Celebrating the life and music of a Great American Composer
Harold Budd never ever wanted to be pigeonholed.
After a stint as a serious composer in the 1960s and ‘70s, he became a recording artist when one of his tapes was handed off to Brian Eno. An invitation to collaborate followed and Eno’s production launched Budd’s career. Over the subsequent decades Budd was plagued with unwanted genre tags: New Age, minimalist, ambient, avant-garde, post-modernist, the list goes on.
He told David Snow in a 1991 interview, “I think that New Age is lightweight mysticism and completely antithetical to my concerns as a composer in America.”
Budd was born in Los Angeles in 1936. He grew up in Victorville near the Mojave Desert. That sense of environment and isolation would inform his musical work throughout his long and prolific life. Weaned on the unavoidable cowboy music of his day like Bob Wills, the adolescent Budd eschewed Elvis Presley’s siren call for more challenging fare like Thelonius Monk.
AUDIO: Harold Budd “Rrahmani Rrahim”
Budd took a degree in musical composition from the University of Southern California in 1966. At that time he was heavily inspired by the notions and philosophy of John Cage. Musically he took more notes from Morton Feldman. In a few short years Budd explored minimalism to such an extreme that he retired from composition in 1970 after completing a many hours-long work for solo gong.
Rather than disappear up his own ass, he started teaching. But in 1972 the bug returned, and he developed “Madrigal of the Rose Angel” for celeste, harp, percussion, lights, and a topless female chorus. The music can be still heard, but I found no photo evidence of this marvel.
What really drew Budd back into creating music was his development of an unexpected appreciation for the simple melodies of medieval and renaissance music.
As he told Paul Tingen in a 1997 interview for Sound on Sound, “…once I hit on my interest in older music, 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. Hard as it is to imagine now, the prettiness of my music was very much a political statement at the time.”
Still, his interest in pretty music maintained certain parameters. “The melody as a pure thing is not as interesting to me as the overall atmosphere in which it occurs.” It’s no surprise he eventually caught Eno’s ear.
Eno introduced two fundamental concepts to Budd: using the studio as instrument, and analog synthesis. Budd maintained a life-long love/hate relationship with synthesizers. They provided textures that were often impossible to otherwise conjure, but he was also a self-professed Luddite. He hated being given too large a palette to play with. He also never built his own studio, preferring to leave engineering to the experts. By the mid-nineties he admitted to not even owning his own piano anymore.
The 1980s were a fertile period, beginning with Budd adding his melodic touch to Eno’s Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror. The two would go on to create The Pearl in 1984. Meanwhile, Budd honed his soft-pedal piano style, and conjured evocative titles for his instrumental works. He considers “Dark Star” and “Abandoned Cities” from the album of the latter title to be some of his best. The later track “Dead Horse Alive With Flies” deserves a nod here, too.
VIDEO: Harold Budd x Cocteau Twins “Sea, Swallow Me”
1986 yielded another masterpiece from Budd’s synthesizer era, Lovely Thunder. Next Budd was invited by Cocteau Twins to weave his textures into their own dream-pop bliss. Budd has complained that he was underprepared on The Moon and the Melodies, but few fans of the album would agree.
Perhaps most importantly this experience kicked off Budd’s relationship with Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie. In 1988, Budd collaborated with both Guthrie and Eno on another career highlight The White Arcades.
Budd and Guthrie went on to release a string of albums over the subsequent decades. Notably they provided the soundtrack for Gregg Araki’s film Mysterious Skin. The latest Budd/Guthrie album, Another Flower, was released last week–only days before Budd passed of coronavirus-related illness.
Over the years Budd worked with Daniel Lanois, John Foxx, Andy Partridge of XTC, Bill Nelson of Be-Bop Deluxe, and sampled by U2. The irony of all this is that he did not consider himself to be a music fan. He found more inspiration in visual art and “non-corporate” architecture. When pressed, he admitted to liking Pet Shop Boys, The Cure, and Cabaret Voltaire, though he did proclaim to be “…the world’s greatest fan of Waylon Jennings.” (He qualified this further by specifying Jennings’ “ancient records”).
In fact he barely considered himself a musician. “I’m not a pro. I couldn’t play covers. I’m actually hopeless at music, except for this narrow niche. And so that’s all I do.” Self-effacing as that sounds, he was confident to work on a completely intuitive level throughout his career.
Even before success found him, he was self-assured. “I knew it all along…. I didn’t know what the vehicle was, but I knew it was there.” He said this not with hubris, but with humor.
Budd albums never took years to make, nor were they charted out. When he worked with session players, he encouraged them to insert their own spirit into the work. He reveled when accidents and “goofy stuff” informed the material. He might spend months conceptualizing in his head, but the music itself was far more immediate, honest, from the gut.
By his own reckoning, his contemporary peers were LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Jon Hassell, John Adams, Michael Nyman, and Brian Eno. Yet his work stands apart from all of them with its patented cozy abstractions.
AUDIO: Robin Guthrie/Harold Budd “Another Flower”
Budd never droned, coasted on patterns, or played much with darkness or triumph. He resisted anything saccharine or trite. But his sound is unmistakable. Short of some modest forays into poetry and spoken word that entered into his work in the 1990s, and the odd remix, it’s safe to say that if you like Budd’s music from the 1970s, you’ll enjoy his final album from 2020, too.
Perhaps because of the timing and manner of his success, he was never lured into more commercial territories–not that he would have been tempted for a moment. In answer to some interview questions written by Eno in 1986, Budd explained how paramount it was to always challenge himself while creating music, and to maintain a sense of ethics.
Why? “Because it’s so easily cheapened and so easily watered-down and made, shall we say, more accessible for commerce sake or career sake. I think artists generally have a responsibility to do what they think is right. And if you do that, I think basically all good things come in your direction.”
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