Perhaps I shouldn't tell you this, but this is Harold Budd's last album. The 68-year-old composer has apparently decided to call it a day, both as a performer – his farewell gig took place at CalArts towards the end of last year and was reviewed by Richard Henderson in The Wire #249 – and as a recording artist. So why shouldn't you be party to this information? After all, being able to bow out gracefully, quit while you're ahead, etc. (insert your own favourite cliché) is perfectly laudable, and something Messrs Jagger, Richard – Keef and Sir Cliff – and any number of ridiculous sexagenarian teen rockers ought to have done long ago. But Harold Budd never was a garage / grunge punk, acid / Acieed-addled hippy or any other of the endlessly recurring Young Ones stereotypes; in a sense his music was already old before its time, already Ambient while Eno was still scribbling sonic atrocities with his Roxy Music oscillator, already New Age, clean-living and smoke-free at a time when drug-crazed psychos cruised the freeways and canyons of the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. Avalon Sutra could quite easily date from the same year as (or before) Budd's legendary outing with Eno, The Plateaux of Mirror; just as Budd's individual pieces are perfectly content to remain where they are, his entire oeuvre is an exercise in sitting in the compositional lotus position. The harmony has never sought to go beyond 1900 (Paris not Vienna); melodies are content to remain aphoristic, even motivic; and Budd dispensed with rhythm a long time ago, replacing it with depth, that unmistakable glowing reverb that bathes his keyboards in a dreamy golden light like a David Hamilton photograph of some eternally fresh-faced nymphet blushing behind a bouquet of flowers. If that sounds cynical, it isn't meant to – it's all too easy to take up the trusty sword of modernism and slash and sneer at Budd's work, but try doing it yourself and you might discover how hard it is to bring off. Musical material has to be sufficiently vacant and pretty to allow the listener space to reflect without switching off altogether – muzak d'ameublement this is not – and arrangements have to be open and airy enough to float free without sounding thin and pale, yet at the same time sufficiently warm and rich to linger like perfume. None of Budd's Californian contemporaries and near-contemporaries ever managed to pull it off quite like he did, and it's probably significant they ended up calling their label Cold Blue – Budd's music might be blue in places but it's certainly never cold, unlike that other celebrated flagship of Ambient, Eno's Music for Airports.
So, again, why shouldn't you be in on the open secret that Avalon Sutra is Harold Budd's swansong? Because it would be too tempting to hear the music differently, as long goodbye, elegant valediction, unburthen'd crawl towards death, whereas in fact Budd's music is going nowhere at all, and never has done. Reverb grows on it like moss, but Budd's characteristic reverb is so deep and rich it seems to extend beyond musical time out into listener lifetime, contemplation and memory – "nostalgia" is too cheap a word for it. Hence the never-can-say-goodbye of the bonus second CD in the set, a 69 minute mix of "As long as I can hold my breath (At Night)" (though insert my copy of the disc in the computer CD drive and the title "Smell-Y Pudding" flashes up) which Budd's eternally receding piano and wistful strings, more viol consort than string quartet, are delicately unravelled by the ingenious software of Akira Rabelais (the same filters and programs that transformed some dusty reel-to-reel tapes of a cappella Icelandic folk into one of last year's most outstanding albums, Spellwauerinsherde) into arguably the richest and dreamiest eternal loop since Eno's Discreet Music.
I used to believe – maybe I still do, I'm not sure at times – in music's ability to step out of its time, transcend the circumstances of the lives and times of those that brought it into being (and before you gather an army of angry Ben Watson fans to storm my apartment and bludgeon me to death with hardback copies of his Derek Bailey biography, hear me out). Like it or not, we still tend to grow up, in the world of Western classical music at least, with the idea of the unassailable masterpiece, the timeless classic, be it the B Minor Mass, the Ninth Symphony, The Rite of Spring, Kind of Blue or the first Velvets album, but as any good Marxist critic worth his/her salt will point out, those works too are products of the prevailing socio-historic and ideological circumstances of the time. So, of course, is Budd's music, but by avoiding (consciously or not) every reference to the isms and idioms that drove twentieth century art to the edge of the abyss, it has in another sense quite simply stepped out of time. The nearest thing to it perhaps is Satie, not the bland furniture music maître d'Arcueil, but the early, veiled mystic. I like to think that if Debussy were orchestrating the "Gymnopédies" with today's technology, they'd end up sounding remarkably like Budd, and the "Gymnopédies" have been in my mind a lot lately, having visited the recent excellent "Sons & Lumières" exhibition at the Pompidou Centre on several occasions before its closure. Those who saw the show or read my write-up of it in The Wire a month ago might recall that the installation in its final room, Pierre Hughes's "L'expédition scintillante Acte 2 (Light Box)", sent wisps of dry ice wafting up into constantly changing beams of coloured light, to the accompaniment of the aforementioned Satie pieces, in Debussy's orchestration. They should have had Avalon Sutra instead. Here's wishing Mr Budd a happy and healthy retirement.
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