Harold Budd — "Perhaps"

An essay by Matthew Weiner.

Reflective, simmering with a unique sense of purpose, Harold Budd's Perhaps offers 13 new piano improvisations — each expanding on the hushed, spare soundscapes that have been the hallmark of samadhisound releases from the likes of David Toop, Akira Rabelais, Derek Bailey, David Sylvian, and others . Culled from an uninterrupted 75-minute solo performance in memory of composer James Tenney, Perhaps is poised to stand alongside the ambient pioneer's most heartfelt, eloquent statements, evoking a lovely solace that is at once contemplative and alive, alternately filled with moments of joy, wonder and mischief.

With more than 30 solo recordings and collaborations to his credit, from solo piano pieces to densely orchestrated compositions, Harold Budd is accustomed to new challenges. Born in Los Angeles in 1936, his love of jazz (he briefly played drums with saxophonist Albert Ayler while serving in the Army) led Harold to get a degree in music composition, releasing his first record, the Coltrane-inspired The Pavilion of Dreams, on Brian Eno's Obscure label in 1978, before going on to great success with such piano- and keyboard-based releases as 1988's ambient classic, The White Arcades. His previous release—and first for samadhisound—was 2005's celebrated Avalon Sutra, which Harold described with his inimitable drollness as "devastatingly pretty."

Recorded live in December, 2006 before an audience at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Perhaps finds Budd brimming with ideas and sounds that will appeal to fans of the lushly textured, ruminative piano pieces he crafted alone and with the likes of Eno (The Plateaux Of Mirror, 1980; The Pearl, 1984), The Cocteau Twins (The Moon and The Melodies, 1986), and XTC's Andy Partridge (Through The Hill , 1994). Yet in contrast to much of his previous work, Perhaps resulted not from months of careful preparation as is his custom but rather a single evening's improvisation — albeit one that had been marinating for over thirty years.

Indeed, for all the emotion and reverence evident in tracks like "Templar" and the stately "Monument" (for Harold, titles are very important), this particular performance seems less a solemn tribute to an old friend than response to a long-ago challenge — perhaps made in one of the Mojave Desert cowboy bars in which Budd and Tenney shot pool in the 1970's when both men taught music composition at Cal Arts and heatedly debated the validity of contemporary music aesthetics. The official story, anyway, is a bit more dignified, with Tenney composing a series of short, "post card pieces" for friends many years earlier. "The one for me was called '(night)', as I recall," Harold writes today. He would wait three decades to return the favor, describing Perhaps as less a composition than "a provocation..." Of who or what, he does not say.

To be sure, though, what Paul Tingen once called Budd's "infallible use of space" pervades Perhaps' 70-odd spellbinding minutes, even absent the sumptuous electronic treatments and echoes provided by Eno and cohorts on earlier records. That's because his music derives its singular potency not from the new materials added to his sonic palette but from Budd's relentless process of subtraction and refinement. Such prudence was but one of the qualities that drew Harold to the jazz form — not only its rules and restrictions but also its emotional resonance of what writer and fellow samadhisound artist David Toop described as, "a forgotten dimension of free jazz, the meditational point of temporary rest where sorrow, battered optimism, devotion and spiritual ecstasy melted together."

And on Perhaps, Harold's habit of delving into these cracks in musical history is as evident as ever. Several moments call to mind Paul Bley's 1972 ECM classic Open To Love as if that record were imprinted not on vinyl but Silly Putty stretched to wrest every last resonance and glimmer from the piano's vast harmonic spectrum. In others, one can detect traces of John Coltrane's "After the Rain" if it were slowed to half-speed and performed on Balinese gamelan (he's already scored it for chamber ensemble), so delicate and melodic are Budd's signature rolling thunder piano arpeggios.

Ambient, poignant, devastatingly pretty — whatever you call it, Harold Budd's music inhabits an aesthetic all his own. It's a world Perhaps invites the listener to discover and explore — one that won't likely leave your consciousness anytime soon.

Tracklisting and mp3 samples can be found on SamadhiSound's catalogue page.

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