shifts even further. Aptly, he described this reworked version as “inflexible and continuous,” explaining that it was “an affectionate character study” of his then two-year-old daughter Rebecca.

His notable works from the early 1980s include Landscapes and Magic Words for soprano and ensemble (1981), premiered by his wife Lynda Richardson; The Path to Othona (1982), an atmospheric landscape study that ultimately became a part of Three Pieces for Chamber Ensembles; and Fantasia for Double Orchestra (1983-84), in which Bainbridge finally called upon the formidable resources offered by an orchestra – with spectacular results. Fantasia is music at a grand scale. Only a composer with such a bold imagination as Bainbridge’s could make a fresh start from the held E-flat of The Ring, dividing the orchestra into two identical groups facing each other, in a way that opened up an opportunity for magnificent mixing, crossovers, and exchange. This work was Bainbridge’s hallmark accomplishment as composer-in-residence at Southern Arts (1983-85). After this time, he made his home in London, where he taught at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the Royal College of Music, and as a regular guest professor at the University of Cardiff.

Fantasiawas followed by a quieter period in Bainbridge’s composing career, due in part to his newfound interest in ballet and “live” computer music, both of which he deployed inTrace, which premiered in 1988. The end of the 1980s found him composing with more freedom and profusion than ever before. Voice, a mode of expression he had hitherto barely explored, became central to his work, as did the orchestra. Highlights of this period includeDouble Concertofor oboe and clarinet (1990);Caliban Fragments and Aria(1991) andToccata(1992); and “Ad Ora Incerta” - Four Orchestral Songs from Primo Levi(1994). In parallel to these creations, he pursued his passion for writing pieces of all varieties for smaller ensembles: for violin and marimba inMarimolin Inventions(1990), for viol consort inKinneret**Pulses(1992) andHenry’s**Mobile(1995), for classical formation inClarinet Quintet(1993), and for trumpet soloist with sextet inFor Miles (1994).

Many of these pieces were born of friendships with musicians, such as Double Concerto, written for Nicholas Daniel (who recorded Concertante in Moto Perpetuo), which Daniel performed with his wife, Joy Farrall. Mobile for English horn and piano (1991) was also written for Daniel, as part of a BBC memorial for Janet Craxton. Clarinet Quintet was composed for Farrall. For his 78th birthday, Walter Trampler received the gift of an extended version of Mobile for alto and four musicians (1994), a piece written as a contribution to the Composers’ Ensemble.

Although the compositions Bainbridge wrote after 1990 are surprisingly diverse, certain common threads connect them, and they all share that same quality of sound and energy. One commonality is the use of form built from shifting repetitions. This technique that stands out, for example, in Mobile and For Miles, both of which exude a certain elegiac wistfulness. For Miles, dedicated to Miles Davis, is a tribute to Davis and to his collaboration with the arranger Gil Evans. The first half of the piece is solemn and monumental; a series of variations in which the slow, brief chant of a trumpet unfolds against a solid field of harmonies, fusing with them so that they evolve as one in the second half of the piece. Mobile is built on an image drawn from an instant in the final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, bursting forth as if it were some uninterrupted surge of growth. At a grander scale, Toccata takes a stormy melody, then repeats and complicates it – rapidly, splendidly. The piece is a challenge even for highly experienced musicians, but as is true of all of Bainbridge’s work, it is a pleasure to learn and tremendously satisfying to master.

XXXX This paragraph appears to have been cut down from a longer one and I find it to be somewhat incoherent. XXXX Bainbridge was also fascinated by simultaneously pulsating rhythms, as in Kinneret Pulses. Writing for alto, the composer was seeking specific sounds without regard for tradition – and indeed,Mobilecan be said to be the only piece in his repertoire with a specific link to the work of another musician in the past. When it comes to rhythm and harmony, he demanded of both old and new instruments that they produce the same intensity of emotion and sound, translating the effects of light on water as Bainbridge experienced them on the shores of the Galilee. An abstract musical process linked to a lyric impulse may be more easily detectable in his shorter pieces, notablyFrom an English Folk Song for soprano and four musicians (1992), which builds a vocal and instrumental narrative in parallel to each other; both emerge simply, plunge into the strange an incongruous, and close with a brief return to simplicity.

The poems Bainbridge selected for certain other composition are more imagistic than narrative. In them, his music focused progressively on an image in a way that allowed something dense and unusual to emerge from a surrounding sonic landscape. This is the case, for example, in Herbsttag, for two unaccompanied and antiphonal choirs, in which a meditation by Rilke on autumn recalls the magnificent E-flat minor opening of Fantasia for Double Orchestra. A similar phenomenon may be detected in the sparkling arrangement for mezzo-soprano in Caliban’s “The isle is full of noises” speech in Caliban FragmentsandAria, a work of unusual sensuality even for Bainbridge.

All of the key elements in Bainbridge’s later work – sensuality, lyricism, focus on images, change and growth through reiteration, powerful melodies, interlocking beats, a passion for orchestral arrangements – come together in “Ad Ora Incerta” - Four Orchestral Songs from Primo Levi, one of Bainbridge’s masterpieces. The music warms Levi’s poems, written in the first winter following the end of the Second World War; one feels this warmth particularly in the vocal arrangement, written for an intense mezzo-soprano (here again, one might see Mahler – whose Der Abschied features similar movement – as a source inspiration) accompanied by bassoon. As in his Double Concerto, Bainbridge makes use of the tight interaction between two melodic lines within a more varied and evanescent field of sound. With great respect for Levi’s rejection of sentimentalism, the work paints four distinct musical landscapes, opening with a grandiose hymn of reappearance and intensification, then shifting into a vigorous movement for soloists against an inverse background of strings which opens onto the insistent declamation of a trembling scherzo before ending with a dramatic finale. “*Ad Ora Incerta” is a symphony with voice – or rather a symphony for two voices, since the role of the bassoon is as important is that of the mezzo-soprano; each melodic line is as robust and nuanced as the other.

In this work Bainbridge found new amplitude and new maturity, and from there, he continued to evolve, with works performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Gramercy Trio, the Endymion Ensemble, the Hilliard Ensemble and Arditti Quartet, as well as The Garden of Earthly Delights, commissioned for performance at the BBC Proms 2012.


© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2007