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From The Wire:
Harold Budd (1936–2020)
The Wire’s Mike Barnes remembers his 1996 encounter with the ambient composer
Harold Budd died on 8 December at the age of 84 from complications caused by Covid-19. Many perceptive appraisals of his work have followed, though one thing he would have balked at is being described as an avant garde composer. For the longest and most successful part of his career, that is exactly what he was not.
During the 1960s Budd studied music at the University of Southern California. As a composer he was initially drawn to the ideas of John Cage and particularly Morton Feldman; like the latter, he was influenced by the abstract painter Mark Rothko.
Budd wrote uncompromising avant garde compositions like Lirio, a 24 hour piece for solo gong, and then explored minimalism inspired by medieval and Renaissance music. His debut album The Oak Of The Golden Dreams was released in 1971. The sidelong title track, which he played on a Buchla synthesizer, incorporates hurdy gurdy-like skirls and drones, and on “Coeur D’Orr” saxophonist Charles Orena improvises over long held organ chords.
Shortly after its release, Budd experienced a creative upheaval. He decried the “starkness” of minimalism and completely disowned his association with the avant garde. Looking back in 1997 he explained to Paul Tingen of Sound On Sound: “I found a new direction, in which I purposely tried to create music that was so sweet and pretty and decorative that it would positively upset and revolt the avant garde, whose ugly sounds had by now become a new orthodoxy.” He even claimed that the prettiness of this “uncool” new direction was effectively a “political statement”.
Budd’s breakthrough came when he sent a live recording of “Madrigals Of The Rose Angel”, a piece for harps, percussion and female chorus, to Gavin Bryars. He in turn passed it on to Brian Eno, who contacted Budd and invited him to record The Pavilion Of Dreams in London in 1976 for his Obscure Label – it was finally released in 1978.
The album opens with “Bismillahi ‘Rrahman ‘Rrahim”, a composition allowing Marion Brown space to improvise on saxophone.
When serving in the US Army in the 50s, Budd had been a drummer in a band with saxophonist Albert Ayler. They gigged around the Monterey area and he recalls making a “wall of sound” but admits that he didn’t possess the chops to play jazz drums professionally.
Marion Brown was renowned as another fierce free player and had played on John Coltrane’s Ascension. To Budd’s surprise he was keen to play on this contemplative piece and his fluid, melodic lines work perfectly with Budd’s own gently rippling keyboard figures.
Composer and multi-instrumentalist Felix Jay provided two marimbas for the recording sessions and was invited to observe. He describes what he heard as “the apotheosis of arpeggio”, adding, “It was something of an epiphany for me that written out music for acoustic instruments – and a Fender Rhodes, my main reason for liking it – could be so other worldly.”
Budd then recorded with Eno on The Plateaux Of Mirror in 1980 and The Pearl in 1984. This set him on a solo career that also saw him collaborate with The Cocteau Twins, Hector Zazou, Bill Nelson and many more. Initially he was labelled new age, which he hated, and ambient, which he disliked. For his music quietly demanded the listener’s engagement rather than simply wafting through the room.
In late 1996 I was assigned to interview Budd for The Wire’s Invisible Jukebox feature (issue 155). I wasn’t sure what to expect as he appeared to inhabit some kind of rarefied artistic atmosphere. We arranged to meet in a West London hotel. Looking out from the bar onto the street, I saw him arrive wearing a black wide-brimmed hat set at a jaunty angle and a dark coat, his outfit finished off by a billowing silk scarf in various shades of blue. We exchanged pleasantries, ordered a couple of beers and went to the room allocated for the interview.
What I was certainly not expecting was that Budd would turn out to be one of the funniest musicians I’d ever interview. He was a brilliant raconteur with a delightfully droll sense of humour.
In preparation for writing this article I unearthed the C120 of the interview on which was simply written “BUDD JB”. Playing it back reminded me of just how well we’d got on that afternoon. At one point, after some particularly amusing banter, I can be heard coughing in paroxysms of mirth, while Budd was laughing so hard that as he moved forward in his easy chair, the loose cushion moved with him and he ended up on his knees. I can still picture it. When it was over and we said our goodbyes, he told me that it was the most interesting interview he’d ever done.
This interview format, typically lasting an hour and a half, yields a far longer transcript than can be published, and 24 years on, some of the outtakes have assumed a greater importance in summarising Budd’s musical career.
I asked him how he was able to recognise the point when a piece of music might go from surface prettiness with substance to something banal and inconsequential.
“You are really walking on a razor, because if you fall in the wrong direction you look a complete jerk,” he replied. “That’s part of the deliciousness, though. It’s risky as hell. It’s quite an attractive thing to keep avoiding it.”
I only saw Budd play live once, with Jah Wobble’s improvising super group Solaris at Ocean in East London in 2001. It was an absorbing set – albeit with its fair share of longueurs – and although Budd’s playing was swamped at times, his solo improvised piano introduction was animated and mesmeric. Later on, his finely articulated playing on the 2020 album Another Flower with Robin Guthrie – recorded in 2013 – involved some subtle dynamic flourishes.
Budd’s 2005 double CD Avalon Sutra/As Long As I Can Hold My Breath was, at the time, intended to be his last release. As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night) remixed by Akira Rabelais comprises 69 minutes of strings looping between two chords and surmounted with spartan piano and melodic detail. This collaborative piece found Budd revisiting his minimalist past and again showed the influence of Morton Feldman. Although he had turned his back on the avant garde he still harboured an affection for that composer. He told me that in his opinion Feldman was less doctrinaire than some of his peers and more interested in “what sound can do to your state of mind and how you get through the world”.
This all fits. Budd wanted his music to change listeners’ lives. He was always looking for prettiness and in doing so he often found beauty. And he was confident enough to back its prettiness against the musical avant garde of the 20th century en masse in all its formidable intellectual rigour.
He achieved an artistry that is, at its core, deeply personal and resists categorisation. But I was keen to know what he thought made his approach to his instrument so singular. So I quoted David Toop’s comment in his piece on Budd in The Wire 124 from 1994, which I thought captured it well: “What Budd does is so deceptively simple that 'enigma' fails to describe the process. In theory, any piano player could do it, except they can't, because only Harold does it with such intuitive poise and clarity.”
After a pause Harold replied with a smile, “That’s a very generous thing to say. And I’m sorry to say this, but I really agree with him.”
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